Who are you and who says so?
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8, 19-28 ESV)
Who are you?
Are you who you say you are?
Are you whom others say you are?
Growing up we learn to navigate between the two. In fact to rely on only one voice seems to me to be unhealthy. To claim our identity and therefore reality as something we say – we determine – can be a strong and good thing – independent – but it can also be illness or delusion and have harmful impacts on the claimant and those around them. To have our identity and therefore reality put upon us by others – to be told who we are and therefore what we must do – can be guiding and inspiring – but it can also be abusive and the perpetuation of that abuse.
We have our own voice and the voice or voices outside of us – family, special groups, society – and it seems to me that living is negotiating these two sets of words or perspectives. Sometimes as individuals we are affirmed by what is said to us and other times we must resist what is said. A big part of life then becomes knowing whom to listen to; whom to trust; who will speak truth – and
I’m including us as individuals – the perspective from our eyes – our world view – is definitely ours and we default to it but that doesn’t make it true – sometimes we need others to speak to us and tell us the reality we’re in – tell us the stuff we don’t see (often about ourselves).
It can be simple and yet also complicated. I can say ‘I’m a husband’ – even insist on it – but it was the celebrant who declared that I actually was one. It was my choice, my signature, my vow, my promise so I did make myself a husband but it was the celebrant who declared it to be valid and thus recognised by the world. I can come home and say ‘I’m a husband’ in all sorts of ways but overall it is probably better – affirming – and so on, if my wife calls me her husband.
Or we know that there are men who are biological fathers but who are not legal fathers or fathers in any sense of that word when it means a relationship and conversely we can know of situations where men who have no DNA link whatsoever and maybe no legal recognition either, or as well, to a child but who are regarded as father by the child and others and by the man himself.
In Advent we hear voices – a voice crying in the wilderness – Bible passages read with varying accents – sermons preached – and on the third Sunday of Advent themes of joy or John the Baptist (depending on your lectionary) as we await the coming one. And so we heard – there was a man sent by God, whose name was John. Did he lie?
You see if you’re going to listen to someone – if their words have the possibility of shaping and guiding you – then you want to be certain about the truthfulness of the speaker. People sceptical of the voices – the written accounts – found in the Bible can go to significant lengths to show inconsistencies, impossibilities, implausibilities, errors, mistakes. Others wish to defend the charges and can make counter claims of consistency, possibilities, plausibilities, no errors, no mistakes. These can be interesting and worthwhile discussions but they can be futile and leave people entrenched in their positions if both sides don’t hear the voice of who is speaking. It wasn’t wrong to ask questions of John the Baptist – out in the wilderness, baptising – actively calling people to repentance and engaging with people in ways that were so much more confronting and challenging than personal reflection and ritual washings of self purification. We can understand the crowds coming to him.
We can understand the religious leaders checking him out – while no mention of the Sadducees is found perhaps John the writer of this account uses the term ‘Pharisee’ as a collective for religious leaders or they were particularly interested in John’s message – as later they were interested in Jesus’ – for a major focus for the Pharisees was purification and the kingdom of God. So it is not wrong to questions – for verification, credentials, truth – one just hopes you listen to the answer.
And John confesses – that’s a definite voice – no equivocation. I am not the Christ. Well, who are you then? Elijah? No. The prophet (possibly in the tradition of one like Moses)? No. And when pressed for an answer goes to Isaiah and effectively says ‘Don’t look at me – listen to me’. It’s never a question of hearing, it’s always a matter of listening. The difficulty of course is Jesus’ witness to John as the ‘Elijah who is to come’ (Matthew 11:7-17; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13). But we have no insight into this prophet’s call – as much as we can imagine that he would have heard from his parents what God had said and done to them – his life was that of preparation, pointing, presenting the one to come. And the ‘voice’ in the wilderness accomplishes this. When the Pharisees question him about his baptising, John doesn’t answer the question but uses it and the words they had said as a spring board to tell them about the coming one – and his greatness – and in other accounts we hear of another baptism – think back to last week’s Gospel from Mark and Jesus’ baptising with the Holy Spirit. This voice listens so that he can speak his message directly to people not at people. We can understand John’s answer of ‘No’ to the linking with Elijah and not get hung up about it because we hear him and his message and it is plausible and makes sense that he doesn’t want the focus to be on him even as an Elijah figure – even if he knew he was – and it makes sense that this association best be made about him not by him – which Jesus does – and in doing so John the Baptist again becomes a pointer to the Christ.
The Christ John pointed to has also had many words said about him and he was not quiet when he needed to speak – the Messianic secret not withstanding. For those with ears to hear, Jesus was ringing the bell that his name Immanuel is true. He is God with us. A voice from heaven, a dove, a cloud on a mountain and that voice again certainly confirmed him – for those with ears to hear. In fact his followers on the mountain were told to listen to him (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Others who heard that he is ‘I AM’ picked up stones (John 8:58,59). Sadly it will ever be thus. To reject the author of life is indeed tragic – and plain stupid – but what is even more tragic are those who reject a caricature of God – the god of their own image – the one they imagine speaking – because they haven’t listened – maybe no one has spoken to them – about this God and who he says he is as they look at us – warts and all, if they know us – and who we say Jesus is. The Holy Spirit uses both messages but the person only has us to look at and listen to. So what messages will they hear?
That’s where John the Baptist becomes a model. Listen to what is being asked and answer so that you will be listened to. There is no pat answers here – no magic questions or statements – but dialogue in both word and deed. And for us who are greater than John and those before him – more fortunate – blessed – to know this Christ – this Immanuel – we, ourselves, want people to hear two messages – that we say because it is true, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’ and believe because it is true Jesus when he says, ‘Peace be with you; your sins are forgiven’. That shapes how we live. We want people to hear both in us and for themselves. And this is the perspective of all encounters with God – in the pew earlier we said these words or something similar ‘I, a poor miserable sinner’ and we heard ‘… by
Christ’s authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit’. At the font, sinners receive forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, saving faith. We return to that font daily in repentance and receive strength. We say one thing – it is true we are sinners – still – and we hear another message – you are forgiven, live in that forgiveness. But words are easily fly in and out – can be hard to stay put – need anchoring and grounding – fleshing out – we know that in our relationships in the world – God knows it to – so he has anchored his message not just at a cross and a font but at a table. The same messages are here – I am ill, weak, sinner – and Jesus gives himself and says receive healing, strengthening, and forgiveness.
During the week we can read the Bible. We read to understand . It is a matter of reception – letting the Word speak – and then as good Lutherans asking ‘what does this mean?’. As we think about, chew over – the church word is ‘meditate’ – we find ourselves in the word / the scene / the text – and as Jesus acted then so he can and does act now. This doesn’t turn God into plasticine – to shape as we want – for we read the Bible as God’s Word listening for God’s Word to me right now. And our orientation doesn’t change, in fact it grows and is confirmed again and again – ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner’ – to which he replies ‘Peace be with you; your sins are forgiven’.
One message without the other leads us astray for we need to hear and say both and rely on what God says.
- John 1:6 - 8
- John 1:19 - 28