I Am NOT the Messiah (Third Sunday in Advent)

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As a fan of Monty Python movies, it’s become impossible for me to read today’s Gospel reading without hearing Monty Python in the background!  The Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian” is a spoof about a guy named Brian who’s born in the stable next to Jesus, and because of that fact, sometimes gets confused with Jesus.

At one point, people come up to Brian and say, “He must be the Messiah”, to which Brian retorts, “I am not the Messiah!”  “Aha,” the people say, “only the Messiah would claim not to be the Messiah!  The Messiah!”  And so Brian goes on and on protesting, “I am NOT the Messiah!”

And that’s exactly what John the Baptist is doing in today’s Gospel reading.  “I am NOT the Messiah” he exclaims.  But unlike Brian, the priests and the Levites never even asked him if he was the Messiah.  Yet he feels the need to say it anyway.  “He confessed, and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”

And he keeps going with who he’s NOT.  I am NOT Elijah.  I am NOT the prophet.  He goes on and on about who he’s not. It’s almost like the Monty Python routine. 

Now we’re pretty sure that part of the reason that John (the Gospel writer) includes these words from John (the Baptist) is that we know historically that, in spite of John the Baptist’s protests, there were people who continued to believe that John was the Messiah well into at least the end of the first century.  And it was important for the Gospel writers to make clear right up front that John the Baptist himself said that he was NOT the Messiah.

But I wonder if there’s more to these words than just that.  I wonder if there’s something deeper to John’s insistence that he is NOT the Messiah (or Elijah or the Prophet). Indeed, if he were one of those people, then John’s preaching and John’s ministry might be centered on him and who he was.

But it wasn’t about him.  It was about the One who is to come.  It was about Jesus, and not about John.  And so maybe it was also important for John to remind those who asked him who he was, that fundamentally, who he was wasn’t about himself.

I am NOT the Messiah.  It’s not about me.  And that means that John’s preaching and living is NOT about:

  • Personal fulfillment – John isn’t out in the wilderness telling people how they can be wealthy, happy or less stressed if they simply followed his 10-step plan for spiritual enlightenment.  While John did indeed call people to repentance, it wasn’t their repentance that was going to change their lives.  It was what God was about to do.  God’s action, not the people’s response, or even their preparation, was going to change the world.  It was about God and what God was about to do.  It wasn’t about primarily about the people’s morality or even their preparations.  And it wasn’t about John…
  • Human ability to change or control the world – it is true that John called people to live in new ways – ways that were often counter to the ways of Rome or even the Jewish religious establishment.  But John never believes that if enough people tried hard enough they could transform the world into the way God wanted it to be.  They couldn’t crush Rome.  They couldn’t vote out the puppet government of Herod.  But John knew that God wouldn’t let this stuff stand forever. God was about to do a new thing.  So John called people to live into that new kingdom of God, but without any delusion that they had the power to make the kingdom come.  Yet he was confident that God’s power could and would.  John realized that the power was all about God and not about him…
  • Becoming popular – honestly, nothing that John did caught on!  Very few people lived in the desert, dressed in funny clothes, or thought a diet of locusts and honey was great for your health.  And while John did attract attention, it wasn’t always good attention.  And he never seemed to care if he was popular.  Because, after all, it wasn’t about him.  His job was to announce Jesus, and to live in the light of that message.  Popularity was not a sign of faithfulness for John, because the message was about Jesus, and not about him or his own popularity…

The ministry of John the Baptist wasn’t about John.  And yet, we remember John the Baptist because in some ways he’s supposed to be an example for us.  Hopefully, that doesn’t mean living in some of the odd ways he lived!  But it does mean remembering that our call, also, is to be people who proclaim Jesus in our lives by the way we live.

And when we proclaim Jesus – and Jesus’ presence in our lives and in our world – it also involves remembering that what we proclaim with our lives is about God and what God is doing.  It’s not about us.

And that’s often easy to say.  Of course, I am NOT the Messiah!  But remembering that it’s not about us also means that in our lives individually and as a community, proclaiming Jesus means that being a Christian is NOT about:

  • Personal fulfillment – of course, lots of us find a sense of peace and purpose through God’s presence in our lives.  But what God is about is bigger than us.  And while most of us aren’t into the kinds of “prosperity gospel” messages that tell us God just wants us to be happy and wealthy, it’s still the case that we often hope and expect that somehow being a Christian will make life happier or easier.  But it certainly wasn’t that way for John, or for Jesus, and often hasn’t been that way for millenia of Jesus’ followers before us.  John’s preaching reminds us that what God is doing and about to do does indeed involve us.  But it’s bigger than us.  And that’s actually good news.
  • Our ability to change or control the world – of course, Christians have always been called to be light and salt in the world – and to live in ways that are often counter to the ways our society tells us to live. And it involves doing things that can make a real difference. But especially in the West over the past several centuries, we’ve come to expect that the voices of Christians have the power to re-make the world into whatever socio-political situation we’re sure is what “God wants.”  But the fact is that no human system is finally God’s system.  And our efforts finally don’t bring about the kingdom of God.  Our job, like John’s, is to live into the coming kingdom of God by living differently, even and especially when we can’t change the world around us.  And we do this not because we’ve given up hope, but precisely because we have hope in God’s power and commitment to finally bring about true justice and peace.  And that’s actually good news.
  • Becoming popular, or regaining our popularity – of course, it’s nice when people think you’re doing a good thing and pay attention to you.  But it’s not as much fun to be the church when most people don’t think what you’re doing is all that important, or worth the time, effort and money you’re putting into it.  And frankly, most of us grew up in a society when it was at least considered a “good thing” to be a Christian.  But in the end, being a follower of Jesus has never been about being part of the “cool kids.”  It’s not about being popular, because it’s not about us.  It’s about knowing that God is still present and acting in our lives, even if nobody notices or thinks it’s all that important.  And knowing that God is present no matter what really is good news!

Sometimes, when we’re reminded that something isn’t about us, it sounds like bad news.  But in this case, it actually is good news.  Because if the Gospel were about us, it would depend upon us, and we could mess it all up. But it’s not about us.

Instead, the message of Jesus is the good news that God is doing a new thing in our lives, even when the world around us doesn’t see it.  The message of Jesus is the good news that God’s coming kingdom will happen, even when we can’t fix things in the world around us. And the message of Jesus is the good news that we’re included and invited to live even now into God’s kingdom, but that the coming of that kingdom doesn’t depend upon us.