Who do you think you are?
John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
December 14, 2014
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from John is virtually a repeat of last Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Mark. We find John the Baptizer out in the Judean wilderness baptizing people in the Jordan River. Unlike Mark’s gospel, however, John writes about an interesting conversation between John the Baptizer and some priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to question him.
The question they have is simple and direct, “Who are you?”
Why this question? Did they simply want to know his name? Maybe, but more importantly they wanted to know why he thinks he can keep doing what he’s doing, namely, offering a ritual cleansing, a way for people to experience God’s forgiveness in a place other than the Temple in Jerusalem.
So their question is more like, “Who do you think you are?” This is not a polite question. This is an antagonistic question. As people from my previous home state of Kentucky might say, “These are fightin’ words!”
John the Baptizer understood the deeper question, which is “Do you think you are the Messiah?” Messiah wannabe’s were a dime a dozen in those days. I’m sure the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem was getting a bit tired of stamping out Messiah rumors. Unlike the vast majority of the people in that day, the religious elite in Jerusalem didn’t want a Messiah to show up and spoil their party!
John knew this was their real concern, so he says flatly, “I am not the Messiah.” Well then, who are you? Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to do what you are doing out here? Do you think you are the reincarnation of Elijah, the greatest prophet in Israel’s distant past? No, says John. Well then, who are you? We need an answer so we can tell those who sent us out here to this god-forsaken place.
Quoting Isaiah, John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight our God’s road!’”
Okay, well, that’s a nice piece of scripture, but seriously, what gives you the right to engage in an unauthorized religious ritual out here away from the Temple. You realize the Temple authorities are getting a little upset at how you are stealing some of their flock. If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or some other super-prophet, then who the heck are you? Why are you baptizing people? Come on now, we need an answer!
John continued to be a bit coy in his response: “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.” Was Jesus standing there listening to all of this?
Here’s why they are angry: John the Baptizer had started an alternative religious community, one that thumbed its nose at the recognized institutional face of religion in that time and place.
Does that sound familiar?
This raises the question for those of us in our own alternative religious communities in the 21st century: Who do we think we are? What gives us the right to do what we are doing? That’s a good question, and there’s really only one good answer, an answer written in the book of Isaiah about six centuries before John the Baptizer and Jesus appeared on the scene.
Here’s the answer: “The Spirit of Exalted YHWH is upon me, for YHWH has anointed me.” That’s what gives us the right to do what we are doing.
Religious groups all have their various ways of validating a person’s ministry. As Catholics, we are validated by apostolic succession and the laying on of hands. That is, presumably our validation goes all the way back to St. Peter. We also go through a vetting process, acquire a theological education, and undergo psychological tests to make sure we are of sound mind.
As people in an alternative Catholic community, we can have the Church’s blessing or we can excommunicate ourselves by going through an ordination process, but when it comes right down to it, the only thing that matters is whether or not the spirit rests upon us. The only thing that matters is whether or not God has anointed us to do God’s work.
This applies not just to those of us who wear robes and stoles. It applies to all of us because all of us are in ministry. My husband, a Protestant minister, informed me that some congregations in his tradition like to list “all the people” as ministers of the congregation.
In some ways, this is the dirty little secret the religious elite in such places as the Vatican and other religious institutional headquarters don’t want us to know, that we are all anointed to do God’s holy work, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. We have all been called to comfort those who mourn. We are all validated.
What John the Baptist encountered at the edge of the River Jordan is what we in our own contemporary alternative religious communities encounter every day: the questions and suspicions and lack of validation from the headquarters of those who are in power.
And although we know deep down in our souls that we have been anointed by God’s spirit to do what we are doing, perhaps our response to our critics should be as coy as John the Baptizer’s response: “I baptize with water. Among you stands, however, one whom you do not know.”
This begs the question: Do we recognize Jesus when he’s in a crowd of neglected faceless and nameless people? That is why people were coming out to John at the River Jordan in the first place. They had been neglected by the traditional religious institution of that day.
This is a great text for our alternative religious communities because it reveals that even as time marches on and history produces so much change, some things never change at all. There will always be those in power who are suspicious of anyone who tries to provide an alternative route to God’s peace, love, hope, and joy.
So, can we show as much or more compassion as those who enjoy traditional institutional validation? That’s our challenge and our calling. The Spirit of God is upon us because God has anointed us . . . to enlarge our circle of compassion to include those who are sometimes neglected by traditional religious institutions.
This is especially true as we now find ourselves waste deep in the waters of the holiday season. It’s very easy to lose sight of our calling to do God’s work because the jingle bells often muffle the voice of God and the decorating and gift giving frenzy often obscure the plight of those who may not have the means to enjoy the festivities.
In other words, it is very easy to be neglectful during the holidays. There are those who suffer from loneliness with much more severity than usual at this time of the year. There are those who can’t be home for Christmas, for whatever reason, maybe because they are locked up in one of our many prisons.
The neglected, the unnamed crowds of faceless people are out there, and our alternative communities have surely been called to serve them, and yet we sometimes get so wrapped up in our own Christmas joy that we forget those who do not have the option of joy. Let’s not let that happen this year.
So, who do we think we are? We are nothing more and nothing less than those on whom the Spirit of God rests, humble people who have been anointed to bring peace, love, hope, and joy to others.
It’s a simple calling, really, but like John the Baptist at the River Jordan, it is a calling to nourish the dry spirits of those who have journeyed through the wilderness.
And by the way, none of us are worthy enough to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.