I’m not the Messiah…

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. This is the news that John the baptizer is presumed to bring. And John’s Gospel weaves the story of the Word – the Light – the Son of God, together with this messenger – this puzzling preacher – this ‘other’ John in a very deliberate way. Yet John the baptist is not the figure we want to hear from. Ten days remain; the desperation is starting to creep in to our preparations. There’s not enough time left for the baking and the decorating – some shopping remains undone, and some of us have yet to mail our Christmas cards…John the Baptist does not fill us with ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but his is a voice we really must hear. The baptizer will ensure that we are fully prepared for Christmas, so when he appears in the midst of our annual rush I, for one, am relieved.
Jesus’ story cannot be separated from this strange, insistent figure in the wilderness. Luke’s gospel suggests that there is an actual kinship between the two men – their mother’s are related by blood – but whether or not they are related, where John is, Jesus soon follows; it’s only natural, then, that when he is questioned, John the Baptizer takes Isaiah’s words and apply them to himself:
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’

John isn’t found wandering about shouting these words like one who has lost touch with reality. In John’s gospel, the Baptizer appears rational, sensible and fully aware of his surroundings. It is the questions posed by the religious authorities that draws this prophetic description from our hero.
The people have seen John at work, and it is their appeal to the religious experts – the priests and Levites – to discover if this is a man sent by God. These are not evil, authoritarians; they are interested in this new voice, and hopeful that it might represent the one they have been waiting for.

John’s gospel takes us right to the heart of their discussion. “Who are you?” they want to know; John’s response is, at first, baffling;

“I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not ‘the prophet’ ” This is not ordinarily how you answer authority. If a lawyer, or a police officer asks you your name, would you say “I’m not Stephen Harper.”? (perhaps you would if you were interested in a free ride and a night’s lodging…) – but John wants to be clear; he knows that there is more to their question than just a request for basic information. He shares their heritage, and he shares their desperate longing for the salvation of God – he is not going to manipulate their expectations, or feed them a story designed to elevate his own activities (quite the opposite, in fact). John (the baptizer) knows his role, and he wants to be sure everyone is clear about what he is doing, and (more importantly) what God is already doing.
I’m not the Messiah. I know that’s what you want, but we’re not there yet. In your haste to examine me, you betray your anxiety – your impatience – but God’s ways require infinite patience and the utmost endurance. All must first be prepared; your patience will be continually tested; your flaws will be examined and your excuses exhausted, until you are open and eager for the new way that the one coming after me will pursue.
This is the reminder that we need – here in the middle of December; with our patience exhausted, and our preparations in chaos – John speaks truth to our delusions, and we should listen.
John is more than just an echo of the ancient promise. He is that voice of preparation – the reminder that every generation needs, calling for an awareness of God’s presence in our chaotic reality. Our current preparations – the buzz that starts as early as mid-November for some – are geared toward what we call ‘the holiest of nights’; and we have turned it into something else. We don’t know what we’re waiting for, and we don’t know what to expect when this long-promised redeemer finally appears in our midst. John called those he baptized to repentance, and he calls us in our anxious waiting to remember what it is God promised.
God’s people are still caught in systems of oppression who, as a result, are exiled from the peaceful presence of God. God would have us back, but on God’s terms, not ours. Seek justice, do mercy, walk humbly, says the voice of ancient wisdom – yet this is not what we have been preparing for. Our preparations exalt ourselves – satisfy our cravings – justify our personal sense of power and authority. Yet the one who is to come – who has come – who is coming – is more powerful than any and all of us; Messiah has the power to reconcile us to God.
I’m not Messiah. I am a messenger – as are all who dare to call themselves God’s people – witnesses to the slowly unfolding promise of God that always finds us unprepared, yet nonetheless urges us to recognize the beauty, the gravity and the remarkable freedom that promise holds. The joy of this blessed season is in our hope of discovering the truth about the One John proclaimed, for in Christ we meet the promise of redemption – a word which here means we are welcomed as full partners into God’s continuing works of justice, mercy and peace. These surely are tidings of great joy, for all people.
Thanks be to God. Amen

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