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John 1:6-8, 19-28
Dear Friends in Christ,
Who are you? Think about all the ways that you could answer that question. You are all someone’s son or daughter. Some of you are a husband or a wife. Some of you are a mom or a dad. Some of you are grandparents, others are grandchildren. Some of you are employers, or self-employed. Others are employees. Some of you are teachers, others are students. There are lots of different ways we could answer that question, and the way in which we answer the question, “who are you,” says a lot about us.
John the Baptist had been gaining popularity. Large numbers of people from Jerusalem had been traveling into the wilderness along the Jordan River to listen to what John had to say. He was from the priestly line of Levi, but he was different. He wasn’t serving in the temple courts, he lived and preached in the wilderness. He didn’t wear a priestly robe, he wore scratchy camel’s hair and a leather belt. He didn’t take his share of the fellowship offerings but ate locusts and wild honey. He was under a Nazarite vow like Samson and Samuel, so he never cut his hair and never touched alcohol. He reminded the people of the Prophets they had heard about, whose words they had heard read to them in the Synagogues. So many people were flocking to John that the Jewish leaders decided they better check him out. The Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?”
Like us, John could have answered their question in a lot of ways. He could have answered that he was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, both of whom were descendants of Aaron. But he knew they weren’t really asking about his genealogy. They were asking about the rumors that were swirling around Jerusalem about him. Some were asking, “Could this be the Messiah?” Others were wondering if he might be Elijah risen from the dead, or the great Prophet Moses had foretold. They wanted to see if John would claim to be any of the above.
Humanly speaking, it must have been a temptation for John to brag about who he was. He had huge crowds in the palm of his hand. They would have done just about anything he asked them to do, including bring him large offerings, or take up arms to try to get rid of the Roman occupation. And he actually was the Elijah who had been foretold, who would come before the Messiah. But he humbly confessed that he was not any of the things people thought he might be. He was not the Messiah. He was not Elijah, not the way the crowds were thinking. He was not the great prophet Moses had foretold. As John the Apostle introduced him, he was a man, a regular, sinful human, just like everyone else.
Like John, when someone asks us “who are you,” there is a temptation for us to answer in the way that gets us the most notice. We are tempted to mention our highest position with a list of all our accomplishments and responsibilities- “I work at ________, and I have ____ kids, and I do this at my church, and I volunteer at ________. I’m a very busy, important, valuable person.” But our response really ought to be the same as John’s. “I’m just a person, a sinful human like everyone else.” It’s important that we don’t just say that to look good, but that we really believe that we are no different by nature than anyone else so that we don’t look down on others or think that we deserve more blessings than others.
Some people might object, “doesn’t thinking that way hurt your self-esteem?” Yes, if you think that who you are has to come from having an important genealogy and from what you accomplish in life. The world might look at those things as important in defining who you are, but in God’s eyes they don’t matter. To him, you are a sinful human being just like everyone else, and therefore, someone who deserves eternal punishment just like everyone else, regardless of what you did or didn’t accomplish on earth.
John was able to resist the temptation to build himself up and answer the “who are you” question by listing his genealogy and accomplishments because he knew who he was in God’s eyes. He knew he was a sinful human like everyone else, but he also knew that God sent the Messiah to redeem him. He knew that he had been placed on earth for a reason. He was to be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.
He realized that as popular as he was, there is one coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie. And the very next day he would have the privilege of pointing out Jesus among the crowd that had gathered at the river and proclaiming that he, Jesus, is the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He realized that he was included in the world, that his sin was being carried by Jesus. Despite his sin, God loved him, sent Jesus to be his savior, and allowed him to serve him by pointing people to Jesus.
Self-esteem based on what people think of us and on what we have accomplished on earth is not only worthless, but dangerous. It makes us prideful and judgmental. What we need is what John had; call it Christ-esteem. When we ask ourselves “who am I,’ or when someone asks us, “who are you,” instead of thinking about our position in life or our accomplishments, we need to think about our relationship with God. God’s law keeps us humble as it points out our many sins and failures, and that our only accomplishment, the only thing we have earned from God is his wrath. But the Gospel assures us that God still loves us, so much so that he sent Jesus to pay for every one of our sins. Not only that, but he called us to be his own. He adopted us into his family at our baptism. And, like John, he has put us on earth, in whatever situation we find ourselves, for a purpose. Like John, he calls us as father, mother, son, daughter, employer or employee, to testify about the light so that everyone would believe. We are not the light, it’s not about us and our accomplishments, but in whatever we are doing, in whatever position we find ourselves, we are to testify about Jesus, the light.
Those who were sent to question John were not happy with his humble testimony. They reveal that the question they were really asking was not, “who are you?” It was really “who do you think you are?” If you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet, what gives you the right to baptize people?
Again, John faced a temptation to list his credentials. He could have said, “I’m the son of a priest and my birth was foretold by the angel Gabriel. I received my orders from God.” Everything he could have said about himself and his credentials would have been true, BUT then the focus would have been on him, and it wasn’t about him. So he answered, I baptize with water, among you stands one you do not know. He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie. He pointed attention away from himself, to Jesus.
Maybe you have been asked the question, “Who do you think you are? What gives you the right?” Maybe that question was asked or implied when you tried to give witness to the light, to do what John did, call people to repentance and then point them to Jesus. Maybe you’ve been accused of thinking you are better than others because you dared to call something a sin. Maybe you have been tempted to respond to the question, “Who do you think you are?” spoken or implied, but listing your credentials. “I’m your mother, I’m your father, I’m your teacher, I’m an elder, a brother or sister in Christ.” And, like John, you would be right. But, it would be better to point the attention to God instead. It would be better to say with John, “I’m a sinful human just like you. I’m just serving as a voice. Listen to what God is saying. He’s the one who decides what is sinful. He’s the one who wants you to see Jesus as the Lamb who takes away your sin. I am nothing, he is everything.”
Who are you? Who do you think you are? Those questions tempt us to look at ourselves and at things we have accomplished for worth and credentials. Doing that will only lead us to false pride or despair. Instead look at Jesus. See him as the one who never had false pride, who never despaired, who always had a perfect relationship with the Father. See him as the one who took on himself your sinful pride and your despair and paid for those sins in full on the cross. See yourself, no matter what your accomplishments, no matter what your position in life, as a sinner redeemed by Christ. Let that always be your answer to the question, Who are you? “I am a sinner saved by Jesus, a redeemed child of God. God has put me where I am, whatever my position, whatever my abilities, so that I can witness to the light, Jesus. My authority to point out sin and to point to Jesus as the Lamb who takes sin away comes from God. He has called me to be a voice in the wilderness of this dark world proclaiming “prepare the way of the Lord,” straighten out your crooked ways and trust in Jesus. He is the light. He is everything, I am only his lowly servant, unworthy to even untie the strap of his sandal.”
Who are you? You, like John, are a sinner redeemed by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God.