The Voice in the Wilderness
John 1:6-8, 19-28
6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20
He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21
They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
22Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”
24Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Who are you?
A recent article by Oprah Winfrey asked the question, Who Are You Really? In the article, Oprah stated that we have many labels for ourselves, and if you were asked to complete the statement,
“I am ___________________________”
how would you finish it? The list of possibilities is almost endless. You might say:
- I am a man (or woman)
- I am an American
- I am an optimist
- I am overweight
- I am too busy
- I am a grandparent
- I am a teacher or doctor or painter or brick mason
- I am a Baptist
- I am a Christian
- I am searching
And all of those descriptions, assuming you told the truth, would tell us something about you. Society identifies us by a variety of factors, such as:
- Our work
- Our race
- Our age
- Our financial status
- Our education
- Our place of residence
- Our faith or lack of it
- Our relationships
- and so on…
Our identity is bound up in a lot of different things about us, but there is always something about us that is unknown to someone else. So, while most of your friends might know that you live in Chatham, some will not know that you are a Civil War buff. Or, while many might know what you do for a living, most will not know that you are an expert in your field.
Who Is John the Baptist?
When the priests and Levites came to John the Baptist, they asked him, Who are you? Of course, they already knew some things about John.
- They knew that he was Zechariah’s son, a former priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.
- They knew that he lived a strange, ascetic life in the wilderness. Stories had been told of John’s strange diet of locusts and honey, and his self-styled wardrobe of animal skins.
- They knew that others listened to John, so many that they were becoming concerned about John’s influence over those who had previously come to the Temple for ceremonial cleansing, but now after being baptized by John, did not return so regularly. This cut into the income for the Temple, challenged their authority, and diminished their followers.
- They knew that John’s message was powerful. Hundreds make the journey out from Jerusalem to hear him preach.
- They knew John’s crowds were growing.
- They knew they didn’t know everything about John.
So, one day a group of priests and Levites, selected to confront John, made their way to the place where he was preaching. Bethany was a village about 2-miles from Jerusalem, on the slopes of the hills of Palestine. Sheep grazed there on its sparse vegetation, and about an hour’s walk from Bethany was the Jordan River. Archaeologists believe they have discovered a possible site where John might have baptized those early followers of his.
But, the priests and Levites were concerned that John was not a pretender to the role of Elijah, or another mythic figure in their nation’s imagination, the messiah, also called in Greek, the christ.
Malachi, the last prophet of Hebrew scripture, had prophesied himself that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, which was the coded phrase Jews used to talk about the coming of the messiah. Here’s what Malachi said,
“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and… all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch… And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do [this], saith the LORD of hosts…. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” -Malachi 4:1-5
If John were labeling himself as Elijah, that would be outrageous enough. Jewish tradition taught that Elijah the prophet would return before the coming of the messiah. At every sabbath meal, on Friday evening, as the family gathered for prayers around the table, an empty chair was kept for Elijah in case his sudden appearing during their meal should catch them unprepared for his return.
“If John the Baptist were pretending to be Elijah, then there were ways to deal with that,” the priests and Levites must have thought. First, Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire. No one had seen this John descend from heaven in a chariot of fire. He had been born to his mother and father like everyone else. Born after some strange malady had stricken his father, Zechariah, but born like all humans are born. No, this couldn’t be Elijah, because John had not returned, he had just been born.
But, of course, John wasn’t Elijah, because he said he wasn’t. “I’m not Elijah or the messiah or the Prophet,” he said, possibly meaning the great prophet Isaiah. But, John did say, quoting Isaiah, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’”
What Are You Doing?
Apparently there were also some Pharisees in the group sent to question John. It wasn’t enough for them that John said, “I’m not Elijah.” Nope, they couldn’t leave it alone.
“Why are you baptizing if you’re not the messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?” they asked. Baptism was a sign of cleansing, and only the priests had the authority to baptize others ceremonially. The Pharisees practiced a ritual bathing, letting the water run down their forearms and drip from their elbows as a sign of purification. But, what’s John doing, baptizing without authority. Telling people the stink of their unholiness has been washed away. A stink John attributed to the failed spirituality of all the religious leaders — priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees.
John’s answer was to the point — “I’m just using water,” he said. Now, by that he didn’t mean to diminish the baptism of repentance that he preached. What John was doing was distinguishing between his very symbolic work, and the work of the true messiah, who would wash away the sins of the world.
John’s baptism was the baptism of getting ready. The religious system of the first century was so political, so corrupt, that it makes Illinois politics seem tame. The chief priest was a lackey of the puppet king Herod. The religious offices, deemed as holy assignments in the Law of Moses, had become political appointments. Rather than serving God on behalf of the people, and the people on behalf of God, the priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees all had one thing in common — they had failed God.
So John’s baptism of repentance indicated a change of heart in the lives of the people baptized. They were repenting — turning from the corrupt system of patronage and politics that had overtaken the religious culture of their day — and turning toward God. Turning again to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Turning, or returning, to the God of their fathers. John was just helping them give symbolic expression to that new desire to serve God and live rightly before God.
Who Don’t You Know
If political influence is based on who do you know, John’s concern for the committee of inquisition that confronted him was who they didn’t know. They knew all the political power brokers, but there was one person they had overlooked.
John said, “…but among you stands one you do not know.“
William Stafford’s poem, A Story That Could Be True, goes like this —
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.
He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by–
you wonder at their calm.
They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”
William Stafford, Going Over to Your Place: Poems for Each Other (Selected by Paul B. Janeczko, Bradbury Press, New York)
While Stafford’s poem is a lovely sentiment — that we might be more than we had ever imagined — John’s concern is real. John is telling the Pharisees, the priests, and the Levites that they have missed the one person whose life can give theirs meaning. Whose sandals, John says, he is not worthy to unlace.
Only the lowest servants were assigned the task of removing the sandals from the feet of guests, and bathing those dirty, dusty feet until they were clean. Touching the sandals and feet of others was itself considered a degrading act. Yet John says, “I’m not even worthy to touch his feet, untie his sandals, perform the most base of services.”
In all of their religiosity, all of their concern that someone might pretend to be the messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, they had missed the One who was in their midst right then. They had missed Jesus.
Who Are You?
Which brings us back to our original question, “Who are you?” The Pharisees, and we, are very much like the man who just died this past week — Henry Molaison. Never heard of him? Well, Henry Molaison was the longest surviving extreme amnesic that scientists have ever studied. At the age of 27, in 1953, Henry underwent brain surgery to relive debilitating seizures and blackouts. The surgery was successful in that regard, but Molaison was unable to retain any short term memory. Although he knew his name and could perform tasks he remembered from before his surgery, he had no short-term memory. He met friends and family members every time as though it were the first time they had ever seen each other. Even the doctors who studied him until his recent death were complete strangers to him each time they saw each other. Molaison knew who he was before 1953, but after that everything was a blank.
Remember the article from Oprah Winfrey I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon? Well, Oprah said that a good way to fill in the blank to the statement, I am _____________________, is to sit quietly until your thoughts, emotions, and recollections reveal your innermost being.
That’s not a bad thing to do, goodness knows we need more quiet time. But our problem this advent is not looking into ourselves, it’s looking out to see Christ in our midst. To actually see the Messiah that the Pharisees missed. To see the One about whom they had studied, taught, and were preparing to meet, but who was unrecognized as he moved among them.
Who are you? Advent reminds us that we are people who are looking for God. Not looking in a mindless, idealogically -closed way in which the Pharisees looked, but really looking to see the God who walks among us. To see his presence in our lives, and the lives of others. To define ourselves, as John did, not by who we are — unworthy servants — but by who he is.
The tragedy of advent is that we will repeat the blindness of the Pharisees, having eyes that do not see the Messiah in our midst. John’s voice crying from the desert calls us again to ask, not who we are, but who Christ is. Only then will we truly be watching for his coming in this and every season.