In a popular song by The Who called “Who Are You”, the chorus repeats a line time and time again: “Who are you?” That is the question that is asked to John the Baptist in our Gospel reading for today. As we see in the text, it tells us who John the Baptist is: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Even though John the Baptist is not Jesus, there seems to be an identity crisis on behalf of the priests and Levites. There were those who thought that John the Baptist was the promised Messiah. They went to him to be baptized, seeking something more than he could provide. They expected him to be more than who he was; they expected him to do more than he was capable of doing. But he had a single mission: “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.”
There are many times where we confuse the messenger with the message. If we receive bad news from a doctor, we often blame the doctor for the illness, even though he has nothing to do with. John the Baptist clearly understood that his purpose was not bearing witness to himself and his own greatness, but glorifying the Savior. The great privilege of his calling was expressed in the life of John, for he was true to his conviction: “He must become greater; I must become less.” But for the priests and Levities, they wanted to know exactly who he claimed to be and what it was that he was going to do.
For the Jews, they needed an answer to who this John was. They sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him who he was – not trying to trap John in what he says but instead merely wanting to know who he is and what he is about. John took no pleasure in pretending to be someone whom he was not. He very easily could have said that he was the promised Messiah and no one would have been the wiser, at least for a while. John did what he was called to do: proclaim Christ. He’s not the Christ. He’s not Elijah. He’s not the prophet Moses promised back in Deuteronomy 18, the prophet who would, in fact, be one and the same as the Christ. John was content simply to announce the coming Lamb of God.
In John, we see a prophet doing what he is supposed to do. A prophet is supposed to confess the Christ. When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” A true prophet is a true prophet because he proclaims the truth. He proclaims the truth because that is what God gave him to proclaim. The truth might make people sad. The truth might terrify people. The truth might make people angry. In fact, the truth might make people angry enough to kill the prophet. Nevertheless, the prophet tells the truth that he received from God. What is that truth that John received from God? “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
The sad thing in today’s Gospel is that the men in the delegations wanted to know who John was, but they didn’t want to hear his message. When John told them that the Lord was in the crowd standing among the people, they weren’t impressed. As far as they were concerned, no one in the crowd looked especially Messianic. Jesus has no special form or comeliness that makes Him stand out; apparently, there is no beauty about Him that makes Him attractive or desirable. Jesus is just another face in the crowd, and a face in the crowd simply couldn’t be the Messiah. Their problem was that they had preconceived notions of who the Messiah was to be and Jesus didn’t fit the bill. John, the forerunner of Christ wasn’t who they thought the herald of the Messiah would be. Here stood before them a man eating wild honey and locusts. He probably was more unkempt than others were. He didn’t exactly shout forerunner of Christ. Their preconceived notions blinded them to John and his message of Jesus. Their preconceived notions blinded them to Jesus, the one who would save them from their sins.
Nothing has changed in 2000 years. There are still those today whose preconceived notions dictate to them who Jesus is and what He has come to do. People see Jesus as a great moral teacher, but nothing more. People see Jesus as just one of the many ways to heaven. People see Jesus as an example to live by. People see Jesus as their personal life coach. Jesus is not a moral teacher. Jesus is not one of the many ways to heaven. He is not an example to live by. Jesus is not a life coach. Jesus is the Babe in the manger, come to live a sinless life for you. Jesus is the Babe in the manger, come to die on the cross on behalf of you to forgive you all of your sins. That is who Jesus is and that is what John the Baptist came proclaiming.
Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s message is about the One who’s infinitely greater than we, because He was before us all, for we are the work of His hands, even as we are also the creatures of His own redeeming. He came among us as one of us precisely so that He could serve all of us. He shouldered our sins as He carried His cross, and He died our death and shattered our hell, and by overcoming the sharpness of death He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Truly, the Son of Man did not come among us to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as the ransom for many.
As the season of Advent approaches its midway point, John the Baptist does the Church the service of focusing all the joy of the Church entirely on Christ. John’s words remind us that the joy of the coming days isn’t found in presents and a jolly man in a red suit, but the unspeakable joy is found in the One who came into this world through a manger to meager parents, to be our Immanuel, God with us. It is this Jesus who was the unexpected Messiah, who came to give you life in His name. Amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.