December 13, 2020, Who Are You? John 1:19-28 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today’s gospel brings us back again to John the Baptist. I talked about John’s message in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel, about how it was a message that demanded a response from the people who heard it – and a message that still demands a response from us today. Today we read about John the Baptist from the gospel of John – written by a different John, the John who was one of the Twelve. And here we see John the Baptist under attack. The Pharisees had got wind of this uncouth preacher out in the desert, who was capturing the hearts and imaginations of the people. Not a few people, but a lot of people. Too many people. So they sent a delegation out into the wilderness, priests and Levites, men of authority and extensive knowledge, to challenge John, the same way they would soon be challenging Jesus. And their challenge basically came down to one question: who are you?
I think it’s hard to overstate how powerful an attack those three little words are. They were meant to undermine John’s authority in the eyes of the people who had come to listen to him. They made it very clear that John wasn’t one of them. Those three words cast a shadow over John’s very identity. “Who do you think you are, standing here in front of this crowd, speaking out like the great prophets of old? You’re nothing butan uncouth, uneducated, unwashed, backwater nobody. Who are you to proclaim the words of God’s own prophets?”
It is the exact same strategy that Satan uses when he torments Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. After fasting 40 days, Jesus is weak and alone and hungry, and Satan comes to him with the classic human temptations of bread and riches and power. But Satan’s real attack is to try to make Jesus doubt who he really is. Satan begins every temptation with an IF. “IF you are the Son of God, prove it, make these stones into bread. Why should the Son of God go hungry?” “IF you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest peak of the Temple and let God save you. You know that he promises he’ll do that…IF you really are the Son of God.” “IF you are the Son of God, bow down to me and I’ll put the keys of the kingdom in your pocket, no muss, no fuss… and especially, no cross. IF you are the Son of God, shouldn’t all of this belong to you anyway?”
And so, here we see the priests and the Levites coming out to tear John down with the devil’s own strategy: “Just who do you think you are, anyway?” And we might be tempted to think they’re scoring some points, because John doesn’t seem to have a lot to say for himself. In fact, John mostly answers by saying who he is not. “I am not the Messiah,” he tells them, right off the bat. “Well, the Scriptures say Elijah will return. Are you Elijah, then?” they ask. “Nope,” he says. (Later on, strangely enough, Jesus tells the people that John is indeed the one to fulfill the prophecy of Elijah’s return, but apparently John didn’t know that. I don’t think that really mattered to him.) “Are you the Prophet, then?” Now, the coming of the Prophet had also been foretold in the Scriptures, there was to be one like Moses who would come to God’s people. But no, John says to the priests and the Levites, no, I’m not Elijah and I’m not the Prophet. And I’m certainly not the Messiah.
“Well then, who are you? What gives you, a nobody, the right to stand here and baptize? What are we supposed to say to the people who sent us out here?” And John has one, and only one, thing to say for himself. “I am the Voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Get ready. He is coming.”
Now, John could have defended himself against the attacks of the Pharisees by virtue of his lineage. Because truth be told, he was one of them. He was the son of a priest, Zechariah. His mother, Elizabeth, was descended from Aaron. His genealogy was surely as respectable as any of them could claim, and genealogies carried a lot of weight in those days and among those people.
He could also have pointed out the obvious success of his ministry; people were swarming out to hear him and be baptized, all kinds of people, tax collectors, soldiers, everybody. That, after all, is the reason the Pharisees had sent out their delegation in the first place – to find out what all the fuss was. Who would bother to go out in the desert to challenge a nobody? But multitudes of people were coming out to be baptized by John, and they were hanging on his every word. “Teacher,” they asked him – people thought so highly of John that they called him Rabbi, Teacher. “Teacher, what shall we do?” Clearly, the people believed that John was someone great, a man of God.
But John doesn’t speak up for himself. He doesn’t point to his lineage, though he could. He doesn’t point to his popularity, though he certainly could. He doesn’t point to himself at all. John never points to anyone but Jesus. In John’s last dark days, sitting in Herod’s dungeon awaiting execution, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you really the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” To the very end John didn’t worry about who he was. The foundation, the very core of his identity was that One for whose coming he was born to prepare. Jesus sends back a message to reassure John, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” And hearing that, John knew that his life’s work had been accomplished.
From the moment of his conception, before he was even born, John’s life was dedicated to the One who was coming. On the day that Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the unborn John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb, because he knew his Lord was present. At John’s birth, his father sang to his newborn son, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” And of John’s boyhood, Luke tells us only this, “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
This is a poem about John; it’s called “In the Desert”
In those days people spoke about a man whose harsh cries rent the air like prophets from of old, out in the barren wilderlands – I, John, who bade the chosen nation come.
They poured out from the villages and towns: the simple and the wise, the young and old. A wild thing, cloaked in skins, I drew them on to wake the hearts that had grown stiff and cold.
And then there came the Righteous, haughty snakes, living shadows of my boyhood terrors. I burned with wrath for these, my brothers’ sakes, such prideful fools – and yet, the Promise-bearers.
If only I might make them know how near he is, their perfect Hope and only Fear.
After Herod had thrown John in prison for condemning Herod’s unlawful marriage, Jesus spoke to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? No? Well then, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Of course not, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. John is the one the prophets were writing about when they said: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…”
Let us pray:
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.