Who are you? Have you considered that perhaps, like John the Baptist, you are a way-maker in the wildernesses of this world? John was a voice crying out. So are we.
TESTIMONY OF JOHN
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
And they asked him, “What then, are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
And he answered, “No.”
So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the Wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the image the Bible paints of John the Baptist. From an infant in his mother’s womb who dances when he comes near to Jesus, to a Nazarite secluded in the cliffs and the crags of the wilderness eating locust and wild honey–John has always been an anomaly. Movies portray him as slightly crazy, his contemporaries revered him as slightly holy, and even Jesus spoke of him with sweeping praise.
In the five verses we read today, John the Author finally delves into story. Beginning on the banks of the Jordan river outside of the city of Jerusalem, he gives us John the Baptizer, vigorously engaged in discussion with priests and Levites. The priests and Levites have been sent by the Pharisees (here called the Jews) to find out who he really is.
WHO ARE YOU?
They want to know who he is because all the people of the city and the surrounding territories are flocking to him en mass, lining up for their turn to be dipped in the muddy Jordan. The crowd is palpitating with excitement, there is anticipation of the Messiah, and the Pharisees are concerned.
“Who are you?” the priests and Levites demand.
“I am not the Christ.”
“What then? Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
Anticlimactic answers to a backdrop of drama. At the time of this conversation, Israel is surging with anticipation. Weary under Roman rule, revolutionaries, false prophets and false messiahs are cropping up all over. The common people have but to turn their heads to see yet another upshot grabbing for following and fame. Is John yet another insurrectionist? Is he yet another narcissist? Perhaps he is a charismatic leader with no real message? A religious nut? People are calling him the Christ, which means Messiah. Whispers circle claiming him as Elijah, whom the Bible prophesied would come before the Christ. Others believe he is the prophet spoken of by Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy when Moses said: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen. The Lord said to me: ‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.‘”
I AM NOT THE ONE
No one knew quite what was to happen, but they all knew something would. Would the Messiah be a king? Is the Prophet the same as the Messiah? Would Elijah return in the flesh? Here we have a man in animal skins with the uncut hair of a Nazarite, dunking people in water as he calls them to repent of their sins. He looks crazy, but–is he the one?
I am not the one, John says. No, no, no.
“Who are you then? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
I picture John turning and looking them each in the eye, considering his words carefully. Does he even know who he is? Or does he only know the message God has given him to preach?
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Next week we’ll look at the response the priests and the Levites give, but today I just want to capture this thought: John could have pretended to be anyone. He could have taken the glory unto himself. He could have looked at the crowds thronging to his side and believed he was the leader they needed. They were willing to exalt him to any position he chose, and it would have been so simple, so easy, to cave to the temptation.
But he doesn’t. “I am not the Christ,” he emphatically denies. “I am a voice preparing the way.”
MAKING WAYS IN THE WILDERNESS
It’s an attitude that floors me when I consider the values taught to us by the world, when I consider the success and recognition which my own heart desires. We have such a need for control, for glory, to be known, to be seen, to be respected or even loved. In our positions of authority–in church settings, business settings, home settings–in parenthood, friendships, ministries, online platforms, in all of it, we can begin to seek the glory and the gain for ourselves. It is easy to be at the centers of our own little worlds. It is easy to try to meet our needs on our own. We can forget who we are and what we are about. Like John, we’re really here to prepare a way for Christ. Like John, we’re actually meant to serve.
We have the opportunity every minute of our day to make ways in the wildernesses of this world; to make ways in the wildernesses of our own hearts, and to make ways in the wildernesses of the hearts of those in our care. We make ways in the wilderness so that hearts are ready when Jesus appears.