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?