“He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.‘ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’” John 1:20-21
What might be learned from the questions to John the Baptist? What might be learned from the three questions he is asked? The questions are asked in descending order, from the hopes of a Messiah down to an unnamed prophet, and each time John explains he is not such a person.
“I am not the Messiah”, he tells them. What had their expectations of a Messiah been that they might have thought John could be the one for whom they waited? Some people expected a militaristic Messiah, one who would drive out the Roman occupiers and re-establish the throne of David. Some looked for a revolutionary figure who would not only liberate the nation but overthrow a leadership that was often corrupt and self-serving. Some looked for a religious leader who would confirm them in their own beliefs and traditions.
The people who think John might be the Messiah are clearly different from those who looked for a military or a revolutionary or a religious leaders, for John is clearly none of these. If they mistook John for the Messiah, it is because they believed the Messiah would be one who challenged them to repentance and spiritual renewal; their hearts were in the right place.
What would now be the expectation of the Messiah? Is there an expectation the Messiah would call for repentance and change?
“What then? Are you Elijah?” they ask. If John is not the Messiah, perhaps Elijah has returned as prophesied by the prophet Malachi. Elijah was to come to turn the hearts of the people before the day of the Lord came, Malachi Chapter 4 Verse 5 says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes”.
Elijah would have recognized much of himself in John the Baptist. Speaking the truth gets Elijah into trouble with the rulers of the land and Elijah’s life is in danger. In the First Book of Kings Chapter 19, Elijah is so afraid that God comes to find him – speaking to him not in an earthquake, wind or fire, but in a still, small voice. Elijah’s life is a story of extraordinary integrity, of speaking the truth no matter what others might think.
It is a mark of the integrity of John the Baptist that those who come to question him think he might be Elijah, that the man who faced down those who opposed him might have been thought to have returned.
How much might be learned from Elijah? How much might people be challenged to be people who speak for what is right? How much might people learn to find God in a still, small voice?
John the Baptist has told them that he is neither the Messiah nor Elijah, so they ask him, “Are you the prophet?’ He answered, “No.” There was an expectation that one of the great prophets of the past would return as a forerunner of the Messiah.
In Saint Matthew Chapter 16 Verses 13-14, Jeremiah is named as a possible forerunner. Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
The story of Jeremiah has bleak moments. He lives through the history of Judah over the years before the fall of the kingdom and the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Jeremiah is warned at the beginning that life will not be easy, and it is not. People simply do not wish to listen to Jeremiah, and when things go wrong blame him for the problems, in Jeremiah Chapter 38 Verse 4, the officials complain to the king about Jeremiah, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin”. Jeremiah was accused of damaging morale with his prophecies of what was going to happen, but Jeremiah must speak the truth.
People who thought John the Baptist might be the prophet recognized that the forerunner of the Messiah would be someone who could see the signs of the times and who spoke about what he believed to be true.
What is to be learned from Jeremiah? Are people prepared to look around us and see the injustices and wrongdoings in the current times? Are people prepared to speak the truth, as Jeremiah, did about what they see?
He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.‘ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’
John the Baptist’s answers challenge listeners to think about the Messiah, about Elijah, about Jeremiah, they challenge people to think about their own faith and about their own life.