Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”
… “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” …
“I baptize with water … but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (verses 19-20, 23, 26-27)
There is the sound of a drumroll rumbling under the dialogue of this passage – it starts low and steady, then grows in intensity. Changing the image, it’s as if an elastic band is being pulled tighter and tighter, ready to be launched. Anticipation mounts.
The questioning by these priests, Levites and Pharisees is focused on John himself. Already we can feel the beginning of confrontational hostility just below the surface. But also curiosity. “Then who are you?” they ask (verse 21). Again, “Who are you? … What do you say about yourself?” (verse 22). “Why then do you baptize …?” (verse 25). Their curiosity is piqued, focused on him. Indeed the eye of the religious elite in Jerusalem is turned in John’s direction. That’s why all these questions are being asked, getting more and more pointed. John is creating a spiritual stir and the keepers of religious propriety are investigating.
But John, by inches, turns the focus away from himself. “I am not the Christ,” he says, already raising anticipation that someone else is. He turns aside every suggestion of his identity. Elijah? No. The Prophet like Moses? No. Anticipation tightens. Then who?
John answers by reaching back into Isaiah’s prophesy and claims one of them for himself. “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” If that’s true, he implies, then you’d better keep your eyes open, for the Lord himself is coming! The drumroll intensifies.
But these religious investigators aren’t satisfied with expectant anticipation. They stay focused on John. They want to pin him down. “If you’re not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, why do you baptize?”
John’s answer bring us to the brink, but leaves us hanging. He grabs hold of the issue of baptism and sets up a comparison between himself and the One who is coming. Indeed, as recorded in the other Gospels, he immediately completes the thought. “I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). That’s how the other writers report this conversation. But not here. In this Gospel, the comparison simply dangles – the Baptist leaves everyone hanging till the next day (verse 33).
Instead, at this point he drops a bombshell. “He’s here – you don’t know him, you don’t see him, but he’s here. He stands among you. Yes, right now. He comes after me, but he is so much greater than me, I am not even worthy to do the lowly task of taking off his sandals for him.”
I imagine these religious leaders, hanging in anticipation, immediately start looking around. “Where? Where is he? Where is this one?” Heads must have been turning, curiosity raging. They want to see. Right then. But they have to wait. Till the next day.
Ironically, the next day they have the chance, but they miss it. They miss Jesus. Indeed, they will miss him all the way through the rest of this story.
It’s a cautionary tale. Don’t miss the one who comes, baptizing with the Spirit. Don’t miss the Lamb.
Don’t miss Jesus.
Lord Jesus, thank you that your desire is to make yourself present to me, right here, right now. Help me see. I open my eyes. I receive.
Reflect: Take time right here, right now, quietly in the Lord’s presence. Open the eyes of your heart. Pause. Linger. Then, take him with you into your day.