I Am Not the Christ
According to the angel who spoke to Elizabeth before her baby was born, the child who was to be named John would be for the world a herald of the Messiah who was coming. “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah,” the angel told her.(1)
And so it was. Calling all who would hear to repent and believe, the New Testament writers report that John was to the world what God promised. He was sent to prepare the way for the coming Lord, to prepare hearts to recognize God among them. “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God,” proclaimed the angel. This John did and continues to do.
It may seem odd to some that this untamed, locust-eating figure of John the Baptist is one of the key figures in celebrating the Christmas season. His wild and probing message continues to cry in urgency, “Are you ready,” and for this, despite the sentimental and domesticated visions of Christmas common to our era, is a cry worthy of the bizarre and jolting doctrine of Incarnation. Are you ready to respond to the fragile infant that came into the world through a manger in Bethlehem? Are you ready to hear him, see him, consume his flesh and blood? Are you ready to recognize God in body among you, the hunter, the king, the great I AM? The testimony of John was essentially tame compared to the mystery of an incarnate God. Repeatedly John insists, “I am not the Christ, but truly and fearfully, there is one who is.”(2)
The Incarnation, this embodied presence of God, bids us not only to remember God’s descent into a dirty stable in Bethlehem, but to keep ourselves awake to the reality of God’s descending upon the thresholds of our lives. As John called the people of Israel, so the Incarnation continues to sound the consequence of this mystery: Keep yourselves clothed in readiness, for God is near.
Yet even John, who was the first to recognize Jesus for who he was, leaping in his own mother’s womb at the arrival of the pregnant Mary, struggled through dark and confusing times, wondering perhaps if God was indeed near. Thrown in jail by Herod, John’s certainty seems to be challenged for the first time. “Go and ask Jesus,” John told his disciples, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” One can almost see the fog coming over the message of light he preached so confidently. “If this man is who I thought he was, why am I in this place?”
With John in mind, it is fitting to note that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once compared our waiting on God to the waiting that is done in a prison cell, “in which one waits and hopes and does various unessential things… but is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” It is a dramatic metaphor, particularly from one who stood imprisoned himself, chained for standing up to the Nazi’s, waiting for them to deal with him as they would. Bonhoeffer saw clearly something we forget in the midst of a sentimental holiday: the Incarnation is about God breaking through the door that we ourselves cannot open. And in fact, all year round, the Incarnation is our promise that God will come breaking through once again.
I have always wondered if Jesus’s response to John’s question frustrated the prophet behind bars or if it is my own frustration so easily read into his words. Jesus didn’t offer a clear and certain answer for the alone and imprisoned baptizer, but invited John to answer his own question. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see,” Jesus told John’s disciples. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”(3) We are not given John’s response.
Sitting within his quiet cell, perhaps John recounted the conversations he had with Jesus. Perhaps he even heard again the words God had placed on his own lips. “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). God was moving, came the report from outside the prison, though John sat alone and waiting. The question that permeated the prophet’s testimony thus became a question Jesus seemed to ask John himself: Are you ready? Are you ready for a redemptive God who continues to do the unthinkable?
(1) Luke 1:17.
(2) See John 1:19-28.
(3) Matthew 11:4-6.
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