John the Baptist: Secure in his Calling

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end; John 1:6-8, 19-28
A Sermon preached by Rev Graham Hamborg on 13th December 2020

Who are you? In one sense, a straightforward question for someone to put to us. We could give our name, and if a little more was wanted we could say that we live in Liss, and we do such-and-such a job or are retired. If pressed further, we could say whether we are single or married or widowed or divorced, and whether or not we have children.

But what if our questioner were to press further: No, I mean: Who are you inside? Who is the person that you see yourself as? What would you say about your identity? How do you see your role and purpose in life? That’s a different kind of question, one which we might not feel able to answer quickly, in a few sentences, and indeed one which we might feel is intruding on our privacy. Although if the questioner was someone close to us who we know and trust, we might be willing to join in an exploration of indeed, just who am I?

In today’s gospel reading messengers from the Jewish authorities come to John, and say to him “Who are you?” And John seems to be ready for their questions, and is able to answer clearly and confidently.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, and the focus in the church’s calendar on Advent 3 is always John the Baptist. Someone who we know our Lord, Jesus, held in high regard. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus accepted baptism at John’s hands. And later on in front of crowds, Jesus said of John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John.” And then he adds: “Yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The significance of what Jesus said is that the appearance of John is a transition point in God’s great drama of salvation. John is the last great character of the era of the Old Covenant, the final Old Testament prophet. And he points to the One who is to begin to bring the Kingdom of God into being, to Jesus. And that breaking in of the Kingdom of God with the coming of Jesus makes Jesus the first person in the new era, the era of God’s Kingdom among us. Which is why even the least in the Kingdom of heaven ends up being greater than John.

But if Jesus held John in such high regard, we surely do well to do likewise, and see what we can learn from John. And so this morning I want to look at just one aspect of John to see if we get any help in answering the question of “Who am I?” – not my name and address, but what is the nature of my identity? And what I suggest this morning is that John shows us is someone entirely secure in who he was – and we might, add, in who he was not.

The first thing that everyone was wondering was: is this perhaps the promised Messiah? In the gospel reading in John 1:20 it says: “He confessed and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’.”

Wow, to be the Messiah, the Christ, that would be something. The one to usher in the Kingdom. The one to begin to roll back the powers of evil. The one that everyone is looking to, to set things straight. How cool would that be.

And undoubtedly there was some pressure from the crowds and from particular followers to accept that title and that role. We know that John had disciples, because later when he was in prison some of them come to Jesus with a message and a question from John. And it’s possible that a “John for Messiah” movement carried on for some years. In Acts 19 we read of some believers in Ephesus who Paul stumbles upon, who have been baptised with the baptism of John; and Paul persuades them to be baptised again, properly, in the name of the Lord Jesus, at which point they then receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s thought by many scholars – and this seems right to me – that the opening chapters of John’s gospel have as a side-aim, as well as making the name of Jesus known, to make clear too that John, who was such an important figure, nevertheless was a lesser figure than Jesus. And so as we heard spelled out in the prologue to the gospel, there came “a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the testify to the light… He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” It’s a rather laboured bit of text, but if there were still people around when it was written trying to promote John as Messiah, perhaps that’s why.

So John was not the Messiah, and was not tempted to claim such a role for himself, and said so freely and firmly. Well then, the messengers ask: “What then? Are you Elijah?”

Elijah was the great prophet of old who, it says in 2 Kings 2, when it came to his time to die, he didn’t – instead he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. And part of Jewish expectation in the first century was that Elijah would come ahead of the Messiah to prepare his way. This expectation just squeezes into the Old Testament. Malachi 4:5 says: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Then in the period between Old and New Testaments, the expectation grew, and many Jews expected that Elijah would come to prepare the way of the Messiah.

So was John Elijah? And John answers simply, “I am not!” So then, not the Messiah, not Elijah. So the messengers ask: “Are you then ‘the prophet’?”

This one is perhaps less familiar to us as an expectation. But it refers to a promise in Deuteronomy 18:15 to the people of Israel settling in the promised land. Moses speaks and says: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” Whatever the expectation may originally have meant, by the first century there was an expectation in some Jewish circles that this prophet like Moses would also come either as the Messiah or ahead of the Messiah. So the messengers ask, “Are you then the prophet?” And John answers simply: “No!”

Well then, they ask him, what do you say about yourself? And John answers in words from Isaiah 40: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”

And his hearers would have known the full text: “In the wilderness prepare a way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill laid low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”

The picture language used is that of preparing for the coming of a king or of the emperor. We know what happens when the Queen is due to visit somewhere in our day. The streets are cleaned up, the rubbish is cleared away, the graffiti is cleaned off the walls, the pot holes are filled in, any homeless people are quickly found homes or moved on. We’ve got to get this place looking at its best for when royalty comes. And so it was in the ancient world too. If the king or emperor was coming in his chariot, the roads and paths needed to be in good repair, the pot holes filled, any rocks or boulders cleared out of the way, the uneven ground made level, as it says, and any bends which would slow the emperor down needed to be straightened out.

And John says: that’s what I’m about. I’m baptising people because the King is coming, and people need to clear the muck and rubbish out of their lives, and be washed clean ready for his coming, so that they will welcome the Kingdom of God that he brings.

So John, the baptiser, sees himself as preparing the way by getting people to be baptised and clear the way for Jesus to come into their hearts and lives. What deep self-understanding, what inner assurance about who he was, and what clarity of purpose John had.

I wonder if we have such assurance about our identity, and who we are. I will readily admit that there have been plenty of times in my life when I have envied the gifts of others, or have wished that I could do what I see them doing. Equally there have been times when I know I have undervalued myself, and have played down the times when the Lord has used me. Both are wrong.

In Romans 12:3 Paul says: “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought” – and I always want to add – this wasn’t Paul’s temptation, I think – “Nor more lowly than you ought.” But work out how God has made you, what you are wired up to do well and naturally, and what you are not wired for, and relax into who you are, with your unique identity.

John did not aspire to be the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He seems to have felt no jealousy or dissatisfaction about Jesus being the greater of the two. But nor did he say that he was a nothing or a nobody. He had worked out his calling in life.

I once had a colleague who used to say that we should all write a short mission statement about what we were trying to achieve in our work. And then that we should do the same in respect of our whole life and existence. To put in two or three sentences how we understood our purpose in life, and what we thought God had put us here for. I did try, but didn’t find it easy, and I don’t carry any such personal mission statement for my life around with me. But my colleague’s idea was a good one .It is good, with the Lord’s help, to be comfortable in our own skin, and pray through who the Lord has made us to be, and what he does call us to do, and what he doesn’t call us to do.

Years ago in my teens I used to go to Crusaders on a Sunday afternoon. It was run by someone called Robert, although for reasons I never knew about he was always known by the nickname Cuthbert. Cuthbert was a member of his Baptist church, and was often approached to take on some major role or other in his church. He could have been a deacon. He could have preached in church sometimes. As someone who worked in finance, he could have been treasurer. He could have had a lot more kudos in his church than he did. But he always declined, because he knew that his role was to work with young people. And as a result of his self-knowledge and his loyalty to what he felt called to do, a generation of local young people were blessed through him, because he knew what he was meant to do, and did it.

If you’ve had a chance to look at the December parish magazine, you’ll have seen Barbara Harvey’s article on “blessing the children.” Having been asked to prepare a children’s activity on Zoom, she had to get over the thing of comparing herself with others who she thought might be better at these things than her, and just think of blessing the children – and having been present on Zoom for that one, I can tell you that it was very good.

Whether our temptation is to desert our calling and what we are good at in order to try and be something more than we are, or whether it’s to underestimate the gifts that the Lord has given us and how he can use us – whichever it is – John the Baptist shows us that we need to learn to stop beating ourselves up for not being like so-and-so, or for not doing this or that wonderful thing, but that we come to know ourselves better, and above all to accept ourselves, as the Lord indeed accepts us.

And of course, while some things will be distinctive of us, others will be things that we share with fellow Christians. And we need to remember those things that as Christians the Lord declares us to be: In Christ God declares us
• to be his sons & daughters
• to be heirs of a glorious inheritance of blessings to come
• to be righteous, in right relationship with him
• to be ambassadors for Christ in sharing his love with the world
• to be people through whom the light of Christ shines out

These things are true of all of us. And we can accept them about ourselves. We are not the Messiah. But all those statements form part of our identity, of ‘Who we are’.

We, like John the Baptist, can be secure in who we are, in our identity. We can be happy with the person that God has created us to be, and with what he has made us in Christ. And if we can do that, the Lord will use us, in just the ways that he wants to use us.