Avoid the Pigeon-holers

Rick Scott was a healthcare executive who became governor of Florida last January. He pushed through a law requiring drug tests for all state employees. Before I continue, please note, as governor, Rick Scott is a state employee.


Last Wednesday, Governor Scott had a press conference. One of the reporters at the press conference was one of those fake reporters. Fake news seems to be getting more popular these days. This reporter’s name is Aasif Mandvi who works on Comedy Central’s, “The Daily Show.”


Mandvi asked the question, “You benefit from hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars over the year, so would you be willing to prove to Florida taxpayers that you’re not on drugs?” Mandvi offered the governor a cup and asked everyone in the room to turn around to give Scott privacy in providing a specimen.


Scott responded, “I’ve done it plenty of times.” The governor then quickly moved on to another reporter for a question.


This was done partially tongue in cheek. I say partially, because people in high positions of authority tend to make rules for everyone else and ignore those same rules for themselves. Congress is an example. They pass laws that we need to observe and make themselves exempt from the law. Workplace rules are oftentimes different for the executives than from the front-line employees.


This is far from unique to our times and our country. Double standards have been part of human history for as long as history was recorded. It is this double standard that makes itself evident in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees set rules for everyone to follow, but use different rules for themselves. And certainly, no one can be out baptizing anywhere without their knowledge and consent.


But in order to figure the baptizer out, the Pharisees send out a delegation of priests and Levites. Now they can’t figure out John without trying to pigeon-hole him. They need to put John into some kind of category to understand him. What they didn’t understand is that John is not the person they needed to be concerned with. And John the Baptist’s proclamation is important to us today, because John witnesses to Pharisees the coming messiah.


English: "Saint John the Baptist" (c...

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Our gospel reading begins in John’s prologue. John’s prologue is read every Christmas Day. Today, the emphasis is on John the gospel writer’s references to John the Baptist. John, the gospel writer, was talking about Jesus as the light coming into the world. To back his argument, he makes John the Baptist as a witness to the true light coming into the world.


Two notes: The first is that John, the gospel writer, employs a lot of legal terms. John the Baptist is not proclaiming, like a preacher would. John the Baptist is testifying as if he were on a witness stand. John, the gospel writer, is not giving a theological argument (though he really is) he is giving a legal argument: Jesus is the light of the world and John the Baptist attested to that proposition.


The second observation is that John, the gospel writer, makes it explicit that John the Baptist is not the light coming into the world. John the Baptist is merely the witness. It is Jesus who is the light. I suppose that John, the gospel writer, would not have to mention this unless there was some confusion about whether or not it was Jesus or John the Baptist who is the light of the world. In fact when John wrote his gospel, there were still a sizable number of followers of John the Baptist. John, the gospel writer, wants John the Baptist’s followers to switch to Jesus.


John the Baptist’s activities caused a stir in Judea and Jerusalem. The religious officials were very interested in taking control of the situation. They wanted to know just who this guy was baptizing people in the Jordan. After all, John didn’t get any special training. He never went to seminary. He isn’t certified and licensed by the state. Just who gave him permission to do what he is doing?


Skipping to verse 19, John, the gospel writer, explicitly gives John the Baptist’s testimony. The priests and Levites are the prosecutors. (Levites are the assistants to the temple priests. The “Jews” in John’s gospel refers to the Jewish religious leaders.)


The first question they want to know is who is John the Baptist. Someone’s identity in the ancient world also includes the person’s family. One’s family determines one’s status in society. They want to know John’s pedigree for baptizing people in the Jordan.


John’s answer is probably not what they expected. They were concerned about someone doing their job without their permission. John’s answer was far more than they bargained for. John the Baptist is not the messiah. They might have accepted John if he was the messiah. But John is saying that he is not a messiah and that he is baptizing without messianic authority. The way John, the gospel writer, puts it is as a confession.


The next question is whether John the Baptist is the great prophet Elijah. As noted last week, the prophet Malachi said that Elijah will come back and announce the coming of the messiah. John denies being Elijah. (But the other gospel writers equate John the Baptist as Elijah.)


So they next ask John if he is a prophet. John denies being a prophet, though John the Baptist is saying a lot of prophet stuff.


All of those questions asked by the priests and Levites would establish John’s authority to baptize if he had answered yes to any of them. A “yes” answer could also expose John to political scrutiny that might lead to an arrest, because a yes answer would challenge the authority of the priests and possibly Rome.


Exasperated, the prosecutors then ask John to identify himself. John’s prophetic response is from second Isaiah that he is proclaiming a straight path for the Lord. This is an ambiguous response. Chapter 40 of Isaiah makes no claim as to who is going to cry in the wilderness. John is making his claim that he is that messenger.


The quote also seems out of context since second Isaiah was written to give hope to the exiles that they will be restored in Jerusalem. But that already happened. What John the Baptist seems to be saying is that he is preparing the road for the messiah.


The prosecutors were not satisfied with John’s answer. Since John was not an acceptable person to be baptizing, in other words, not the messiah, not Elijah, and not a prophet, then why on earth was he doing all this baptizing stuff?


Again John fails to give a direct answer. He deflects the answer and the issue. John downplays his actions. He just baptizes with water – no big deal. But there is someone coming that is a lot bigger than John. John may be saying that he derives his authority from Jesus.


John, the gospel writer, next tells us where all this took place. It is in today’s geography in the country Jordan. Jordan’s government has built a park at this site of John the Baptist’s ministry. The next verse we didn’t hear today contains the punch line with John upon seeing Jesus declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”[1]


John the Baptist is the lead witness in a trial about the nature of Christ. Jesus is the word, the light, the messiah. The world is a dark place, but God is sending a light into the darkness. In this regard, John the Baptist is a signpost – one through whom we recognize the word and the light.


John did not come to decorate for Christmas. John did come giving us an example – to avoid those who need to put everyone in a category. We are not easy to categorize. We prepare for Jesus by heeding Jesus’ teachings. If we ask, “What would Jesus do?’ We are asking the wrong question. What we need to ask is, “What would Jesus have us do?”


Text: John 1:6–8, 19–28

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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