When Jews from Jerusalem sent a group of priests and officials to ask John who he was, he was completely honest. He didn't evade the question. He told the plain truth: "I am not the Messiah." They pressed him, "Who, then? Elijah?" "I am not." "The Prophet?" "No." Exasperated, they said, "Who, then? We need an answer for those who sent us. Tell us something—anything!—about yourself." "I'm thunder in the desert: 'Make the road straight for God!' I'm doing what the prophet Isaiah preached." Those sent to question him were from the Pharisee party. Now they had a question of their own: "If you're neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, why do you baptize?" John answered, "I only baptize using water. A person you don't recognize has taken his stand in your midst. He comes after me, but he is not in second place to me. I'm not even worthy to hold his coat for him." These conversations took place in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing at the time. // John 1:19-28, The Message
I think it’s interesting that those of us in the modern Christian movement give the Pharisees a really hard time when we read the Gospels. We tend to think of them as something of a foil, and perhaps that is how the writers of the Gospels wanted us to experience them.
Yet, as I read and process the Gospels more I am coming to realize that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were very similar to the Christians of our day.
One line in this story punched me in the face: “We need an answer for those who sent us.”
An aside: If you’re of a certain age, your mind likely just pictured Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson yelling at each other in a court room.
I think it struck me because as I look around at our world it feels like many of us are shouting, “WE NEED AN ANSWER!”
During times of great uncertainty, distress, or suffering we desperately want to know why and we want answers. When I was in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina most of my conversations boiled down to, “We need an answer.” As I’ve walked through various heartaches with people the questions are inevitably boiled down to, “We need an answer.” There is something comforting about having answers. We really don’t like uncertainty at all and mystery is not something that we tend to be comfortable with.
John gave them answers. But, they weren’t satisfied. They wanted more. There was never an end to the questions that they wanted answers to. John engages with them but his responses cause exasperation on their end and even more questions.
I think that what we see in John is someone who was trying to lead people toward a life of faith. Faith is living in the midst of uncertainty and embracing it for the beautiful mystery that it is. When we live in faith we are left with a sense of wonder, awe, and hope. Faith calls us toward a posture of learning and humility.
When John and Jesus show up they upset the certainty apple cart of the religious industrial complex of their age.
When John and Jesus show up they upset the certainty apple cart of the religious industrial complex of our age.
It turns out that living in the way of Jesus is to live as one who seeks to learn, one who learns to be content in uncertainty, and one who is humble enough to acknowledge that he or she doesn’t have all the answers.
I don’t want to fear uncertainty any longer, I want to embrace it. As one of my favorite songwriters wrote:
But I get turned around I mistake my happiness for blessing But I'm blessed as the poor Still I judge success by how I'm dressing So keep 'em coming these lines on the road And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load And keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise And I'll walk with grace my feet and with faith my eyes // Faith My Eyes by Caedmon's Call
May we each walk with grace our feet and faith our eyes!