The New Testament gospels give John the Baptist a lot of ink. Have you noticed that? Christian tradition, especially at Advent and just after Christmas, pays John the Baptist a lot of attention as well. Have you picked up on that? There’s only one conclusion that can be made from it, and it should be quite obvious. The Baptist must have been pretty important to the Christian story.
But, you can’t tell it by what is said about him, or even by what he says about himself. Listen to this…
“This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…”
Did you catch the extra emphasis there, the double negative response to the inquiry of the religious representatives? “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” Seems to me a point is being made, don’t you think?
“I am not the Messiah,” John tells them. “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.'”
There’s a whole lot of denying going on here. Sounds like John’s going to a lot of trouble to tell these folk who he is not, and John the gospel writer is going to at least an equal amount of effort to back up the baptizer’s story. John the gospel writer is confirming what John the baptizer is saying. He is not who he says he is not. Got it?
“What then?” they want to know. “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
“Who are you?” Can you sense the growing frustration in the question? “Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
“I’m just a preacher.”
But lest we think it’s merely false modesty on John’s part, the other John – the one who wrote the gospel – underlines what the Baptist says about himself. He opens his gospel by talking about Jesus the Light, Jesus the eternal Word, coming into the world. But he also talks about John the Baptist…
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe in him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
“He himself was not the light…”
Let’s make no mistake about this, now. The Baptist is just that – the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, the preacher. He’s not the One, folks! He’s not the One!
Are we clear about this?
Well, just in case, let’s read on. After all, why is John portrayed so vividly in the gospels at the same time so much effort is given to telling us who he is not? Why not just put the entire focus on the one who is? There’s got to be something to this.
It’s the next day, the day after the deputized posse from Jerusalem has come out to the wilderness to interrogate the Baptist. John sees Jesus of Nazareth coming toward him and declares loudly (Actually, the word “loudly” isn’t there, but somehow I just can’t see the Baptist doing anything without doing it loudly, can you?), “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he… This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”
And then we are treated to more negative talk… “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel. I myself did not know him…”
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Have you ever heard a pop song that, at the end, rather than finishing just fades out? It’s as if the lyricist or the arranger doesn’t know how to end the song, so instead of doing so the singer just keeps singing the chorus as the volume slowly goes down and down… That’s the way it feels to me with this story about the Baptist. He keeps talking about who he is not, and rather than end the story the volume just begins to fade.
Both Johns – the baptizer and the gospel writer – seem to go to so much trouble to tell us who John the Baptist is not. So let me ask you: does that strike you as odd? You may be thinking, “Well no. You see, I’ve been reading the Gospel of John all my life and that’s what it’s always said.” Yes, and that may just be the problem. We’re too familiar with it. Let’s look at it as if it were the very first time, shall we? If we do that, we might see it in a wholly different light.
There has to be something to all this denial on John’s part, I would think, because it’s not just John the author of the fourth gospel who does this. After all, the Baptist is portrayed in all four gospels. That’s pretty unusual in itself. That means he’s quite important. Yet, in all four gospels we are told clearly so there can be no confusion about the matter. We are told what John the Baptist is not. He is not the Messiah, the Coming One of Israel. He is not. Mark it down and get it right. He is not the Messiah.
Okay, okay, okay… We get the point.
I’m sure the professional religious people who’ve come out from Jerusalem are wondering what all the fuss is about… why so many people are flocking to the Jordan to be baptized by this nobody, this, this amateur. What draws the people to him? He’s not The One. Everybody says that, including John himself. So what’s so special about the Baptist?
Again, the Baptist admits it himself. There’s someone coming who is much greater than he, great enough that John isn’t even worthy to “fiddle with his shoelaces.”1 John hasn’t just eaten a slice of humble pie; he’s devoured the whole thing.
* * * *
I’m like any other pastor, I suppose, in that occasionally I reflect on this profession I have chosen. Or has it chosen me? Well, whatever, pastoring is what I do, and it is what I’m known for in this church and to a certain degree in our community. Of course, there are different responsibilities that go along with leading this church. I am a preacher, and probably that is how you and others identify me most readily. But I am also a Bible teacher, a pastoral counselor on occasion, and an administrator. Toss in conflict manager every once in awhile, and juggler when the situation calls for it. And, sometimes I get to be a janitor, but only occasionally, thank goodness; not because I think it is beneath me but because our custodians do a much better job at it than do I. There are other facets to my work, but by and large this is what I do, this is who I am, this is how I go about my work.
When I am given the opportunity, I gladly tell people I am pastor of the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. Friday night, at the annual Deacons Dinner, Don Johnston, who just finished his term as chair, commented on how proud he is to be a part of this church. I thought to myself that we must have spent the week drinking from the same water source. It makes me feel good to be able to identify myself with this congregation. But I gotta be honest with you… I do believe I’d probably leave this business if the only thing I could do was tell people what I am not.
“Are you pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church?” “No, I’m not.”
“How about First Baptist?” “No.”
“Second?” “No again.”
“Do you lead a large congregation?” “No.”
“Are you president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention.” “Nope, not even on the executive board or any of the committees.”
“Then who are you?”
You see what the Baptist is up against? Implied in all these questions is an accusation. “Then what useful purpose do you serve?” And when that kind of question is asked, let me tell you, the questioner has already formed the answer in his mind, and it isn’t very flattering.
But, that certainly seems to be the Baptist’s lot, doesn’t it? He spends an awful lot of time telling people who he isn’t and what he’s not. His story is filled, just filled, with the confessions of an amateur preacher.
Then one day Jesus comes walking up to him in the shallow waters of the Jordan River, which, by the way, serves as John’s pulpit, and in the presence of this One who is the Christ John knows immediately who he is. And in knowing who Jesus is, John knows instinctively who he, John, is. For the first time in his ministry, it seems, John is able to give a positive identification for himself and what he does based on who Jesus is. Jesus “is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the Baptist says, and in his presence John knows who he is. His purpose in life and ministry is to point beyond himself to Another. And, folks, that’s not a bad job description when the Other is Jesus. Through John other people come to know who Jesus is.
The story then moves to the next day. I tell you what, let’s back up to the beginning of this story and make sure we get the chronology straight in our minds…
One day the group from Jerusalem, the priests and Levites who were sent by the religious leadership, come and question John. The next day Jesus comes and John proclaims him to be the Lamb of God. The day after that John is standing with two of his disciples when Jesus walks by. John says it again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” And immediately the two disciples, one of whom we are told is Andrew the brother of Simon Peter, leave John and begin to follow Jesus. Because they’ve been following John and have found him to be completely trustworthy, they accept his testimony about Jesus and believe him. So they then start following Jesus and eventually become his disciples.
Three days in the life of John the Baptist, and in those three days we learn who John is and who John is not. But then, when Jesus comes, we discover who John is. This is what the Baptist has come to do. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
It could very well be that the most important thing ever said of the Baptist is what the gospel writer says of him at the very first. “There was a man sent from God… a man sent from God.”
There is a tendency in all of us, I think, or at least at certain times in our journey of life and faith, when we tend to think of ourselves in terms of what we are not rather than what we are. But when we come to know Jesus – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, when we come to be known by Jesus – we discover who we are, who and what we have been created to be. We find our true and eternal purpose in that relationship. Regardless of what we might do for a living, we are not defined by that, or by any other thing we do or relationship we have. We are defined by who and what we have been created to be, not what we do along the way.
And did you notice something in this story? Look in the other gospels, the ones that tell about Jesus’ baptism, and you will find God’s Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. A voice from heaven says, “This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” But not here. Not in John’s gospel. No voice from heaven. The testimony here is human, not heavenly, and the testimony belongs to the Baptist… ol’ what’s-his-name, the nobody who’s known more for who and what he is not than for who and what he is.
Recorded in The Oxford Book of Prayer is a Muslim’s first prayer after he has been converted to follow Christ… “O God, I am Mustafah the tailor and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me. For I am really only Mustafah the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali…”2
Maybe we should all consider who we are not. It might lead us to understand who we are in relationship to Christ.
“Who are you?” “I am not the Christ.”
“What then? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
“Who are you then?” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
It sounds to me like the confession of an amateur preacher. But when sent from God, it becomes the greatest testimony in all the world.
Lord, may our testimony in life be the same as John’s, and may we point the way to you by what we say and do. Through Jesus our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 138.
2 George Appleton, gen. ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 88 (cited from William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, January 10, 1999, p. 7).
Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.