“Who Are You, John?” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)
How would you like to be defined in terms of someone else? I mean, who you are, your life and identity–when people think of you, they always compare you to somebody else? Are you like this person? Are you like that person? I suppose it could get old after a while. Why can’t people just take you for who you are, on your own terms? Well, today we’ll meet someone whose life was always being defined in terms of someone else. And you know what? He was okay with it. And so this morning we ask the question: “Who Are You, John?”
“Who are you, John?” And here we’re referring to John the Baptist. “Who are you, John?” This question occurs, in one form or another, five times in today’s Gospel reading. And John answers these questions five times. As we hear these questions and answers, we will discover more about John the Baptist–who he is and who he isn’t–and more importantly, John will direct us to the one he came to testify about. Oh, and in the process, we will learn more about our own identity, who we are, as a result.
As I say, five questions, five answers, about John, who he is and who he isn’t. But before we get to those questions and answers, notice that our reading begins with some verses from the opening of this gospel that tell us, the readers, who John is, and who Jesus is, right off the bat. So we have this knowledge, even before we launch into the narratives of the book. This gives us some perspective, when we then encounter characters in the gospel who don’t “get it,” who don’t know or understand the identity and origin of Jesus and John, because we already do.
So in John’s case, here’s what the prologue tells us about him: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Here we learn, very briefly, what we need to know about John the Baptist. We learn about his identity and origin, who he is, who sent him, what he came to do, and who it is he bore witness about. John is “a man sent from God.” There is his authority to do what he did. He was a man on a mission. His mission was to bear witness, to testify, to tell about what he knew that others needed to know. This witness or testimony was, is, about one called “the light.”
The “light,” as we learn from the rest of the prologue and the rest of this gospel–the “light” is our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the light of the world, who brings the light of God into our sin-darkened world. He, Jesus, illumines our minds to see the truth about God and ourselves. Christ brings light and life into this hall of darkness and death. He is the Word made flesh, the Son of God come from God, full of grace and truth. He makes God known to us.
This is who the light is, Jesus Christ. And this is who John the Baptist came to bear witness to. John’s whole purpose in life is that you would believe in Christ. “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” John does that again here today in our text. He testifies to Christ, in order that you may believe.
So this is what we already know about John, even before we get to the first narrative. We’re told ahead of time about his identity and origin, his mission and purpose. We know who sent him and who he came to talk about. Now we come to those five questions and answers.
First question and answer: “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.’” So this John fellow was getting a lot of attention out there in the wilderness along the Jordan. People were going out to him from all over. He was drawing a steady stream of visitors, including from Jerusalem. John was causing a big stir. This got the attention of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, the movers and shakers, the power people of the religion and the nation. They send out an investigating party to look into this guy. They send some priests and Levites, people associated with the temple in Jerusalem. You know, John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and here is his son–a pastor’s kid, if you will–causing this commotion. Notice, by the way, that they are described as being sent from the Jews. Well, we already know that John is “a man sent from God.” So we know who has the higher authority, and who really ought to be investigating whom.
But they ask John, “Who are you?” Literally, “You, who are you?” putting the emphasis on the “you” and putting him on the spot. And John answers them, literally and emphatically, “I, I am not the Christ.” Notice, they ask him who he is, and he answers with who he isn’t. “I am not the Christ.” They hadn’t mentioned the Christ, but John does. John had been preaching a powerful message of repentance, calling the nation to repentance. He was preaching end-time judgment and salvation. Therefore, thoughts of the Christ, the Messiah–the end-time deliverer promised by God from long ago–these thoughts were not too far away, they were “in the air.” And John says, “No, I am not him.” “But somebody else is,” that’s the implication. The Christ is nearby, he’s right at hand. He is “the coming one,” and he is coming right away.
Now the second question and answer: “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’” Associated in the popular mind with the coming of the Christ was the appearance, or re-appearance, of certain Old Testament figures. One of them was Elijah, the great and fiery prophet from hundreds of years earlier. Elijah had been taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire, and the expectation was that Elijah would reappear shortly before the arrival of the Messiah. In fact, there was a prophecy in Malachi, where the Lord says: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
And in a sense, you could say that John fulfills that Elijah prophecy. In fact, before his birth, the angel had told his father Zechariah that this child would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” As a grown man, John the Baptist’s appearance and ministry recalled Elijah, wearing a rough garment of camel’s hair, a wild man preaching in the wilderness, and so on. Jesus would even say of John, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” But John the Baptist was not Elijah reincarnate, and he didn’t want the discussion to get sidetracked on that topic. So he answers briefly, “I am not.”
Third question and answer: “‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’” “The Prophet.” Again, this is a figure with an Old Testament background. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses tells the Israelites: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen.” So there was an expectation of a great Moses-like prophet to come in the end-times. Only, it wasn’t John. He answers, “No.” In fact, this prophecy is really fulfilled by Jesus himself. Remember how on the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, then they disappear from sight, and the voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Yes, listen to him, listen to Jesus. He is the ultimate one, coming from God, speaking the truth. “It is to him you shall listen.”
Now the fourth question and answer: “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.’” At last John tells us who he is, stating it positively, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” But even here, notice how John doesn’t put much attention on himself. Instead, he identifies himself simply as a “voice,” a voice whose function it is to tell people about someone else. John is getting things ready for the arrival of someone else, namely, the Lord. That’s who John wants to talk about.
“Who are you, John?” “I am not the Christ.” “Who are you, John? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Who are you? Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Who are you?” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” That brings us, then, to the fifth and final question and answer: “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.’” This is the question of authority. “John, what gives you the right to be doing what you’re doing? Who do you think you are, calling us to repentance, baptizing people, claiming some authority from God?” John points them again to the one greater than himself, the one who gives power to his baptism. “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.” John turns the question around. His questioners were the ones who were supposed to know things. They were supposed to be the religious experts. Yet they did not know, they did not recognize–nor would they–the very Messiah sent from God.
In fact, these religious leaders would reject the Christ, the Savior sent from God. Not just John, but even more so, Jesus, would experience rejection and hostility from the leaders of the nation. They hated Jesus. He exposed their hypocrisy and false leadership. Jesus came from God, speaking the truth, shining the light of truth into dark and hidden places. And for that, they killed him. They had him condemned to the cross, there to die as a common criminal. “Among you stands one you do not know.”
But, my dear friends, you know him! You know Jesus. You know him to be your Savior. You know the one who shed his blood on the cross to deliver you from the darkness of death. You know him as the one who gives you the light of life in its place. You know Christ to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, even your sin. John the Baptist tells you, and your preacher today tells you, about this Christ, in order that you may believe, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
“Among you stands one you do know.” You know who he is and where he came from, and as a result, you now know who you are and where you are going. If someone were to ask you, “Who are you? What is your identity?” like John the Baptist, you can confess the faith. Today you can answer: “My life, my identity, is defined in terms of someone else. I find my life–my true life, my eternal life–all wrapped up in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is my life. I know who I am and where I am going, because of him.”
So how do you like being defined in terms of someone else? When your life and identity are bound up with Jesus Christ, I think you, like John, are perfectly fine with that.