And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to 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, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28 ESV)
Starting into the Gospel of John yesterday, I read this paragraph – more familiar turf, but a sudden point of recognition.
Not exactly a spectacular epiphany. Really just a reminder.
So here are these priests and Levites from Jerusalem sent by Pharisees – which is an interesting collaboration there to begin with since Pharisees and priestly types weren’t exactly hand-holders with one another. It’s always a good indication of just how riled up people are when you see people who normally wouldn’t be seen together in the same huddle. John being from a priestly family, perhaps the Pharisees thought some priests and Levites might just loosen his tongue a bit and give them something useful as they evaluated his theological threat level to the current system.
I never really noticed before just how frustratingly evasive and “circular” and nebulous John the Baptist must have sounded to them. It’s a simple question. “Who are you?” John directly eliminates the first category he knew was lurking in their mind (highest threat level). “I am not the Christ.” Okay, so far so good. Now let’s work through the other categories in descending order. “Elijah”? I am not. “The prophet?” No. John really isn’t giving them a thing. I can see them, looking at each other, waiting for him to say something. Please give us something! Which is finally what they literally say to him, blowing any cover they might have had. And John says…
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
You know, it reminds me of that interview with Rob Bell on MSNBC (wasn’t it?) when reporter functioned more like religious inquisitor. I’m not sure who was frustrated – the reporter asking his questions, Rob Bell trying to answer, or me trying to watch. But watching that exchange and reading this one in John it suddenly dawned on me that Bell’s greatest crime may simply be that he’s spent too much time in John. Reading on through John 5 yesterday only confirmed this feeling from John’s interview with priests – Jesus seldom in the Gospel of John gives what we would consider a straight answer!
“Who are you?” they ask. “I am a voice,” John answers.
They don’t even try to follow John through that answer back into the messianic guts of Isaiah 40 and beyond. They just go right back over their categories again.
Not the Christ. Not Elijah. Not the prophet. Right…then what are you doing here in the river?
“I baptize with water, but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, whose strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Well that clears everything up. End of interview.
I found myself admiring John’s pluck – and reading on through the early pages of the Gospel Jesus’ similar refusal to allow himself to be categorized by religious sorters. And I am struck by that innate, deep driving need we seem to have to categorize and sort and file each other – a need that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be transformed by religion but fed by it. So natural for us to categorize, are you this or you are that. So hard, so truly divine, to actually take the time to see and hear each other as we are, and to receive the unique and often unexpected thing God might have for us to receive from that person we were just about to file away.