Sunday, December 11, 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

There is a kind of prima facie cheekiness to John the Baptist's responses to the questions posed by the priests and Levites sent by the Jews of Jerusalem. Asked Who art thou?, the Baptist gives no positive answer at all, but only a denial: I am not the Christ. The priests and Levites did not ask him who he was not, but who he was, and so on the face of it we might well think John to be non-responsive at best, more likely knowingly evasive. Yet, perfectly aware of this first question, his answer to the second volley — What then? Art thou Elias? — as well as the third — Art thou the prophet? — receive mere negations — I am not and No — without any further clarification.

Of course, this slippery quality on the part of the otherwise direct and forthright John the Baptist merely echoes what seems to many the troubling silence or evasiveness of God himself. Why, many wonder, does Jesus Christ, who promised that the Father would give us whatever we asked in his name, seem to do so, if he does at all, in ways so often difficult to see? Why are not challenges to the existence of God and the manifest truth of his revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit not met with answers more direct, more undeniable? Why do so many feel that the responses from God find a character more like those of John's, mere negations without any further clarification?

Yet, on another reading, we can see that there is something quite different going on in the responses of the Baptist, something which might open our ears more readily to hear what God himself is trying to say to us. On their first asking, while the priests and Levites appear to ask a simple and open-ended question, in fact we know that they have been sent from Jerusalem for a specific purpose. They do not wonder who this man is; they are certain who he is not and seek to know what he has to say for himself. So, when they ask the innocent-seeming question Who art thou?, John knows their purpose, and answers the limited and restricted question they really meant to ask, namely I am not the Christ.

So, now the Baptist shows that he and the priests and Levites are in agreement: the Baptist is not the Messiah. Yet, these learned men of Jerusalem are still self-deceived about their own purpose. Rather than getting to the point, they start ruling out other possibilities — Elijah and the Prophet — not because they actually think him to be such, but again to see how the Baptist might respond. Their questions, in other words, reveal their closed-mindedness. While now no longer feigning open-ended curiosity as they did at first, they nonetheless look only to clarify and confirm what they already claimed to know. In such a state, the only answers they can receive are the confirmatory negatives — I am not and No.

Led by frustration, something amazing happens. No longer able to get a suitable answer by avoiding their real intentions, the priests and Levites disclose their intentions fully: Who art thou, that we may give an answer unto them that sent us? Now, finally, they reveal to themselves, to the Baptist, and to all present, that they do not come in innocent curiosity or in hopeful wonder. They come as sent and with a mission to provide an answer. Their question is not their own, and this largely because they imagine to know the answer already. Even so, it is from this transparency, this willingness to admit the motivations which being them before him that provides them with the question they meant to ask all along, not Who art thou? but rather What sayest thou of thyself?

Now that the priests and Levites have disclosed to themselves their own real motives and their true question, they are also in a position to hear the full disclosure of the Baptist: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the Prophet Isaias. Even if his audience is not disposed to accept his word as true, it is only on the condition that they ask what they mean to ask, that they own and profess by what motivation they seek him out, that John the Baptist can give anything more than negation or denial.

This suggests to us something of our own relationship with Jesus Christ. We might often complain that what we ask for we do not receive, and what we seek we do not find. We worry that in response to our pleading and our questioning, there is only the unnerving negation of the divine silence. However, do we, in our questioning, place before God our whole selves? Do we admit the motivations that bring us to ask for what we desire? Indeed, do we even name our desires without concealing anything? In the end, when we ask an answer from God, are we even asking the question we truly want to ask?

No comments: