|St. John the Baptist by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)|
Who are you?
It’s a great question, and depending on the context, one that we can choose to answer in different ways. For example, when we are pulled over because we were driving just a hair over the speed limit, and the nice State Trooper asks for our ID, the question is implied. Who are you? Are you a habitual speeder? Are you a criminal? And of course, no matter what the truth is, we want to say, “No, officer, of course not officer, I was just… distracted.”
How different from the question at, say, a holiday party, when you are hovering on the outskirts of a friendly conversation, festive beverage in hand, and someone turns to you with a smile to ask, “And who are you?” And the impulse is to say, “I’m Peg’s friend from church!” Because, here, we want to say something affirmative, not who we’re not, but who we are, and more specifically, who we know, the name of the person with whom we want to be identified. And if we say we know Peg, well. Then we’re in.
Who are you? We are still at the threshold of John’s gospel this week, and as the story of Jesus unfolds we are first introduced to someone else: John, who we learned last week was sent by God to testify—to give evidence, to tell the truth about—Jesus. But, as often happens when someone stands on a proverbial soapbox to share their sense of what God has told them, people who have worked to acquire some credentials in that particular arena start asking questions. John gets a visit from the religious authorities.
And they ask him: Who are you? And he affirms—he does not deny, but affirms: I am not the Messiah.
John tells us, first, who he is not. For our purposes, as people who will be reading this gospel together for the next four months, I want to do the same thing. The “John” who figures so prominently in the first several chapters of this gospel is not the person for whom the gospel is named. He is also not the person who wrote the gospel (who may or may not have been named John). He is not one of the twelve, Jesus’ inner circle of disciples.
Also, he is not the Messiah.
Our passage uses Messiah. In Hebrew it’s Mashiach. In Greek it’s Christos. We commonly hear it as Christ. All these words mean, literally, “the anointed.” But for Jews in the first century, ‘Messiah’ carried layer upon layer of meaning. The kings of God’s covenant people were anointed. The priests who served in the temple were anointed. Leaders chosen for particular service—such as the judges—were anointed. Thanks in part to the judges, the word came to carry the meaning of ‘savior’ along with it, and so the Persian king Cyrus the Great was called ‘Messiah,’ because, as a somewhat more benign conqueror, he defeated the Babylonian empire and allowed Jews to return to their homeland.
By the time John answers, I am not the Messiah, Jews had come to understand it as referring to a savior who would come to definitively release God’s people from all oppression. It was assumed that such a savior would be a military leader, a politician, a king.
Who are you? the religious leaders asked John. I am not the Messiah, he answered. Well, are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? they asked him. No. He said. NO. Who are you? What do you say about yourself?
Who are you?
At the threshold of the Jesus story, we are confronted with this question. It’s not a question we entertain in depth every day, of course, though certain life experiences may bring it to the forefront. Our “Thoughts to Ponder” contains lyrics from the song that opens the TV show “CSI” every week, a true story of the moment when Pete Townshend, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Who, found himself confronted by the question. One morning in the late 1970’s he really did awaken from a night of binge drinking in a doorway in what was at the time one of the seedier districts of London. Who are you? the song repeatedly, insistently, asks. For this world-known celebrity and rock star (famous enough to be recognized by the police officer who found him and sent him home), the song alludes to another answer. An alcoholic? A drug addict? Certainly, someone in trouble.
You don’t have to wake up from a bender to know that you don’t exactly have… a handle on things. We can be swept away from a sense of self, who we really are, who we were created to be, by our jobs, our responsibilities, our internet use, or our circle of friends as easily as by addictions to alcohol or drugs or gambling or food.
Who are you? Not the Messiah, that’s for sure.
Maybe the first step towards wisdom, towards the light, as our gospel described Jesus last week, is knowing who and what we are not. Maybe we only begin to understand who we are, in light of the clear and liberating reality of who we definitely know ourselves not to be.
I am not the Messiah.
Then, what do you say about yourself?
John says, I am a voice. A voice, crying out in the wilderness. A voice like Isaiah’s, saying Clear a path, because the Lord is coming, and all I know about him is this: it would take a better man than me to untie his sandal.
Do you notice that the religious authorities ignore this statement? And it’s only here that we learn one of the key things about John—that he’s the one we know as John the Baptist, he’s that John. John has been offering baptism, which, for both Jews and Christians, was (and is) a sign of embracing a new way of life.
John offers baptism, a chance for everyone to begin again. And five days into the New Year, still at the threshold of 2014, we all know that this is the time when, traditionally, people at least talk a little bit about the possibility of trying to embrace a new way of life.[i] But before we can know what (if anything) we want to change about ourselves, before we can have a sense of how we might improve, or what fresh start we might want to embrace, we have to come face to face with the same question that John answers and doesn’t answer. Who are you? And we have to give serious consideration to his non-answer: I am not the Messiah.
Faith begins when we recognize that we are not God. Of course, we Christians affirm that God created us in the divine image; that we are members of the mystical body of Christ; that the Holy Spirit is present and moving in the world and in the church and in us. In the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament we are about to share, we enact that conviction in a tangible way: we are reminded that God’s life and our lives are joined as we eat the bread and drink from the cup. But the reality of life in a broken world—even a post-Christmas, God-Is-With-Us world—is that we are broken too, beautiful and broken children of God, and that in our brokenness, we recognize, we are not God. Only God is God.
John the Baptist, our first guide as we enter into the story of Jesus, shows us by example how to prepare for our encounter with Jesus.
We ponder who we are, and recognize who we are not.
We consider our baptism, and wonder how to embrace again, anew, the way of life shown to us in Jesus.
And then we listen: listen for that voice crying out in the wilderness, whether it is the voice of a prophet, or maybe even the voice bubbling up from a deep and forgotten place in our own heart.
Who are you? You are one who has prepared a way for the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.