Like the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, John does not provide any information about Jesus’ childhood. In Matthew, the narrative jumps from Jesus’ birth to the activities of John, whom Matthew and Mark call the Baptizer. Likewise, immediately following the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, John who first was mentioned in verse 6 is reintroduced, though not with the title of “Baptist.” Instead, he is described as one who witnesses to Jesus’ identity rather than one who baptizes. However, the religious leaders want to know who John is. They ask three questions aimed at determining a label for John: “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” Then they repeat the first question, “Who are you?” You can hear the frustration rising in their voices.
John, however, is clear about who he is not. When the religious leaders ask him, “Who are you?” in Greek he responds, “egō ouk eimi hō christos” (“I am not the Christ”). Here, John’s negative response foreshadows that Jesus will repeatedly say who he is. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus will use the phrase “egō eimi” (“I am”). Sometimes he will add a descriptor, for example, “the bread of life” (6:35) and other times he will not (6:20). Egō eimi is how the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, expresses the divine name of God, the unpronounceable name signified by the tetragrammaton, YHWH (in the NRSV Old Testament it is printed as “LORD”). John the testifier is being clear that he is not the incarnate one of the God, as Jesus is. When the religious leaders continue to question him, his responses become more and more terse: They ask “Are you Elijah?” he responds, “ouk eimi” (“I am not”). Then they ask, “Are you the prophet?” and he simply says, “no.”
Despite the religious leaders’ best efforts, John refuses to be labeled by them. However, he does describe himself in the words of Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” but that doesn’t really satisfy the religious leaders. “If you are none of these we have mentioned, then why are you baptizing?” John doesn’t give them a satisfactory answer, but again describes who he is in relationship to Jesus, who has not yet been named at this point in the Gospel.
Over the next three days in the Gospel narrative, as John continues to baptize, he begins making declarations about Jesus. When he first sees Jesus, he calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “Lamb” brings to mind the Passover Lamb who was sacrificed in Exodus 12, but that lamb was not associated with the removal of sin. John’s Gospel, however, will make further associations between Jesus and the Passover Lamb, placing the crucifixion on the day prior to the start of Passover when the lambs were sacrificed for the feast. Next, John the testifier describes Jesus as one who ranks before him. Then he recounts how Jesus’ baptism unfolded (without claiming to have baptized Jesus). Finally, he identifies Jesus as the Son of God.
As the Gospel story continues in 1:35–51, John’s disciples also provide a variety of titles for Jesus: Rabbi, Teacher, Messiah; which are so far positive titles, pointing to the “good” in Jesus. But one soon-to-be follower, Nathanael, labels him “no good” based upon where Jesus comes from: Nazareth (first century Galilee’s “middle of nowhere”). Next it is Jesus’ turn to “label” others: Jesus identifies Simon as the “son of John,” then gives him the name Cephas (an Aramaic name equivalent to the Greek name Peter). Then Jesus turns to Nathanael, but he does not engage in the “turn-about is fair play” game that is so popular today when people label their opponent with a worse insult than they were called. He calls Nathanael “good,” “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Suddenly Nathanael’s perspective changes. Instead of seeing someone whom he labeled as “no good,” he now sees Jesus not just as “good” but superlative. He calls Jesus “son of God,” and “king of Israel;” indeed not just superlative titles, but also subversive.
We live in a world that thrives on labeling; we label others, and we label ourselves. In her book Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond, Judith Beck lists labeling as one of the automatic thoughts many people have that may lead to a distorted sense of themselves and the world around them. She defines labeling as “a fixed, global label on yourself or others without consideration that the evidence might more reasonably lead to a less disastrous conclusion.”1 For example, one might say to her or himself “I’m a loser,” or about another person, “she’s no good.” In our current political and religious climate, we often label others as “conservative” or “liberal” (or worse), without really knowing much about that person. With additional information, we might have a fuller sense of ourselves or the other person.
John the testifier does not let others define or label him. He is clear about who he is. Luke’s infancy narrative roots this clarity of identity for both John and Jesus in Gabriel’s announcement of who each child will be. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, heed the angel’s words, nurturing their children in the ways of God. By the time John is an adult, he knows that he is not the Messiah, but the messenger preparing the way for God’s chosen one. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus also has a clarity of identity as the many “I am” statements demonstrate. Jesus’ public ministry begins with his baptism in each Gospel, and he is identified as God’s son. The nurture and instruction that John and Jesus received as children led them to this point in their adult lives: ready to accept God’s call and venture forth without fear.
Help us to hear when your chosen voices proclaim the work of your son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns in this world and the next. Amen.
Cold December flies away ELW 299 There’s a voice in the wilderness ELW 255
Nunc dimittis, Rene Clausen