John the Baptist returns for Advent 3B (John 1:6-8,19-28). But do we handicap the truth by expecting honesty in response to a dishonest question?
Advent 3B | John 1:6-8,19-28
read, listen, or read while you listen!
Who are you?
This is the question the priests and Levites were sent to ask.
Sent. By whom? The Pharisees. So why are the Pharisees sending the priests and Levites like these are servants sent by the lord of the manor? Like private investigators hired by a jealous spouse? Or like slaves sent by a master?
“Who are you?” they are to ask. Innocently, of course. Innocent in appearance, but far more sinister in intention, I’m afraid.
Who are you? is never really that innocent a question.
It is no more innocent than a man baptizing in a river.
No Innocent Question
These priests and Levites are sent to find out about this radical rule-breaker baptizing good people of faith outside the big city. Setting the scene clearly is essential.
These are Hebrews, followers of their faith walking in the opposite direction of their house of worship and toward an unauthorized ministry at the river. And the man they’re getting baptized by didn’t go to an approved seminary or get ordained by the right bishop. Even the baptism as an act is wrong.
The priests and Levites are sent like information gatherers and ambassadors to size up this guy and report back. Their “who are you?” is a loaded question.
So when they get the chance to ask it, John can see it’s loaded. He answers the question they don’t ask. The hidden one. It says “he confessed ‘I am not the Messiah.’ He confessed like the accused.
This is no innocent question they ask.
Then they pepper him. Is he Elijah or a prophet? Who are you? Tell us!
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
This is his confession. He is the preparer of The Way.
They ask about the unauthorized baptism and he says that one is coming who will make this into the very coming of God.
This not-so innocent question gets a not-so innocent answer.
This week, many of us listened to an interview which included the writer Anand Girdharadas. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but as a first generation American (his parents are from India), he’s used to people asking him not-so innocent questions.
He describes his experience of being asked “Where are you from?” And “Cleveland, Ohio” is never the right answer. It is, of course, right to the question they ask, but not the one they mean. As he describes it, their real question is “why are you brown?”
The Real Questions
So when we ask the question “Who are you?”, what are we really asking?
Girdharadas helped me find these three versions of the same question:
1) It’s a material question. Who are you is a way of gathering material details by which one can be categorized. What is your name? Who are your parents? How are you described in words and concepts? So in other words, how can I define you or what box can I toss you in?
2) It’s an existential question. It’s a way of asking about one’s greater existential character. Who are you really? On the inside? What is your great calling to the world? Are you on my side or theirs?
3) It’s an inquisitive question. It’s a way of intentionally asking a different question which can’t be asked out loud.
They ask “Who are you?” but they’re really asking John “By what authority do you get to speak? What are your credentials? Why can you break the rules?” Or perhaps it’s another way of saying “I don’t know you and we’re supposed to know everybody.”
We Fear Honesty
The question, “Who are you?” is rarely innocent. Even when it’s genuine. Because it’s full of fear and confusion. When we ask it, we’re gathering information and deciding if we can trust you.
That’s why we ask guarded questions. Because we’re afraid of what it would mean if we actually were honest about it. So we’re afraid to go first. To show our hands and be the first to offer honesty and intimacy.
And with good reason. We’ve gotten burned. Like saying “I love you” and not hearing it back.
But when we read this story of John and is interrogators together, we can see beyond this moment. We know that they aren’t being honest to John and that they have the authority to have him killed. And we already know that they will.
And yet, even when we know all this about these guys, we still expect John to rise above them and answer their dishonest question as if it’s honest. We can see this in the world around us! We let dishonest people ask dishonest questions and expect the honest to answer honestly, even when they’re walking into traps.
Often we struggle to see that the fundamental dishonesty in the question makes answering it honestly impossible.
John doesn’t give them a satisfying answer. But he does, however, give them a far more honest response than they deserve. Because he reveals a truth none of them is prepared to receive.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
And I imagine the crowd is surrounding them. In the center are John and these priests and Levites interrogating him. And from the middle of this circle, John tells them that Jesus is among them.
“Among you stands”
He is there.
In their midst.
Standing among them.
Is he among the crowd or among the priests and Levites?
Could the Messiah be of such low status?
They’re so busy peppering John with cagey questions that they’ve lost track of their purpose. They’re so focused on the mission their Pharisees sent them on, they’ve lost the mission God has called them to!
The Messiah is among them!
But if he really were there, wouldn’t they know it? Would we know it? Do we?
In The Episcopal Church, we don’t do altar calls. Nor do we say the Jesus Prayer or ask each other if we have accepted Jesus into our hearts. None of these are part of our tradition.
But we join our brothers and sisters in raising up the value of knowing Jesus. We recognize the importance of our relationship to him and to one another as reflecting our love of God.
This is why the priests and Levites’ interrogation of John is so galling to me. It’s not their ignorance of the presence of Jesus, but their ignorance of the relationship with God which Jesus embodies. A relationship of trust and mutual concern. It’s the fruit of jubilee and the essence of the Law itself!
They go to John with skepticism and distrust. They hide their intentions behind innocent sounding questions. And then have the gall to think he should be completely upfront with them—answering their questions honestly.
They expect a dishonest question to be answered honestly.
And John does. Sort of. It’s just not in the way they want him to.
He tells these rule-breakers why he’s breaking the rules: because God has come to change them. And God’s agent of change is right here with you.
The love revolution has begun. Can you not see it? All these people around us can!
As we approach the day we’re all waiting for, we get these stories to prepare us. Stories which help us to prepare the way for the Incarnation. To make the path straight.
And today, we’re given the opportunity to see again how important honesty and intimacy are to that preparation. How these guarded interrogations don’t help the priests and Levites or the Pharisees sending them in to spy. Their self-preserving intentions don’t save them—they blind them to the presence of Jesus!
Unlike John and these crowds of people flocking to the river, whose eyes are open. May ours be as well. And may the honesty and openness of our hearts reveal the truth: that Jesus is already among us.