Who are you?

December 4, 2016

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith using 1 Kings 18: 17-39; John 1: 19-28 at Choral Matins on Sunday 4th December 2016, Advent 2.

Who are you? Who do you think that you are? Who do other people think you are? How do you introduce yourself to people who do not know you? How you answer will depend to a certain degree on context. People generally seem to introduce themselves in one of two ways: either they will say what job of work they do (or, if retired, used to do), or they will talk about their relationship within the family. There are of course other ways of saying something about yourself. You can talk about your interests and hobbies. You can say something about your ethnicity, religious or political affiliations. And if you are feeling particularly brave, perhaps you may feel it relevant to say something about your sexual orientation. None of these answers give the whole picture as to what makes up the totality of you. All they can do is give the person that is meeting you for the first time pointers into what makes you tick, or perhaps more accurately what you think makes you tick. Armed with the answers you might give to this new acquaintance, they will then pretty quickly have a sense of how you are likely to behave in their company. If you were to behave in a completely different way, the questions with which I began are given more of a cutting edge as they need to be asked again and more urgently. Your new acquaintance wont be able to understand you at all. They may even make fun of you, ignore you, see you as a threat to their world view that needs to be tackled head on.

It seems to me that this is the position that the Pharisees find themselves in in relation to John the Baptist.  Because John’s father Zechariah is a priest, and as all Jewish priests are descended from the house of Aaron, they want to know whether John considers himself to be a priest as well. If he does, they would have expected him to be acting in a priestly way by being based at the Temple in Jerusalem and, after ritual cleansing of himself, offering worship to God there (including  offering animal sacrifices)  on behalf of the people. And what better way to do this than by including  priests in their deputation  to find this out.  It is clear for all to see that John does not consider himself to be a priest, despite the fact that because of his lineage, in the eyes of the Jewish authorities he is one. So the question  to John ‘Who are you?’ remains unanswered.

This deputation from the Pharisees also includes Levites who in all probability are acting on behalf of the Sanhedrin. John appears to be a preacher, preaching a message of repentance. Does he consider himself to be a prophet too? One of the functions of the Sanhedrin was to decide whether someone is a true prophet sent by God or a false prophet. His behaviour seems as unconventional as some of the prophets of old. Indeed the oddness and unconventional nature of his behaviour seems to be part of  what attracts ordinary Jewish people to him (and by implication away from the official religious authorities).  [And if a prophet, does he consider himself to be the greatest of all prophets foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18 vs 15: where he says

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you will heed such a prophet.” 

 Does he even consider himself to be Elijah come back again [as was prophesied by the prophet Malachi in the last two verses of his book and of the Old Testament where he records:

“Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”

In our first reading this morning we have been reminded of how he tackled those who were tempted to follow false gods, or to be more precise, follow a false God when also purporting to follow the one true God, even using humour to drive home his  message and actions. In Jewish thought, it was believed that Elijah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah. By way of preparation, amongst this returning Elijah’s functions would be to settle all disputes, to decide who were true practising Jews and who were not.  John does not only consider himself not to be Elijah, but he also does not even consider himself to be any kind of prophet. So again the the question  to John ‘Who are you?’ remains unanswered.

John nips an another question in the bud before it is asked when he says “I am not the Messiah” either, however that concept was to be understood. He was not the person who would initiate peace all over the world, bring in the reign of righteousness, turn Jews into world conquerors, nor deliver them from Roman oppression. This time it is an unanswered question as to John’s true identity that itself remains unanswered.

One can imagine the deputation sent by the Pharisees being beside themselves with frustration by this time, wondering what on earth they are going to tell their Jewish masters. John insists on telling them who he is not but refuses to tell them who he actually is. John the Evangelist having built up this tension in his text  does then go on to tell us who John the Baptist is by quoting from the prophet Isaiah Ch 40: v 3. This text is so important that all four gospels include it, as by telling us who John is, it is telling us indirectly who Jesus is. Because he is the herald making the world ready to receive the long awaited Messiah, he is after all to be understood in Jewish terms as the last of all the prophets and the returning Elijah. This paradoxical point seems lost on this Jewish deputation who have one more question for John. Why is he baptising? A kind of baptism did exist at this time. It was not for Jews but for proselytes, for Gentiles wishing to become Jews who had to be ritually cleansed before being received in to the Jewish faith. But John was baptising Jews. Again what he was doing was flying in the face of the Jewish customs of the day. I wonder what the deputation said to the Pharisees concerning John’s. My instinct is that they could do now other than to make fun of him, that is until a little later he attacked Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife, and that did lead to his imprisonment and eventual execution.

With the gift of hindsight we know that where John was baptising, indeed where he baptised Jesus (and where therefore Jesus’ earthly ministry began) is, three years later, where Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, an act which foreshadowed his own death and resurrection. In Christian baptism, as well as being cleansed of our sins, we are baptised into Jesus death and resurrection.

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we? May I venture to suggest the following might just fit the bill?

We are fragile, fallible human beings who can only make sense of this finite world by setting it within the context of eternity. We can only make sense of creation by recognising that is has indeed been created by a loving being who has and will always exist. The joy of Christmas time reminds us that this same God has entered our human state in the person of a fragile human being. God is thus our source, our companion and our destiny. When asked who God was (and is), Moses was given the answer, ‘I am who I am’. The ‘ever present present’ is the God who gives the context to our existence. This is the ‘God In Christ’ that John the Baptist prepares us to receive afresh.

Heavenly Father, we give thanks for the ministry of John the Baptiser who points us towards your son Jesus the Christ. Open our eyes to recognise the presence of the spirit of your Son in our world today. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear and the sensitivity to discern that your son does not just come into our world at Christmastime, that he has been here since the beginning of time, and will remain until the end of time.

Lord hear us – Lord graciously hear us.

We pray that the church of today may be re-energised by being alert to the presence of your Son in its midst. In our Anglican family of churches abroad we pray for   ………………         In this country, we pray for our Archbishop Justin, for our Bishop Timothy, and   ……………..

Enthuse your church with a desire to minister effectively to the reality of your Son’s presence   not just by what it teaches but how it acts.

Lord hear us – Lord graciously hear us.

 In a world which so often seems to have lost its way, help us all to challenge selfish, simplistic thinking wherever it occurs, especially when this results in the oppression and extermination of others. We thank you for those who continue  to put their own lives in danger in the service of others. We pray for all those who are suffering at this time ……….

Lord hear us – Lord graciously hear us.

 In the sure knowledge of your risen and ascended Son, we pray for all those who have died………………………. We pray for all those who mourn the loss of loves ones. May your light shine in their darkness, a light which no darkness will ever extinguish.

Lord hear us – Lord graciously hear us.