Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (John 1.19-21)
I heard a story a while ago about a writer called Parker Palmer. Palmer was a writer whose influence was growing in educational circles. At one point he was offered the presidency of a college. Palmer was a Quaker. The Quakers have a practice of gathering together what they call a clearness committee when they are faced with a major decision. So the clearness committee got together and began to ask Palmer some searching questions about taking on the role of college president. One major question was “What would you like about being college president?” Palmer could only think of things he wouldn’t like about being president. The committee kept pressing him to say what he would like about the role. Finally, he said “Having my picture in the paper with the words “College President” underneath” Needless to say, he realised the role of college president wasn’t meant for him!
When it comes to serving God effectively, knowing who or what we’re not, is an important aspect of fulfilling our calling, perhaps as important as knowing who we are.
John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry had to define who he wasn’t (John 1.19-28). He wasn’t Messiah. He wasn’t Elijah. He wasn’t the prophet. The labels that people tried to put on him clearly did not fit. Certainly, who he was and what he did were intimately related to the coming of Messiah. And yes, his ministry did bear more than a passing resemblance to that of Elijah and to the “prophet”. But neither of these designations could define the uniqueness of what John was called to do. He was a voice of one calling in the desert. He was a voice for his generation, not an echo of a previous generation. He had a message the purpose of which was to challenge and reshape the faith and culture of Israel. He was never meant to try to conform himself to that culture or fit his message into the limited thinking of the religion of his day.
To ensure that message was clear, he had to ensure that he didn’t allow himself or his ministry to be defined by the labels those around him were only to willing to impose upon him. His parents had fought and won that battle when they named him (Luke 1.57-66). He now had to fight it and win it for himself as a grown man.
Resisting the labels – sometimes bad ones and sometimes attractive ones – that people so easily foist upon us is critical for us in our calling to be God’s people proclaiming God’s message to God’s world. We are called to be a voice to a needy world. We are called to partner with God in reshaping an out of shape world. And if we are to partner effectively we need to know who we’re not. We’re not a throwback to a former era or an echo of contemporary culture. Like John the Baptist we are a voice crying in the desert, in our case the desert of the 21st century world.