I used to be a big fan of the Miss Manners column in the newspaper. Miss Manners has been running since the late 1970s and it responds to readers’ questions about things like etiquette, civility, awkward situations, and which fork to use for dessert. One of my favorite of her answers was to a reader who (I believe) wrote seeking advice on how to encourage conversation at a dinner party. What kinds of topics, the reader wanted to know, would be useful for involving a companion you didn’t know well in an interesting chat?
Miss Manners’ clever reply was this: “Anything other than ‘I’ve been on a fascinating journey of self-discovery recently and I’d like to share it with you.’” ...
Now self-knowledge and self-examination are certainly part of the Christian tradition. It’s very hard to receive God’s forgiveness if you don’t know what you need to be forgiven for, and hard to use the gifts he’s given you for the benefit of the world if you haven’t identified what those gifts are. So yes, as Christians, knowing who we are is important. But it is an equally important, and for us perhaps even a prior thing, to know who we are not.
This is a question that one of the quintessential Advent personalities, John the Baptist, is exceptionally clear about in today’s Gospel. People come from the Pharisees with three potential roles for John in their heads. He’s either the Messiah, or he’s Elijah, or he’s the Prophet. But John just says: No. No. No. None of the above. If he knows anything, he knows who he’s not.
What are these three roles? Well, they are forms that religious expectation took among the Jews of that day. The Messiah, most of us are familiar with: the anointed one who would fulfill the hopes of Israel in the last days. Scholars debate exactly what would have been implied in the other two: Elijah was one of the great and most dramatic prophets in the Old Testament, and there was a tradition that Elijah himself would personally return to herald the Messiah. “The Prophet,” well, that refers to a verse in Deuteronomy saying that one day God would send another prophet like Moses to lead the people. The nuances of just how those two terms would sound to a first-century Jew aren’t available to us, but at any rate we end up with the Messiah, a revered charismatic leader from history, and a new lawgiver for the future.
No, says John, no, no, no. None of the above. If I am sure of anything, I’m sure of who I’m not.
The calling committee from the Pharisees are getting frustrated at this point, and they say: Look, we have to take some answer back. They sent us here to find out your identity. What do you say about yourself? Who are you, if you’re not any of these three things?
And John replies, in the words of Scripture, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" John didn’t go on a fascinating journey of self-discovery and then express himself by sharing it. That’s not what identity means to him. Who John is is defined by the call and the identity God has given him: to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. To say it even more briefly, who John is is defined by who Jesus is.
Now I doubt that any of us here have been approached by a search party sent to ask if we’re the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, but we’ve each certainly been offered any number of images on which to base our identities, or we’ve come up with them via our own journeys of self-discovery. Who are you? How do you define yourself? Where do you get your value and identity?
None of us would claim to think we’re the Messiah, but some of us do spend a lot of time trying to fix and change and take responsibility for others or a lot of energy making ourselves feel indispensable. None of us would claim to think we’re the great historical figure Elijah, but some of us do put a lot of weight on our backgrounds, our family or educational or work pedigree as a place where our value comes from. None of us would claim to believe that we’re the new version of Moses the lawgiver and leader, but some of us do get pretty caught up in power, in getting things done, in engineering situations to work out the way we want them. We do this because it seems to us like it will provide identity or value, or because other people whose esteem we crave seem to require it to acknowledge our identity or value.
People talk about a Messiah complex, but you don’t have to have a Messiah complex or an Elijah complex or a Moses complex to get confused about who you are and who you’re not. You just have to be human and a sinner, like the rest of us. You just have to be in the habit of starting out, like the rest of us, by seeking your value and identity anywhere else but in God.
I say “like the rest of us,” because that’s who we’re talking about: everybody. This is not something just Biblical characters do, it’s not something just one kind of people do. It’s something human beings do. Whether we do it in a big way, by embarking on a fascinating journey of self-discovery that bores our dinner companion to death, or just do it in the small, routine building up of daily habits that keep us depending on ourselves or others.
John had been freed from those dependencies. You can tell by the way he flat out rejected any identity other than his real one. Are you this? No. Are you that? No. No, no, no. Then what do you say about yourself? "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'"
Because John knew who he wasn’t, he also knew who he was. The only identity that defined him was not something he found within, constructed to satisfy himself, or chased after to live up to others’ expectations. It was the identity that God gave him as a gift. Who John is is defined by who Jesus is.
And that is exactly, precisely, the same case you and I are in. We are designed to look to Jesus for our identity, to be named and chosen and treasured by him first and foremost. To approach God based on Jesus’ pedigree, not ours; his works, not ours; his value, not ours. If we are Christians, waiting for us down at the most primal level of our being is an identity and value from God that comes as a gift in Christ. Available to us at any moment is the kind of bedrock assurance that gave John the freedom to look a bunch of powerful Pharisees in the face and say “no, that’s not who I am.”
If we are Christians, we hold title to that freedom and that assurance. You may or may not have claimed it, but you hold the title. Who we are is defined by who Jesus is. And this is something nobody can ever take away from us.
Are you the Messiah? No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the prophet? No. Are you this, are you that, are you a failure, are you a good girl, are you your merits and demerits, your wardrobe, your wit? Are you your bottom line or your mistakes or your losses or your gains? No, no, no. Who I am is defined by who Jesus is. I have not been on a fascinating journey of self-discovery recently, and I would not like to share it with you. Thanks be to God, we have far better things to talk about.