“I AM NOT THE MESSIAH”
John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 11, 2011
Third Sunday of Advent
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. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
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, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’
Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for 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.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’
John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
I’m usually a stickler for spelling and grammar on the things that I write and put in print. Spell check and grammar check programs on computers greatly help with that nowadays, but I don’t usually have to depend on those. I spell check myself.
I’ve always been a pretty good speller. In fact, I can still remember the three words that I got wrong in spelling bees in grade school. One word was “souvenir.” I spelled it with an “ier” at the end. Another word was “restaurant.” I spelled it “restaurant.” And the other word was “banana.” I added an extra “n” in the middle. Needless to say, I always spell those words correctly.
A typo once caused me a good deal of good-natured kidding at one of the churches I pastored in the earlier days of my ministry. We had just moved to Wylie UMC. I wrote my first article for the church newsletter. I talked about how happy I was to be there and how I looked forward to working with the congregation. I said something about “when I was sent to serve this church.” I gave the article to the secretary to type up and put in the newsletter.
The problem is, the secretary had trouble reading my handwriting, so when the newsletter came out, that sentence said, “when I was sent to save this church.” I was so embarrassed! I could only imagine what they thought about me. Here’s this new preacher, barely been here a week, and he’s got such an ego that he’s claiming he’s going to come in and “save” our church!
For one, thing, the church didn’t need saving. It was a perfectly healthy congregation. I had been sent there because Glyn Rives, the pastor, had retired. The church wasn’t in trouble.
And even if the church had been in trouble, what pastor would say such a thing their first week on the job? I’m usually a pretty humble person and would never say such a thing, but they didn’t know that. They barely knew me.
I could only hope that not that many people read the newsletter, and if they did, they wouldn’t notice that phrase. But of course, everybody read it – it was the first newsletter article of the brand new pastor!
Fortunately, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and allowed me to explain the error. But for a long time after that some of the staff members kidded me about having a “Savior complex.”
Today’s Gospel reading begins, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” Apparently, some people thought that John had been sent as some kind of savior. In fact, the Pharisees sent some priests and Levites out to the wilderness where John was baptizing to ask him just who he thought he was. Maybe they thought John had a “Savior complex.”
These were folks from the official religious establishment in Jerusalem. They were in charge of keeping things under control, keeping a lid on things, so there wouldn’t be any reason for the Romans to get suspicious and crack down on them. John was just different enough to create a “blip” on their radar screen so they had to go and check him out.
“Who are you?” they ask. John was different enough, with his camel’s hair clothing and his diet of locusts and wild honey, so that many people were thinking that he could be the promised Messiah.
It would have been easy for John to claim to be more than he was. If people treat you like a “savior,” pretty soon you might start thinking that you are one. I think that’s what happened with notorious cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh. Their followers treated them like Messiah figures and that fed their egos and they started thinking that they had life and death power over these people. And we know what tragic consequences that led to.
How easy it would have been for John to let all this go to his head and start thinking that maybe he was the Messiah. All these people were coming out to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized by him. He was starting to gather a sizable group of disciples or followers, including Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother (1:40).
But John felt no temptation to do that. John understood perfectly what his role was to be in the salvation story that God was playing out. So when these “keepers of the religious status quo” come out from Jerusalem to ask John just who he thinks he is, John knows exactly who he is and is able to answer them.
In fact, he answers a question before they even ask. He tells them, “I am not the Messiah.” They hadn’t asked him yet if he were the Messiah. There must have been enough people mistaking John for the Messiah that he figured that was what they were going to ask, even before they asked it. So he tells them flat out, “I am not the Messiah.”
We might not see what the big issue is. We know John was not the Messiah. We know who the real Messiah is. But for people back then it wasn’t as clear. They hadn’t met Jesus yet. They didn’t know Jesus like John knew Jesus. After all, they were cousins. So it was very honest and helpful for John to make it clear right up front that he wasn’t the Messiah, so there wouldn’t be any confusion.
So then they asked John, “Are you Elijah?” Again, he answered, “I am not.” The Jewish people believed that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to announce his coming. Elijah was transported into heaven without dying, so many people believed he would return right before the coming of the Messiah. But no, John says, even though you pay me quite a compliment, I’m not Elijah.
“Are you the prophet?” they ask next. Moses had promised in Deut. 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren – him you shall heed.” “No,” John says, I’m not the prophet either.
“So who are you then?” they want to know. “If you’re not the Messiah, and you’re not Elijah or the prophet, what exactly are you doing out here baptizing people?”
John finds his identity in the words of Isaiah 40:3 …
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
That’s all I am, he says. I’m a nobody. A nothing. I’m only a voice telling you to get ready for the coming of the king, for he’s on his way.
The fact that John was baptizing people was a mystery to them, and they wanted to know why he was doing it, especially if he wasn’t the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. Jewish people weren’t baptized. That was for Gentiles, for proselytes, for people coming into the Jewish faith from the outside. John was making Israelites do what only Gentiles had to do.
John didn’t answer them directly. He just said,
‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’
Untying someone’s sandal strap was considered about the most menial thing a person could do. Even a slave wasn’t expected to perform that service for his master.
John was just saying that compared to the Coming One, compared to Jesus, he was nothing. His only task was to prepare the entryway into history for the King.
This story about John the Baptist reminds us of something important about our own lives:
That for us to fulfill God’s purpose for us, we need to understand not only who we are, but also who we are not.
John knew who he wasn’t. He didn’t claim or pretend to be someone he wasn’t.
Sometimes in life it may take a while for us to figure out who we are. We may have to try on a few roles and follow a few paths that aren’t really meant for us. But that’s okay. It’s not wasted time. We have to know who we aren’t sometimes before we know who we are.
When I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. I wanted to work for the space program. I wanted to help send astronauts into space, to the moon, maybe even to other planets. I read and studied about what I would have to do to make that career path happen.
But then I felt called to the ministry. So I knew I wasn’t an aerospace engineer.
For a long time I believed God had called me to a teaching ministry – to teach religion or theology in a college or seminary. I went to graduate school after seminary to work on a doctoral degree to prepare me for that path.
But along the way, God showed me more and more that I wasn’t a teacher. Teaching could be a part of my ministry, but I was a pastor, a minister in a local church. And that’s what I have become.
I’m not Martin Marty, one of my favorite professors. I’m not Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers. I’m not Jim Palmer, one of the finest pastors I ever got to work with. I’m me. But that’s okay. God can use me, and I believe God has used me, to be a pastor and a shepherd of God’s people.
John understood who he wasn’t, but more importantly, he understood who he was – a preparer of the way; a voice crying in the wilderness; a finger in the desert pointing the way to Christ.
We can do some of our very best work when we get our own egos out of the way and let Jesus Christ live in us and shine through us. As someone has said, Christmas isn’t my birthday and it’s not your birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday. Let’s do the very best we can to be sign-posts pointing others to him – to his love, his forgiveness, his grace, his life. That’s who we are. Amen.