This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. 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.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
This story is very familiar to all of us and there are many lessons to be learnt and blessings to appreciate within it. But there are two main things which strike me about it today.
The first is the importance of knowing ourselves, particularly in relation to God. When I think of myself, it’s usually in relation to other people, for instance, how much worse (or very occasionally!) better I am than them. We live in a competitive society and it rubs off on us all. But at the start of this passage, a group of very important religious people come to ask John who he is in relation to the holy people they want him to be like. I don’t know about you, but if someone important whom I respected told me I was like a very holy person, I’d just agree with them and be incredibly proud. John doesn’t do this. He rejects all their ideas and plans for him, and tells them exactly who God says he is, and then what God has given him to do. Sometimes in the middle of all the good and bad advice which comes our way, all we have to do is stay true to God’s vision for us, no matter how much other people disagree with it.
The second lesson of this passage is the importance of approaching other people in the same way. Just as we are only truly ourselves in God, so too are other people. John and Jesus are related, no matter how distantly, as their mothers are kinsfolk. We all have a view of our relatives that probably hasn’t changed much since we were teenagers, or younger! However, people we know well or are related to do change, sometimes very significantly, as God has His gracious way with them. Here John doesn’t see a relative, with all the assumptions and limits that come with that; instead he sees a man through whom God is about to do a great and miraculous work. He doesn’t just see Jesus. He sees Christ. In the same way, we should respond to those we know well through the light of what God is doing with and in them now, and not in the light of what we know about them from the past.
Dear God, help us to see ourselves and those whom we know and love through your eyes, rather than judging them in the light of past experience. Amen.