Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Very Denying Denial

The dog that barks usually bit.
Whoever smelt it dealt it.
Whoever denied it supplied it.

Do you remember the childish back-and-forth over which kid it was who passed gas? Maybe I’m the only one who grew up in such puerile circles, but I suspect others are familiar with the logic of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Ever suspect a child of causing trouble and then have your suspicions confirmed by an overly denying culprit? One of my favorite Nooma videos by Rob Bell is “Lump,” and it starts with a story about one of Bell’s sons denying the theft of a small white ball in a weird, Urkel-like refutation. We can tell when someone goes so far out of his or her way to claim innocence that that person ends up suggesting his or her guilt.

So what’s the deal with John the Baptist? In John 1, the Jewish authorities send priests and Levites to go and investigate what was behind John’s ministry. They arrive at the Jordan River, where John was baptizing, and they ask, “Who are you?” Perhaps they forgot the pleasantries that are normally associated with such an encounter—like “Hello, there. We’ve heard about you.” Regardless, their question seems innocent enough. “Who are you?” It’s open-ended. It isn’t accusatory. It gives John the ability to say as much or as little as he wants.

But what is his reply? “I am not the Messiah.” John the Gospeller, the editor who is bringing all of this together, introduces John the Baptist’s comment with some even stranger language: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” Seems pretty suspicious to me.

Now, before we go any further, let’s stop for a moment and derail all of the conspiracy-theory hijinks and say that John the Baptist wasn’t pretending to be the Messiah. This isn’t him denying something so firmly that we discover his guilt. But the nature of the denial—both by John the Gospeller and by John the Baptist—suggest that others in the crowd were a little suspicious. Think of this overt, over-the-top, triple denial as both Johns’ way of saying, “This might be an exciting prophet who has grabbed the attention of a multitude with his sharp message of repentance, but he isn’t who you might suspect he is.”

So what’s the point of this passage? That’s the real question for the preacher. This series of questions for John the Baptist by the Jewish authorities (the priests and their kinfolk, no less!) is intended to show us what it means to wait for the coming Christ. After the long list of denials, John’s eventual self-identification as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” lets the reader know that John and his ministry are about making the way between God and his people straight. God comes to his people not in the person of John but in the person of Jesus. But God’s people have some “work” to do to get ready for the coming Messiah, namely be baptized.

It is remarkable to me that the priests and Levites associate baptism with the work of the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. They seem surprised that John, although not one of these, is still baptizing. Their surprise lets us know that their expectation for the Messiah or one of the prophets of old includes a call to a purification ritual. But John’s understanding of baptism is different. He knows that baptism isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning. Baptism is in preparation for what else will come. “I baptize with water,” he says. “Someone standing among you who is more powerful than I is coming, and he is holy to the point that I am not even worthy to untie his sandals in order to wash his feet. He’s the one we are getting ready for.”

Yes, this story is about repentance, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about repentance that points us to the coming of the Messiah. It’s about repentance so that the path between God and his people will be straight. It’s about repentance that points not to itself but to the good news of what is coming.

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