notre dame montreal

Advent 3 Sermon - John the Baptist

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

A world of difference between ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’

They say that politics and religion don’t mix, although some might disagree, but to understand the passage from Isaiah you have to mix politics and religion.

The passage from Isaiah dates from around 538 BC from a time when the Persian King called Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians, who had taken Israel into captivity some 50 years earlier.

In line with Cyrus’ general policy over conquered nations, he issued a decree, called the Edict of Restoration, whereby the Israelites, rather than be enslaved, would return to their own land

In the reading today, Isaiah interprets this return to the Promised Land, precipitated by a political decision, in religious and theological terms.  This is the doing of the Sovereign Lord, Yahweh.

The Israelites are to be the planting of the Lord, Oaks of Righteousness, rebuilders of generations, and, through the blessing o Israel, all the earth will be blessed.

This is more than they could have ever hoped for in exile.  Grief turns to joy, tears turn to gladness, and the rest, as they say, is history.  God’s people will be liberated and set free and His blessing would be upon them.

They would be returned to their rightful place and restored into the Kingdom which was their birthright and to which they belonged, however long they may have been in exile.

It’s a similar picture with John the Baptist.  At the heart of John’s message is the concept of returning people to their rightful place, into a Kingdom which is their birthright.

John had begun testifying about ‘The One Who Was To Come’, the Messiah.  This is beginning to cause the authorities some concern.  Concerned enough that the Jewish authorities sent some officials round to check him out.  Who was it that was saying these things?

Not surprisingly then they ask, ‘Who are you?’ 

John the Baptist’s answers were very interesting, as he, just like Isaiah before him begins to mix politics (in this case religions politics) and theology together.

John’s gospel is a rich gospel but perhaps remembered most for the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus and His miraculous signs often associated with these pronouncements.

But all John the Baptist repeatedly replies when asked about his identity, is ‘I am not’.  I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah, I am not the Prophet.

Now we might expect John the Baptist to claim some kind of authority by proximity and association with the Messiah.  Some may think that would help him communicate his message and give it some power and authority.  But all he does is say who he is not, and merely says he is here to point the way to the one who is to come.

When we were in the US we did some flying and one of the things that surprised us was not about the sights we flew over but the assumption that we would want to fly over the houses of the rich and famous, the exclusive parts of the city.  In Los Angeles it was possible to do a tour to see the houses of the various Hollywood stars, past and present.

In today’s status conscious society where you are often defined by what you do and who are known to be John’s answer is an enigma.

I am not.  What kind of an answer is that?  It’s the kind of answer from a person totally focused on God.