A Case of Mistaken Identity
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 1:6-8–1:19-28
The Third Sunday in Advent
December 13-14, 2014
John 1:6-8, 19-28
“A Case of Mistaken Identity”
In this season before Christmas when lots of online purchases are being made, we are being warned once again about taking precautions to protect ourselves against identity theft. For anyone who has been a victim of identity theft, it is one long nightmare. But go back in time with me to identity theft of a different kind. We’ve all heard of John Dillinger, who was America’s most wanted fugitive during the 1930s and robbed over two dozen banks. But have you ever heard of Ralph Alsman? Ralph Alsman was a 25-year-old law abiding citizen from Brookville, Indiana, but could have been John Dillinger’s identical twin. That’s how closely he resembled Dillinger, and that was the beginning of a major headache for Ralph Alsman. If the physical resemblance wasn’t enough, both men had a mole next to one eye and a scar on the left wrist. Alsman’s hometown of Brookville, Indiana was only 54 miles from Dillinger’s hometown of Mooresville, Indiana, and so you can guess what happened: Ralph Alsman was often mistaken for Dillinger, so much so that he was arrested seventeen times. Even when he relocated to other places like Detroit and Minneapolis, Alsman was still arrested. He was always released, but often had to undergo stressful interrogation sessions with authorities to convince them that he wasn’t Dillinger. Worst of all, Ralph Alsman was shot eleven times and became paranoid that he would be killed by a police officer before he had the chance to prove his real identity. Alsman’s nightmare came to an end when Dillinger was gunned down by federal agents on July 22, 1934. Because of his almost identical resemblance to Dillinger, Ralph Alsman was offered movie contracts, but turned them all down. After this long and traumatic case of mistaken identity, Ralph Alsman chose to go back to just being a regular citizen (http://www.listverse.com/2014/05/26/10-weird-and-tragic-cases-of-mistaken-identity).
On this Third Sunday in Advent, we again encounter that fiery figure of John the Baptist out in the wilderness. As with Ralph Alsman, there was a case of mistaken identity going on as the religious leaders from Jerusalem questioned John about who he was: “Are you the Christ?... Are you Elijah?... Are you the Prophet?... (John 1:20, 21). John knew who he was; there was no case of mistaken identity going on here. He also knew who he was not, as he clearly testified to those who were sent to him: “He was not the Light, but came to bear witness to the light” (John 1:8). And John himself said: “I am not the Christ… I am the voice of one crying in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord… I baptize with water, but among you stands one whom you do not know. He comes after me and the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:20, 23, 26-27). Based on this Gospel lesson, the message for this day is entitled “A Case of Mistaken Identity.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
It probably would have been very easy for John to be someone he wasn’t, and lay claim to a false identity as the Christ, or Elijah, or the Prophet. His words, his clothing, his whole manner of life indicated to the world that he was something out of the ordinary; he was “… a man sent from God” (John 1:6). It would have not been too hard for John to do this and pretend to be somebody else, but in doing so he would have been untrue to himself, his mission, and the One who sent him on that mission. John did none of this, and cut to the chase about questions over this case of mistaken identity. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). But what about us? Do we pretend to be somebody we are not and lay claim to a false identity? Are we willing to capitalize on a case of mistaken identity when it comes to following Jesus so that we can play both ends against the middle when it suits us? John’s words, clothing and manner of life set him apart as a man sent from God. But do our words and manner of life set us apart as men and women sent from and belonging to God? Or are we trying to perpetuate a case of mistaken identity by having people here at church see us one way while wanting people who are our friends or co-workers or neighbors see us in another and very different way? We are told that John confessed and did not deny his identity – who he was and who he was not. What will we do? What if those same questions that were put to John were put to us today? How would we reply if we were asked: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22). If we were to be hauled up on charges of being a disciple of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict us?
Advent is a call for the people of God to be ready and prepared for the Lord’s coming – not just his birth in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago, which we celebrate at Christmas. The primary purpose of Advent is for us to be ready and prepared for the Lord’s second coming when He shall return in great power and glory to judge the world in righteousness. And so this Advent season is a time to come clean and return to the Lord with our whole heart and mind and spirit as we wait and watch for his coming. In the midst of our waiting and watching, Paul the apostle reminds us in today’s Epistle lesson (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24): “Do not quench the Spirit… hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” For you and for me – for every child of God – holding fast to what is good and abstaining from every form of evil flows out of that new identity which God has graciously given us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Beginning in holy Baptism, God has told us who we are: his beloved sons and daughters who are washed clean through the blood of Jesus shed for our sins upon the cross. There’s no mistaken identity here! We don’t have to chase high and low trying to figure out who we are. We don’t have to wonder or worry if there’s been some mistake in all of this. It is reality here and now. It is truth for all time – signed and sealed with the blood of Jesus and delivered through his innocent suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection.
Because of this, we can say with Isaiah in today’s Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11): “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” So if you get new socks or underwear for Christmas, and it’s not the particular clothing article you were looking for, take heart! God’s Christmas gift to you and to each person in the world is that beautiful robe of righteousness that never wears out or goes out of style. This is what our true identity is grounded in, and for this gift, we can only say: Thanks be to God! Amen.