"So they asked him,'What are you then? Are you Elijah?' And he said, 'I am not.'' Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No.' So they said to him,'Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?' He said: 'I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord. Make straight the way of the Lord," as Isaiah the prophet said.' Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him,'Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?' John answered them,'I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.'" - John 1:21-27On New Year's Eve we wondered together about who we are, and more pointedly, who Jesus says we are. Isn't that what the scribes and the Levites and the Pharisees are asking John? Who are you anyway?
Other people want to tell us who we are. Our parents. Our friends. Spouses. Children. We do it to them too. It feels somehow easier if we can fit everyone into a category, give them a label. Who are you? they ask John. Messiah? Elijah? Prophet? They want to get a handle on him, to know what they're dealing with.
We've got our standard ways of engaging once we can fit someone into one of our comfortable boxes. Maybe we know just how we will think about and react to a messiah or a prophet.
But John won't give. He won't be squeezed into anyone's tidy little category. Not Messiah. Not Elijah (appearances to the contrary). Not the Prophet.
John's interlocutors are not so easily dissuaded. They try to pin John to what he does. Who else but a messiah or prophet would be out here baptizing?
Is that how we identify others or ourselves? Do we feel stuck with labels that define us from the outside in? What happens to us when we identify who we are with what we do?
I think we make ourselves too small. Those labels -- occupation or role or ability or disability or race or status or education or income level -- box us in. We allow ourselves to be stereotyped. We caricature ourselves.
I wonder if this is why Jesus admonished his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (e.g. Matthew 16:20). People of Jesus' day had ideas about what that meant. They had a Messiah-shaped box full of expectations, but Jesus knew that the real version that he was here to embody wouldn't fit in that box.
John knows it too, and notice what he finally does to answer his interrogators. He defines himself in terms of the one whose way he is making straight. In the end, John says, as John always says (see John 3:30), It's not about me.
The scribes and Levites and Pharisees are asking the wrong question. If they want to understand who John is and what he is doing and why, they need to look beyond John to the One to whom John's actions point. Only then can they understand who John is.
It's the same for us. Where are our lives pointing? Are we making a straight path for the Lord? The path is not only for us to follow; we lay it for others to walk. If someone traces the path of my life, or yours, where will it lead them?
When the king would come in ancient days, he would tread the path laid by others and all the faithful subjects could follow behind. How are we laying that path today? And how are we following the King as he comes?