A Quick Determination

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, RCL John 1:6-8, 19-28

Painted choir-screen sculpture depicting John the Baptist being questioned by priests, Levites, Pharisees, tax collectors and the crowd. Cathédrale d'Amiens, France John the Baptist disputing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu [retrieved December 12, 2017].

A voice calling out in the wilderness. Didn’t we hear this last week? We did, but there are some striking differences in today’s Gospel. Last week we seemed to almost get enveloped by the scene around us. This week we are bystanders listening to John being examined by some Jewish leadership. Five times they ask him questions and twice they ask, “Who are you?” In their interrogation, we discover who John is not. He says I’m not who you think I am. “I’m not the Messiah.” And I’m no one else you are thinking of.

The priests and Levites come on a mission, sent from a higher authority, their teachers. There questioning clearly foreshadows the interactions we find later in the gospels with the leadership and Jesus. The leaders are trying to pigeonhole John into something they can understand. They want a nice tidy answer to take back to those who sent them. They want to say he is a prophet or more likely, he believes he is a prophet, But this is not what they get. They get answers that are opaque and mysterious. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

We have an advantage over these priests and Levites. We have read the ending of the book. We know how to put John’s message into context. We even have the author of this Gospel telling us that John is not the light, he came to testify to the light.” And of course, we know who the light is.

I wonder if, in our own lives, we find ourselves being more like the priests and Levites. We ask questions yet we believe we already know the answers. Or maybe we already have answers before we even begin to ask questions. We may see a man panhandling and automatically think he is an addict or a fake and a fraud. We may see someone with a yard that isn’t picked up and we may say they are lazy. We may see a house where people are coming and going and say they are drug dealers. Whatever the scenario is, we tend to judge based on some visible criteria instead of asking questions to find what lies behind the situation.

The priests and Levites came into the wilderness knowing the answer that John should give them. He is a prophet or he is Elijah. I wonder if they are so wrapped up in their answer that they didn’t really take time to listen to what he is saying or watch what he is doing. They seem to hardly take any time to understand what is going on around them.

To truly understand people in their context takes time. We cannot pass someone by and assume we know what is going on in their lives any more than these Jewish leaders could quickly make a determination of who John the Baptist is. It is unrealistic for us to make time to understand each person’s we pass by but it is also unreasonable that we live with our preconceived notions about them.

Every time we reiterate our preconceived notion, even if we just say it to ourselves in our heads, we reinforce the falsehood into our conscious mind and we believe this falsehood to be more and more true. How can we begin to help those in need if we already believe we know what the problem is? How can we even find Christ in each of these persons, if our first instinct is to think negatively of them? We are called to be generous, not only with what we have but with what we think. Even if we cannot make time for these people, our first thoughts should come from empathy, then we are more likely to find Christ as well.

The problems of poverty and homelessness do not have a clear answer. The solutions cannot be generalized any more than an individual person’s life. The priests and Levites seem to also demonstrate how uncomfortable we are with questions that do not have clear answers. They, like us, want things to fit into our nice and tidy boxes. We want answers that we can get our minds wrapped around.

I also find that when we don’t have the ability to make a clear determination we often joke about it or we just become silent and try to ignore the issue.

Which came first the chicken or the egg? To some people, this is a fascination question stirring debate. Others just joke about the question while others yet don’t even want to be bothered; for it is just too annoying. Depending on your personality or you age these are all normal ways of dealing with such questions. But what about other questions; more important questions. What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? Who or what is God? How does Christ manifest himself in the Eucharist? Any of these questions take time to wrestle with. There is no one perfect answer that satisfies our curiosity. And we have to be humble enough to know that we don’t know, especially when it comes to God.

During John’s interrogation, we clearly hear what John is not but we also can deduce what he is. John is a man. He is baptizing people in the wilderness. He is proclaiming the coming of one who is more powerful. Anything more is a bit of a mystery. To claim that he is a prophet takes a bit of faith and understanding in what he is saying.

We can look at any of us; a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, a stay at home parent. We can see what you do but that doesn’t answer who are you. Who you are is a bit of a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. Why did John the Baptist not follow his father in becoming a priest himself? Why did he go to the desert, dressing like a prophet and acting like a prophet? Maybe he didn’t realize this is what he was doing.

He went to the desert to baptize for this is what God was calling him to do. He was asking people to return to their faith, their Jewish faith, and repent for their sins. He was preaching and teaching because this is where God had taken him. The parts and pieces of our lives help make us who we are but there is more. They are not the entirety of who we are. John the Baptist may not have realized that he was a prophet any more than a person who saves someone from a burning building knew that they were a hero in that moment.

Our lives are full of mysteries and unanswered questions. We can choose to joke about them, ignore them or wrestle with them. When we do wrestle with these difficult questions, we often get a glimpse of the answer even if fleeting. What I find to be true is that it is God who knows who we are, and what we are. Christ knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows our condition and keeps us present before God. This is why we have great hope that every detail in our lives that we do while following God in love is worked into something good.[i] If we do not struggle with hard questions, then how do we know if we are even attempting to follow God? And if we do not fully understand ourselves, Why do we think we can make a quick determination of others?


[i] Romans 8:26-28 (The message)

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