John the Baptist was faced with a moment like this as well. His ministry was going so well that crowds of people were coming to him, to listen to his preaching and to be immersed in the Jordan. I wish my church could report baptism records like his, to our denominational office! God was moving. People saw what John was doing, and they wanted to be part of it. People had such high expectations of him that many thought he could be the coming Christ. Verses 19-20[i] say, “This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, ‘Who are you?’ He came right out and said, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”
John was humble enough to know who he was NOT. John gained this knowledge of who he wasn’t, long before this encounter with the Jewish leaders. The son of Zechariah the Levite, John would have been expected to follow in a long line of priests, when he came of age. Yet, despite the honor of this calling, John rejected people’s expectations because he knew who he was not. He might have been a Levite, but he was no priest. And nothing that anybody could do could make him into an effective one. This reminds me of a story in Today the Word: “An interesting cartoon shows a fourth-grade boy standing toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with his teacher. Behind them stares a blackboard covered with math problems the boy hasn't finished. With rare perception the boy says, ‘I'm not an underachiever, you're an overexpecter!’"[ii] I’m the same way: In school, nobody could ever have convinced me that I was meant to be a mathematician. In order to know what you can be, you have to know what you aren’t. John knew that he wasn’t a priest, and that nobody should be able to put that on him with their expectations.
John also knew not to be driven by his own ego—that it was more important to be who God wanted him to be, than it was to be some grandiose image of himself. No matter what people were telling him, he didn’t let it go to his head. He knew he wasn’t the Messiah. God had different plans for him, which were also good, even though they weren’t as glorious. Part of discovering who you are, is realizing who you aren’t.
It’s important to understand that John’s lack of ego wasn’t a self-esteem problem. It was humility. He did have a good sense of who he was. The leaders asked, “Then who are you…What do you have to say about yourself?” John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming (verses 22-23)!’” Later, John says something that sounds like self-esteem issues, but it’s really just John recognizing how special Jesus is, not how undeserving John is. “John told them, ‘I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal (verses 26-27).” John understood who he was in the scope of God’s plan, and how that fit into who Jesus was. Verses 6-8 say, “God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.” John understood who he was, and he did his job well, without expecting to be something that he was not.
Then we come to the story of Jesus calling the disciples. Again, the question of identity comes up. In verse 42, Jesus told one of them, “Your name is Simon, son of John—but you will be called Cephas” (which means “Peter”). When Jesus comes into your life, He changes you completely. As He changed Peter from a fisherman to a rock-solid leader of the church, so He changes us into who He wants us to be. After that, Jesus called Philip and Nathanael. Verses 47-49 say:
As they approached, Jesus said, “Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.”
“How do you know about me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus replied, “I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.”
Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”
Fig trees were known to be places of meditation and prayer. So Jesus is saying, “Look—I saw you speaking to My Father, and I can tell by that, what kind of man you are.” Jesus was saying, “You are the kind of man who seeks after God, so because of this, I want you to follow me.” Just as Jesus knew Nathanael’s true identity, God knows exactly who you are as well. Sometimes discovering the real YOU can be exciting and sometimes it can be frightening. But always it’s an adventure when Jesus calls.
So what about you? Who are you? I know it’s a pretty basic question—but it’s also a very deep one. “Who am I?” is more than just your name. It’s your identity in Christ. It’s your calling from God. It’s a sense of who you are to your very core. Your purpose. Your identity at heart-level. God has a plan for each one of us. God told Jeremiah the prophet, “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5a).” God tells you the same thing. Finding your identity begins with knowing who you’re not. You are not other people’s expectations of you. Neither are you your over-inflated ego. Who are you? Maybe, like John, you’re in the wilderness of your life right now. Maybe you’re not the one who has all the right answers at the moment. But maybe—just maybe—you’re the one who’s asking the right questions. And that’s probably more important, anyway.
[i] Scriptures taken from the NLT
[ii] Today in the Word, MBI, April, 1990, p. 30. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/e/expectation.htm. September 16, 2016.