Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
John the Baptist Denies Being the Christ
19 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.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
24 Now some Pharisees who had been sent25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Yesterday’s gospel reading was the introduction to the Gospel of John, and today’s reading is the next passage in that gospel. It’s interesting to note that, like the gospels of Mark and Luke, the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John has John the Baptist right at the beginning. (He was also mentioned in the part we thought about yesterday.) It seems clear that the early church understood that you needed to know about John the Baptist to know the whole story of Jesus.
We’re told that John called people to come down to the River Jordan to experience what’s described as “a baptism of repentance.” We don’t know the exact content of John’s preaching on that subject, so we can’t say exactly what it was he was calling people to repent of. But the Greek word that’s translated as “repentance” is a word that literally means ‘get a new mind.’ So it seems like John was calling people to a change of mind that allowed them to see the world – and especially their relationship with God – in a whole new way.
And it seems clear that lots of people had the sense that there was something that wasn’t quite right about their relationships with God. We say that because the gospel accounts say that large numbers of people from Jerusalem and all of Judea walked through the heat of the Mideast to experience this baptism of repentance John was calling them to.
Apparently this movement of people attracted the attention of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, because today’s passage says the leadership sent representatives to question John. The church historians say that by the time the Gospel of John was written, the church and the Jewish leadership were often in open conflict with one another. So when John says “the Jews of Jerusalem,” he probably means the Jewish leadership. It seems that the population at large had a favorable attitude toward John the Baptist.
In any case, the delegation sent to John the Baptist must have begun by asking him if he understood himself to be the Christ – that is, the Messiah. When John says no, the priests and Levites next ask John whether he is Elijah. This was actually a fairly logical question. First of all, John is reported to have adopted the same exotic clothes and diet as the prophet Elijah – camel’s hair clothes and a diet of locusts and wild honey. Second, Elijah had never died – he had been taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. And third, it had been foretold that Elijah would come back to announce the coming of the day of the Lord. (You can find that prophesy in the last paragraph of the Old Testament.)
In our passage for today, John denies being Elijah. However, he might have been wrong about that. That’s obviously a strange thing to say, but it’s possible that the real meaning of the ancient prophesy might have been that someone would come ‘in the spirit of Elijah.’ It’s also possible that John the Baptist actually was Elijah but didn’t realize it. In the 17th chapter of Matthew, Jesus seems to be saying that John was Elijah.
But since John says ‘no’ in answer to their question, the delegation from Jerusalem next asks him if he is “the prophet.” It had been foretold that a prophet in the spirit of Moses would be sent into the world, and that’s probably the unnamed prophet the Jewish leaders had in mind. But John denies being that prophet, too. Instead, he says he is “the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’”
So the religious leaders ask by what authority John is performing his baptism. And John gives an odd answer. He basically says that his authority comes from the one he’s come to announce – the one whose way he has been sent to prepare. John says that the one who would follow him is the real authority figure. John says he’s not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who would come after him.
John the Baptist is consistently portrayed in the gospels as the one who came to get the world’s attention so that it would be prepared to hear Jesus when he began his ministry. Of course, we know that Jesus was already in the world and among the people of ancient Palestine, but they didn’t know it yet. And clearly, John understood that his role was to keep the world’s attention focused on Jesus, not on himself.
I think you could make a case that John is also meant to be a kind of model for the rest of us. We are also meant to be preparing the way of the Lord into the lives of those around us. We’re also meant to be leading others to see things differently, as far as Jesus is concerned.
But if we try to call others to repentance by declaring to them that they are sinners who need to get their heads straight, we won’t be heard. On the other hand, if we communicate to those around us that we see ourselves as sinners who need to clarify our own view of the world and our place in it, if we make it plain that we are more grieved about our own sins than the sins of others, then that spirit of humble repentance really will prepare the way of the Lord into the lives of those around us.
Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you to use us as you used John – as witnesses to our Lord Jesus, and as messengers who go before him to prepare the way into the life of the world, and into the lives of those around us. Help us to be agents of your grace, helping others to see the world, and especially their relationship with you, in a whole new way. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 42 and 133: Deuteronomy 6:16-25; and Hebrews 2:1-10.)