Summary: When we encounter Jesus we are called to identify ourselves completely with him -- who we are is defined by who he is.
Introduction: Identifying Yourself
How do you identify yourself? Would you say that you have a strong sense of identity? Or do you perhaps have a weak sense of self? Do you identify yourself with your family background? Do you carry yourself with a sense of pride because of a position? Because of wealth? Because of social standing?
Who is John?
In our passage today we see John the Baptist and some priests and Levites playing a guessing game. They were sent from Jerusalem to find out who John was. Already John had gained a reputation. He was an unruly sort. Dressed like a first century hippie, he was from the wilderness; and his message, his proclamation, was sharp as a knife and as straight as an arrow. No one who heard John preach could mistake what he was saying. He was clear and he was uncompromising. He openly criticized Herod because he took up with his brother’s wife. He told Jews that being children of Abraham was meaningless, that God could raise up children of Abraham from the rocks on the ground. Heritage and family connections meant nothing. Power meant nothing to John. Only having a repentant heart before God mattered, and he made it plain that nothing but a humble and sincere heart was of any significance. His message called for a radical life change. And as he himself said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John was on the scene to prepare others for the coming Messiah, whom he would learn was his cousin Jesus.
But these priests and Levites want to know who John is. They want to pin him down, and get a handle on him. Knowing who he is would help them know how to respond to him. They press him. They refuse to go away without an answer. “Who are you?” they ask. Rather than telling them who he is, he tells them who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” Then they get more specific. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John answers, “I am not.” They keep going. “Are you the prophet?” Again, John responds tersely, “No.”
Clearly, those sent to interrogate him thought he had something to do with the Messiah. Both Elijah and the prophet were figures upon whom messianic expectations had come to rest. Malachi 4:5 says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” Elijah was supposed to appear and herald the coming Messiah. Deuteronomy 18:15 says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” The people of Israel had messianic expectations of this prophet. Was John one of these figures? Was he the expected Messiah? John evades all of these identifications. He says no to all of the above. In one sense this is odd, only because even Jesus identifies John with Elijah, saying that “for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Yet, even so, John refuses this identification. He refuses almost any identification. Why?
But wait: there was still one more question. The priests and Levites were not quite finished. They demanded that John give them something to go on, some piece of information they could take back to their superiors. They were determined not to return empty handed. So they asked him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” I like how Eugene Peterson translates their question in his paraphrase, The Message: “Tell us something – anything! – about yourself.”
And what does John say? “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John answers them from Scripture, from Isaiah 40:3 to be exact. And what he says is not really an answer. What does this tell us about John? Not much, you might think.
You see, John was on fire with a message, and this message was one of good news, of calling the people of Israel to repentance, to receive forgiveness of sins. He was bold. And he was also focused. The center of his attention was the One for whom he was preparing the people. His eyes were fixed on the One the thong of whose sandal he was not worthy to untie. The heart of John’s passion was a someone. It was Jesus. Earlier in the Gospel we read, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” The driving force of John’s preaching and mission was Jesus. He saw himself as preparing the way for Jesus. John was baptizing with water, preaching repentance and forgiveness, and at the end of the day Jesus was his message.