“Who are you?” One wouldn’t have thought it was so difficult of a question. But John’s answers shows that he is not the least bit interested in talking about himself. He’s got another he wants to talk about, and so he says: “I am not the Christ, not Elijah, not the Prophet.”
This leaves his questioners unsatisfied. They HAVE to have something to say to those who sent them. John simply has to fess up to who he is. They press him more and so he says: “Fine. Call me a voice. A voice crying out in the wilderness, just like Isaiah foretold: Make straight the way of the Lord! Are you satisfied? That’s me. I’m that voice!”
But no, they are NOT satisfied with that answer. Because if he’s not Messiah, not Elijah, and not the Prophet, then why is he baptizing? By what right does he plunge people under the wave and lift them out again as a people prepared and waiting for the Lord? Why is he doing this?
John’s answer to that question is very interesting. “I baptize you with water.” We expect him to go on and talk about the One who is coming who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire. That’s what we expect. But it’s not what we get. Instead, John takes off in another direction: “But there is one among you whom you do not know.”
Was Jesus standing in crowd watching the whole thing unfold? Did John’s eyes twinkle a bit as He said it, and glance toward the Lord as he spoke? The Jesus whom the Jews missed is his theme. John the Evangelist put it like this: “He was in the world and the world was made by him, and the world did not know him.”
How easy it was to miss the man who looked just like any other man. Nothing special in his outward appearance. “He had no beauty that we should desire him” the prophet Isaiah had said. An ordinary Joe in a crowd of ordinary Joes.
But you see, that IS why John came baptizing. Because the One who sent John to baptize told him: “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, He it is who will baptize with the Spirit.” John himself confesses: “I did not know Him; but that He might be revealed to Israel, I came baptizing.”
The baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist is the great Theophany and revelation of who Jesus is: the Beloved Son of the Father, the One on whom the Spirit rests and who gives the Spirit without measure. The divine Second Person of the ever-blessed Trinity in human flesh and blood, true man and true God. This John would see as he baptized Jesus. But it was only a momentary glimpse and then Jesus looked the same as always. Just an ordinary Joe again.
But John, having had that momentary unveiling of this One, knew that His calling, His whole ministry consisted in pointing people away from Himself and to this One who stood once with him in the water and was declared God’s only-begotten Son. His testimony to Christ by and large flew in the face of what people actually saw. That’s how it always was with Jesus. Shepherds see the heavens opened and hear angels singing and are told that the Savior Christ is born – but when they arrive in Bethlehem to worship Him all they see is a poor baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, reposing in a manger in the stable-cave. When they crept in and knelt before Him and looked at Him, there was nothing visibly divine about the little One. He was just a baby. Oh, every baby is a miracle. But this baby who was God in the flesh was very much your ordinary Joe of a baby. And yet he had been revealed to them as the Son of God.
The wise men, with their gifts, must surely have marveled that the one honored by a star as the newborn King should look so, well, plain and peasant like. They had come to Jerusalem to find a King and ended up worshipping before a beggar child on his poor mother’s lap. This is the King so long awaited? But the star did not lie. It revealed the truth that they couldn’t see.
“There is one among you whom you know not.” John’s ministry was to make him known. To invite us to look beyond what we see and to believe what we hear. John, greatest prophet of all, confesses himself utterly unworthy to get down on knees and unloose that One’s sandals – the job of menial slave was far too great for the greatest of the prophets to perform on the likes of Him.
“He who coming after me was before me.” For though he was born in the flesh after John, by some six months, in His divine nature He was before John, before Zechariah and Elizabeth, before David, before Moses, before Abraham, before Noah, before Adam, before time itself. Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be. After John and yet before John. As our Lord would later say: “Before Abraham was, I am.”
He is the One John witnesses to: we are not worthy to serve Him in the least way, and yet, miracle of miracles, He who was before time came into our flesh that He might serve us. He came to off-load our sins and to carry them all with Him to His cross, to die there the death that was ours, and so to break the bondage of sin and destroy the dominion of death. He came to rise again to open the way into the Kingdom of heaven for all believers. To restore us to the glorious destiny God had planned for us all along: to be His children and to share in His divine glory as heirs of the Kingdom.
Until the Last Day, He comes among us in His humble and hidden way: the same One who was laid in the manger, worshipped by Shepherds and wisemen, who stood among the crowds, unmarked by any but His prophet and fore-runner, He is among us in ordinary-looking bread and wine that are His body and blood, in His usual humility and tenderness, to give us forgiveness to lift us to the life that never ends.
So, you see, it’s not about John. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s not about who we are. It is all about who He is and what He does, our Jesus, the One who is among us, Emmanuel. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.