You might have noticed that the Gospel lessons from this week and last week look a lot alike. Last week’s passage was from the Gospel of Mark; today, we are in the Gospel of John, but both passages have John the Baptist famously declaring himself to be the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” and both conclude with him anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. I definitely had to do a double-take to make sure that I wasn’t looking at the wrong week. I’m not.
But last week, the Gospel of Mark passage allowed us to reflect on John the Baptist during our Pray-as-you-go group, the lectio divina style gathering that meets during coffee hour each Sunday. One of the themes that arose from our discussion was that the identity and the vocation of John the Baptist was entirely bound up in what he was not. He was not the Messiah; he was not the light; but it was precisely because he was neither the Messiah nor the light that he had something to say. He came to testify to the light that was coming into the world.
We also talked about how remarkable it was that John the Baptist had such clarity about his responsibility and about who he was that there was not a hint of rivalry or confusion of roles between him and Jesus, the Messiah. John the Baptist had the easiest organizational chart ever crafted: Jesus -- “Messiah”; He and Everyone Else -- “Not Jesus.”
We’re accustomed to institutions being more complicated than that, so the closest analogy I could think of is the kind of thing you see on the Netflix show, The Crown, if any of you have been watching that. It’s about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the second season just dropped. We’ve been binge watching it and you should too, if you can. It’s a show as much about the 20th Century as it is about the life story of the longest reigning sovereign in English history. Anyway, what is so intriguing -- especially to my American eyes -- is how Queen Elizabeth is really just a person like everyone else, and yet nevertheless commands absolute and unequivocal deference from her subordinates (if not always the press or the masses). She is hardly the oldest, wisest, or most intelligent individual around; none of the honor that she commands is due to any merits of her own. But when the Queen looks up, she sees only God. That is all that matters. And that’s a kind of authority and symbolism that we Americans dispensed with right off the bat. In any case, the organization chart over there is also pretty clear: there is the Queen, and there is everyone else who is not the Queen.
It turns out that when you draw the line between the Messiah and everyone else, or the Queen and everyone else, and you’re not the Messiah or the Queen, you’ve not provided a particularly helpful guide to who you are exactly. It leaves a lot of possibilities open. You could be anyone. And so the priests and the Levites ask John the Baptist just who he is:
“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?”
And to this, John the Baptist reveals himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Yes, that clears things up quite a bit, doesn’t it?
So what is going here in this interaction between John the Baptist and the priests and the Levites? It’s interesting how the priests and the Levites so quickly assume that because John is not the Messiah means that he therefore has nothing to do with the Messiah. That he must be Elijah or the prophet returned from the past instead. Are they no longer curious about this eccentric fellow from the desert? They move immediately from wondering whether John is the one who has come to save Israel to simply trying to make sense of him in their familiar categories of prophets gone by. I think this reveals more about what the priests and Levites assume and expect about the Messiah than it does about what they think of John the Baptist. Their interaction reveals their presumption that the Messiah would simply present himself to them in a direct and straightforward manner. He’d put a name tag on at Coffee Hour. You’d meet the Son of Man -- the light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel -- the same way you’d meet Bob from accounting. And maybe this reveals yet another hidden assumption on the part of the priests and Levites. That to them the Messiah would be easily recognizable, just another one of the guys.
John the Baptist resists this entire set of assumptions altogether. He defines himself with the same texts from which he and his people learned of Elijah and the prophet, the Old Testament. And by doing this, he rescues those Old Testament figures from the subtle dismissiveness they’ve received from the priests and the Levites. Because as if Elijah or someone like Moses were really welcomed and acknowledged in their own days. No, they were held in great suspicion by the people to whom they were sent, at least at the beginning. What John the Baptist is reminding them of is the fact that the words of God have always had to be cried out from the wilderness. They are not delivered from the established and respected information outlets. And since we’re reading from the Gospel of John today, it’s worth recalling the introduction to the entire Gospel, the thesis statement:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
“The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” That’s why I chose the KJV: you get that profound image of the darkness not comprehending the Light that has come before it. Because what we see here with the priests and the Levites is a failure of comprehension. They have built up so many conditions and expectations for who the Messiah would be that he has practically already arrived, in their minds, at least. They’ve drawn up the profile, now they’re just looking for the one who matches it. But again, John the Baptist points them back to the reality that the revelation of God is always a surprise, always a mystery, always a conflict with the patterns of the world that are shrouded in darkness.
The question that the priests and the Levites posed to John the Baptist is one that can be easily translated into our own time. If it’s not a question that has ever been asked of you personally, I’m sure you’ve asked it of yourself at one time or another. Who are you? Who are we? And seeing that clearly none of us is God, what then? Are we social workers? Members of a Respectability Club? Political activists? What is it that we say about ourselves as Christians?
In a world that has supposedly been evacuated of transcendence, where even many Christians find it difficult to really believe in the activity of God in the world, the temptation to imagine our Christianity in terms of those more familiar roles is great. Indeed, there will always be those who are thrilled at the possibilities of what religion can do once enlisted as a helpful accomplice to this or that agenda or institution. But we should not be so easily swayed, for the comfortable place of honor that is promised to us if only we define ourselves in terms that the world can understand is itself a sign of its disbelief. Remember John the Baptist and where he came from. The wilderness. He came from the unknown, from where all is darkness, because it is only from the wilderness that the light to which he testified could manifest itself in starkest contrast to the false light of our own comprehension. John the Baptist was not Elijah, as they imagined Elijah; nor was he the prophet, as they imagined the prophet. He was something entirely beyond their grasp or expectation: a voice crying out.
The season of Advent is one of those seasons where everything just seems to fit. There is something about these weeks that, in my own experience, clarifies my mind and soul. I perceive certain connections that I would not otherwise perceive. And my guess is that it’s because Advent is a sort of miniature; it takes the whole of one’s Christian life and even of all of redemptive history and reduces it down to just four weeks or so. Advent reenacts our anticipation for the long-expected Jesus and his first nativity, and then lays on top of that our simultaneous anticipation of his second coming when all things will be made new. And in the midst of that concentrated time, things are revealed more clearly.
So what does Advent reveal about who we really are? When we stand with John the Baptist to receive the questions of the priests and the Levites, what answer comes to our lips? I pray that it would be that we are those who cry out, those who make straight the way of the Lord. Not by the grand programs and gestures that so easily captivate our attention, but with broken and contrite hearts. For Advent reminds us that God comes to dwell where humanity is honest with itself, that is, where it is vulnerable and subsistent.
I’ll close with some Proverbs; perhaps they can serve as our Advent cry:
Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer.
Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness.
Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men:
For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen.
Yes, Lord Jesus, point our eyes beyond all that which we have seen. And come quickly. Amen.