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No. No. No.
So begins the public ministry of John the Baptist according to the Gospel of St. John.
It's not what we have come to expect. Spend much time around Christian congregations during any Advent season, and John tends to come off as loud, disruptive and socially inappropriate. A wild man from the wilderness in stark contrast to the more serene images we associate with Mary and Jesus.
Yet, in this passage from the Prologue of St. John, John the Baptist is anything but the hothead prophet.
Upon being asked by the religious leaders of his day to make himself known to them, John starts by telling them who he is not. He is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet.
Was there any doubt? Did those sent out to inquire of John wonder if they were heading out to meet Elijah? Or did John ever wonder if his call to proclaim the coming of the way of the Lord was not as forerunner but as main act?
This story, given and heard now, is not a suspenseful one. Of course, he is the forerunner, the one to go before and point towards Jesus. Of course he is not Elijah. It is enough that he is John the Baptist.
But if Advent has any connection to beginning again, to attempting to hear the story afresh, then why are the religious leaders questioning John and why does he spend time first telling them who he is NOT?
The gospel writer gives us no indication that the questioners of John are trying to trap him. Rather, like the first hearers of this gospel, they also want to know who is the "man sent from God, whose name was John?"
John's response to the questions gives us an insight into him. It is an insight missed if we only emphasize the high volume preacher, the locust and honey eating street evangelist. In this passage from the first chapter of John, we encounter a contemplative without any outsize sense of self or puffed up ego.
The Church has spent time reflecting on how Jesus was tempted. We read accounts of his temptations in the Synoptic gospels. In St. John's Gospel, we do not have a similar story of tempting of Jesus. Perhaps, however, what we do have is a tempting of John, a temptation that he resists and that can inform our Advent life now.
The Prologue uses dramatic language in telling us that John was sent from God. If a denominational discernment process heard from John now, I fear his biographical essay would get flagged if he emphasized the "I believe I have been sent from God" part too much.
But the Prologue seems to indicate that John's vocation has been a long time coming. He was made for this. So if you know you are called, the only question left is--called for what?
If you are called to be the forerunner, the one who comes before, isn't that awfully close to understudy, the one who could step in if the moment demands it? If the people have waited and waited for the Messiah and have a hope that God will finally hear them, why not speed things up, John, and do your best to embody Messiah-ship? Maybe if John begins to act the part, he will smoke out the real one? Or maybe, just maybe, John has misunderstood? It's about you, John!
I am not the Messiah. Those are the first words we hear uttered by John in this gospel. In response to the question, "Who are you?" John first confesses this about himself. I am not the Messiah.
For John, is this a kind of prayer? I am not the Messiah. Was this a means of staying sane in the crazy-making and lonely task of running ahead of something not yet here? I am not the Messiah.
As long as there have been Christians gathering in community, practicing the faith through worship and study and gestures of reconciliation to each other, there have been leaders who disappoint us. I would like to suggest that we consider the possibility that many of the moral failings of leaders have some root beginning in their failure to pray the prayer of John the Baptist. I am not the Messiah too easily becomes I might be the Messiah. Before you know it, you are the Messiah. From there, it is easy to cross the ethical boundaries if you believe that you are more than you are.
Because John the Baptist begins with a tri-fold renouncing, no to Messiah and Elijah and Prophet, he is then able to say something just as bold. I know who I am. I see myself in the story of God's story. God is doing a new thing and I can play a part in the new thing that is to come. And John can do that once he is clear about what he will not do.
For several years now, churches have rightfully encouraged individuals to say no to the hyper-materialism that comes with the consumer rush to Christmas. John's renouncing invites us to consider how we can also say NO to the false selves and false roles we take on, especially when we believe we are taking on those roles and putting on those masks for the Kingdom.
We live in an age which tempts us with marketing pitches, intended to make us believe that EVERYTHING is possible for us, that I can do ANYTHING I set my mind to do. With that approach, there is not enough time in the day for all the things to which we could say YES. I know, for me, I don't simply want to root for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team--I want to be their third baseman.
But that is not to be. That is not setting my sights too low. That is living in reality, in real time, recognizing that daydreaming can keep us from saying YES to our true call, our true vocation.
John the Baptist renounces the calls that are not his in order then to tell the religious leaders what his call is to be. He is called to be a voice, to baptize with water, to recognize his own unworthiness before the One who is to come.
This renouncing three times before affirming three times is echoed in the baptismal liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer. Each time we baptize, those to be baptized say no, no, no before saying yes, yes, yes. Our life in Christ begins by saying what our life will NOT be ruled by--not by Satan or evil powers or sinful desires. Those renunciations bring clarity to the call we affirm in our life in Christ.
Did the religious leaders expect to hear from John that he was the Messiah? Were they expecting to find a mad man doing his best Elijah imitation? Were they hoping to see the Prophet promised to come by Moses? If so, they were disappointed. In this exchange, John is already decreasing so that the One to come could increase. He is already moving the spotlight from himself to the Word that John proclaimed.
No matter the size or shape of it, if you know a Christian community, the chances are great it is in an anxious moment. In our anxiety, it is tempting to look for quick salvation--for the flashy program that will bring the people back or the right branding that will secure for us a future for flourishing. In desperation, we could in this season reach for a new Messiah or dress up a new Elijah, but with better graphics.
This is where the more contemplative side of John the Baptist is helpful to us now. Remember, he was not always shouting PREPARE! He was not always making a scene. This Advent, he is saying No to all the calls that are not his. He is praying again and again, I am not the Messiah, in order to perform his true work on behalf of God's new thing.
So, this is the opposite of an altar call. What are you NOT called to be or do this year? How many times do you need to say NO in order to find with clarity and confidence the true YES placed in you by God for which the Way of Jesus awaits?
Let us pray. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and forever. Amen.
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