Saturday, December 13, 2014

Who Are You?

Many thanks to D. Mark Davis of "Left Behind and Loving It" for his insights on Biblical translation and interpretation.

JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Who are you?”

It sounds like a simple enough question, but make no mistake: these priests and Levites are no mere emissaries on a fact-finding mission. This man, this John, he is upsetting the “natural order” of things. He is a danger. This is one ladder-backed chair and bare hanging light bulb away from an interrogation.

Who are you?”

Judea was not a great place to live in those days, at least not for most people. It was a province of the Roman Empire, and not a terribly important one. As long as the taxes were collected and the peace was kept, Rome was content to garrison some troops and send a prefect, and divide the nominal rulership of the province among the three sons of Herod the Great. The prefect, Pontius Pilate, was an administrator, but he exercised a strange kind of control over the religious hierarchy of Judea – the prefect could appoint and dismiss a High Priest at will, and he kept their holy vestments under lock and key... they could do nothing, religious or political, without Pilate's permission.

Even with these kinds of restrictions in place, the priests were the most powerful men in Judea in many ways. After all, they oversaw aspects of Temple worship – the gifts and tithes, the sacrifices; they alone decided what was and was not an acceptable offering to the Most High God. Oh, and if you didn't have a proper offering, or happened to be fresh out of the particular coins the Temple accepted as currency, no worries. There were merchants and money-changers nearby who would sell you what you needed.

And even though John never encouraged rebellion against Rome, never once spoke of insurrection against the powerful rulers of Jewish religious life, he was dangerous, because he offered people a way to worship God, hope for salvation apart from the Temple system.

Of course, John wasn't the first person to do this. There was the sect of the Essenes, for example, which John was said to be a member of, and there were the Pharisees, who strictly adhered to every real and imaged letter of the Law.

The glaring difference between all of these people and John was this, though: whereas the Essenes had abandoned Jerusalem completely in protest of how the Temple was being run, and the Pharisees kept themselves from any possible contact with ritual uncleanliness, John attracted the attention of all kinds of people – unclean and forgotten, scared and bored, curious and needy – and he touched everyone that approached him in that muddy trickle of water that was the Jordan river, and baptized them as a sign of their repentance.

Maybe that's why John's Gospel tells us that not only the priests and Levites were interrogating John, but the Pharisees as well. Both groups saw John as a threat to their authority.

And it's no wonder, is it? Just listen to how Luke's Gospel recounts the things John was teaching:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What should we do then?”the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

That's Luke 3:7-14, by the way.

You see? John was attracting people from everywhere – big cities, small villages, they came from everywhere, out to that spot on the edge of the wilderness, out in the middle of nowhere, because John spoke of a way of living in repentance that didn't depend on the whim of greedy priests or the impossible expectations of the rich Pharisees.

If all it took to be approved by God was to treat others as you yourself want to be treated, if that's all it took to be baptized, anyone could do it!

The priests and Levites, as well as the Pharisees, saw any theology that excluded their spheres of authority as a challenge to that power, and responded accordingly.

Who are you? What possible right do you have to speak of repentance? By whose authority do you dare to offer hope through mere baptism? Who do you think you are?”

I like to imagine John, waist-deep in the sluggish water, busily baptizing, a line of people on the riverbank waiting their turn. There, next to the line but not in any way in the line, is a small knot of very well-dressed, quite shocked-and-offended men, trying not to touch anything, and barking out questions to John, who is only really half-listening as he baptizes person after person.

Who are you?”

I'm not the Messiah, if that's what you're asking.”

Well then, are you Elijah?”


Are you the Prophet that Moses foretold?”

Not him, either.”

Well, then, who are you? Throw us a bone, give us something to take back to the bigwigs in Jerusalem. Speak up for yourself, man!”

John pauses in his baptisms and turns to the small knot of men, crossing his arms casually and grinning a bit. “Y'all ever read the book of Isaiah?”

What kind of question is that? Of course we have.”

Then you know: I'm a voice. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Straight, schmaight, buddy-roe. If you ain't the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, why are you baptizing people? What gives you the right?”

John reaches down and cups some of the river water in his palm, raising it shoulder high, letting it trickle back into the Jordan. “This? This is what bothers you?”

He turns back and begins baptizing again. “This is just water. If this bothers you, then buckle up, boys. You ain't seen nothin' yet.”

What do you mean?”

I just baptize with water. There's someone here, right now, who will do so much more that I ain't fit to lace up his sneakers.”

There are a few different interpretations of this passage in the Gospel of John. Some commentators believe that the primary aim of this passage is to make it clear that Jesus is a more important person than John the Baptist, which was apparently an issue in the earliest days of the church.

Maybe that's so.

But I also think that John serves as a kind of example for those of us who call ourselves by the name of Christ.

In John's time, things were broken – and I'm not simply talking about inequity and corruption, though that was everywhere. People who were always on the brink of starvation, who worked and scraped by and who desperately needed hope – who needed to know that God was there and that God cared – looked to Jerusalem for salvation and saw that they needed money to buy things for sacrifices, they needed money to pay Temple tax and tithes and this and that and the other, they needed to take time better spent working for the day's food and go to this festival and that “feast,” and they just couldn't do it all. The Essenes and the Pharisees weren't an option, either; the demands of both sects were far beyond the abilities and finances of most common Judeans.

John offered another option. Not an easier way, necessarily, but a more accessible one. And above all, he pointed away from himself, and toward Jesus.

I wonder what all those people who came to talk to John expected to hear? Not the priests and the Levites and the Pharisees in John's Gospel, but the regular folks and the tax collectors and the soldiers of Luke's account.

Did the people expect John to tell them to follow the strict edicts of the Pharisees, or to reject their lives and families and join the Essenes out in Qumran? Did the tax collectors and soldiers expect John to tell them they were beyond hope, that because of who they were and what they'd done in their lives that God hated them?

They'd all probably heard that before. Second verse, same as the first, you know?

But what John said was different: Talking about repentance is one thing, lay aside your greed and fear and corruption and show me your repentance in how you treat one another. And above all, prepare the way – prepare your hearts and your lives for Jesus. He's the one who makes the real change. I can put water on you, I can baptize, but he's the one who brings the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we?

Whether you and I realize it or not, people are looking to us. What are we telling them?

Do we stack demands on people, requirements they must meet in order to be a part of the Body of Christ? Do we? Do we tell people who are different – different colors, different nationalities, different traditions, different orientations – that God hates them because of who they are? Do we? Do we support a corrupt system either through active participation or through passive silence? Do we?

Or do we speak and do love? Do we offer real hope? Do we speak truth to power? Do we point the way to Jesus?

Who are you?

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