“I AM not”
I once met a man whose name was, well, let’s call him Snowy Rivers. Snowy lived over the river, where people without hope lived.
Well, one day, right after he was diagnosed with AIDS, Snowy bought himself a clergy shirt and a collar, and a big old cross to wear right here on his chest. And he began to preach on the Mall. Began baptizing folks there in the Tidal Basin. You know, homeless folks, drug addicts, AIDS patients, and the like: walking dead people.
Snowy was so successful a baptizer that the “authorities” soon visited him. They asked him, “Who are you, a self-made preacher?” Snowy didn’t deny this, but said, “I am.” But then, when they asked him if he were a prophet, he said “I am.” And when they asked him if he were the Messiah, he also said, “I am.”
I met Snowy some time later, after they had harassed him into renting a church and moving the whole show inside. By this time he wore a purple clergy shirt. “I deserved a promotion,” he explained, and then he asked me to call him “Bishop.”
Not until I read anew today’s gospel lesson did I realize how Snowy Rivers was trying to channel a man named John who lived in Palestine some 2,000 years ago. But for all of the similarities between the lives of John the Baptizer and Snowy Rivers the self-make Bishop, I can see clearly now how Bishop Snowy missed the mark.
There’s only one “I am,” so when the religion leaders of John’s day asked him his identity with respect to God, John answered, “I am not.” “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” And “I am not THE prophet,” in other words, “I am not Moses, either.” That was John’s testimony. But Bishop Snowy called himself by God’s name: “I am.”
The irony is that, in a way (and whether he knew this or not), John WAS two of the three things he said he was not. John was Elijah, at least in spirit and in power, as Luke’s gospel tells us. In Matthew chapter 11, verses 13 and 14, Jesus even said, “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” By this Jesus meant that a Jewish belief, told of old, that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah, had been fulfilled. John said he wasn’t Elijah, though, and this was literally true.
But John also said he wasn’t THE prophet (Moses), yet we Christians recognize him as A prophet, and not just any prophet, either, but the “last prophet.” There hadn’t been a Jewish prophet for over 400 years when John appeared in the wilderness, across the Jordon River, baptizing all who came to him and repented of their sins. Here was John, as our gospel lesson today tells us, sent by God into our world to prophesy the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here was John, pointing the way to the Christ.
That’s the way of prophets, though. Prophets do not point to themselves. Prophets speak for God and prophets point only to God. Prophets are not “I am,” but only point to the one who sent them.
In a way, our gospel lesson today invites us to look at John-the-prophet, perhaps to compare what each of the four gospels say about him. But to do so would do a disservice to John’s service. John came into the world to bear witness to the Christ, not to point himself. No wonder Jesus said of John, as recorded in Matthew, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…”
Doesn’t John’s story prod us into asking “Who am I?” Isn’t John’s task the task of all Christians, to point only to Christ and to proclaim repentance to prepare for the coming of Christ? Christ is coming again, and we are to point the way.
We can accomplish amazing things in this life, if we don’t care who gets the credit. We can light the way for those who need light, if we don’t forget that we ourselves are not the source of light. We can fulfill our own purpose in life, if we don’t claim to be “I am.”
By the way, to be fair to Bishop Snowy Rivers, in the many years since I met him, he’s become a real force for good in his community, in the name of God. This, of course, says a lot about “I AM,” who shapes and uses us all.