Eavesdropping on John the Baptist’s inquisitors

IMG_7983I want to take you on an imaginary journey this morning. Imagine the scene. John the Baptist is drawing great crowds and clearly a popular movement is gathering pace. Some clipboard-wielding officials are sent to find out what is going on. They keep in touch with their superiors by phone, so imagine you are listening down that phoneline and can only hear their side of the conversation. It might have sounded something like this.

“Who are you? Who are you? We have to give an answer to those who’ve sent us? We are confused by what you are doing and who you claim to be. So many people are coming out to hear you and be baptized by you. They all think that the end is coming and you are getting them ready for it, repenting and being cleansed so that they are fit for heaven. You have created quite a stir and clearly are attracting attention. We need to know who you are. Some of our traditions are expecting Elijah to come before the end, before God comes in great triumph. Are you him? You look like him with your hair shirt and leather belt and weird taste in food – who eats locusts and wild honey except Elijah? You must be him.

There is an odd verse in Chronicles (2 Chronicles 21:12) about him writing a letter from beyond the grave to King Jehoram, warning him about how he was behaving like his father Ahab and abandoning the true worship of God. So may be you are him – if he can write a letter after death, may be he can reappear? Malachi also said that Elijah will come again, so it’s not a completely crazy question.

Ok, not Elijah. It was a long shot. He was taken up into heaven a long time ago, nearly 1,000 years ago, so that would be strange. So if you are not Elijah, who are you?

You’ve already said you are not the Messiah. Some of us aren’t that convinced about a coming Messiah any way but some are looking for him. You don’t look like a Messiah, much more Elijah and prophet like, but we have to eliminate all possibilities on our checklist. Not Elijah and not the Messiah.

Are you a prophet? Some of them dressed like that. Zechariah (13:4) mentions that prophets will wear a hairy mantle ‘on that day’, so you’ve got the wardrobe. You could be. But the ones he is talking about are ashamed of their visions and so they try to pretend they are something else, and you don’t look ashamed. So may be that one doesn’t fit after all. Moses gave commandments and led the people through the wilderness, but you’ve come out of the wilderness. Joshua led our ancestors across this river to enter the Promised Land, so are you about to lead us in a new conquest? Are you about to stir up trouble and lead a rebellion against the Romans? We need to know just where this is going?

So you’re not a prophet either. Who are you?

You’re a what? A voice? Crying in the wilderness?  You’re clearly more than that. Look how many people have come out to hear you, to see you, to be baptized by you. That’s more than a voice. You are the main attraction, mate. If you are just a messenger, why are you baptizing?

Let me get this straight. You’re doing this to point to someone else we can’t see, we haven’t met and we don’t know who they are? That doesn’t make sense. We need to give a clear answer to those who’ve sent us. They won’t be happy with that. OK there are those who say that the Messiah will be hidden until he suddenly makes a dramatic entrance. Is that about to happen then? If so, where is he?

Oh he’s coming is he? And you are not worthy to help him take his sandals off! This is all very puzzling. How will we know who he is? What will be the sign? Will he do great things? Will he look like a leader and a King? We have a checklist for that too you know. But you’re saying it’s not you. You want us to look elsewhere. You’re just the warm up act, reminding everyone that their ultimate hope lies in God. So, we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled, keep alert; watch and wait!”

And with that they ended the call and went on their way. Those who had been listening in were left wondering just who this amazingly popular man was preparing for. So much longing, so much hope, so many dreams to be fulfilled. So many questions. Who could possibly meet those? Who could possibly match, even exceed, all of that? That person would truly be a wonder to behold. And his the greatest story every told.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 3, Sunday 17th December 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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