This event in the life of John the Baptist sounds like it’s more than a simple press conference. Here we have him interviewed successively by priests and Levites, as well as Pharisees. All of them interrogate him about who he is: “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?”
The Baptist takes this opportunity to clarify who he is and who he is not, correcting the misconceptions about him. He is not the Christ–nor is he Elijah, nor the Prophet. He is but “the voice crying out in the desert,” to prepare the way for the Christ.
Call it overreading, but it seems to me that there’s more going on here than John the Baptist just clarifying his role and identity in relation to the Messiah. This whole thing sounds suspiciously like his own version of the temptation in the desert.
Think about it: By this time, his fame has grown. John’s words are not easy to listen to; in fact, his message is so unpleasant that some of us may actually prefer our usual lengthy and monotonous but innocuous Sunday sermon. Yet people are flocking to him and asking for baptism at the Jordan. His followers are increasing by the numbers so much so that the authorities are beginning to take notice.
So when the Jewish leaders confront John and ask him who he is–and this is probably done in full view of the crowds–is it too far-fetched to wonder if the Baptist actually experiences–even for just a moment–some kind of temptation to take the title for himself, to claim the crown, put himself in the sandals of the very One before Whom he has repeatedly confessed his unworthiness? It isn’t such a subversive idea since the Lord himself later goes through his own temptation after receiving his baptism from John.
If that moment John claimed the title of Messiah, the crowds would believe him, and he could consolidate his power. Yet he chooses to walk away; he opts to “decrease rather than increase.” Offered fame and glory on a silver platter, the Baptist decides to remain committed to his mission of “straightening the path for the Lord” even if as we know, he ends up later with his head served on a drunken king’s silver platter.
It is no easy feat. We all of us are vulnerable to our fiercest needs and hungers, and we may fall prey to them when we least expect it. In “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” no less than the noble and brave dwarf-king, Thorin II Oakenshield, is so consumed by his obsession with the precious arkenstone even amidst an unimaginable hoard of gold, and he allows his need to rule him at the risk of losing thousands of lives.
This Third Sunday of Advent, we receive yet another lesson on humility from the Baptist, the great prophet who, like his cousin, chooses the way of the lowly. There is no better way to prepare for the One Who is to come, for the promised Messiah, the Christ whom we await with eager hearts this Advent, will come to us on Christmas not garbed in human royalty, but wrapped in divine humility.