They asked John the Baptist a simple question: Who are you? John was a puzzle, and officialdom wanted to know more about him.

Remember, for 400 years they’ve seen prophets come and go like the passing weather. From the questions asked, Messianic speculations were in the air, and the Baptist framed his replies accordingly. He vigorously repudiated any suggestion that he might be the Messiah. No, I am not the Christ. The Christ is coming soon, but it’s not me.

Obviously, the priests and Levites sent out to question John had made the connection with the last prophecy of Malachi, because next they ask him if he’s Elijah. And although John claimed not to be Elijah, he fulfilled the entire preliminary ministry that Malachi had foretold, and in a very real sense he was Elijah.

John’s denial provokes a third question, “Are you the Prophet?” (i.e. the second Moses, of Deuteronomy 18:15). He simply answers “No.” You sort of get the feeling John doesn’t like answering questions about himself. After all, he had come to bear witness to another.

So the questioners were in a difficult position. So far all they had elicited from John had been a string of denials. This time, instead of making another suggestion, they ask him what he thinks of himself. And John’s reply recalls Isaiah 40:3, a statement that is attributed to him in each of the four Gospels. He says, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way of the Lord.”

The point of the quote is that it gives no prominence to the prophet whatsoever. He is merely a voice with one simple thing to say: prepare the way for YHWH.

His answer must not have satisfied them, because they try a new tactic. Why then does he baptize? Baptism was not a new practice in Judaism. It was the rite of ritual purity, for Jews who had become defiled by sin and for Jewish converts from other religions.

But John was baptizing everyone who came, and what’s more, he was offering baptism to these priests, as if they were polluted by the world and needed to be cleansed. So these priest from Jerusalem aren’t really asking, “Why do you baptize?” What they’re really asking John is “Why do you baptize even us?” John replies that the purpose of his baptism is to point people to Christ. John’s interest is in Christ and nothing less.

What a message for us today, as we move through Advent and into Christmas! How many of us are going along in our lives, assuming that because we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal savior, or we have received the Holy Ghost, or we have done whatever our particular denomination regards as a conversion experience, then we are saved, we are clean, end of story.

Why, then, do we need an Advent season? We’re already here. We’re already the chosen ones, right?

If you feel this way, I’m sure you’re not alone. Think about this, though. I’m sure that every one of those priests that were questioning John that day could have quoted from memory 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

This is a popular passage of scripture in evangelical circles, often used in revival settings, but it’s usually preached in the context of bringing new converts into the church. If we read the passage more carefully, though, it’s aimed at you and me, not the man or woman on the street who’s not yet accepted Christ. We’re the ones called by his name. It’s we who need to humble ourselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from our wicked ways; then God will hear from heaven and forgive our sin.

John’s answer is simpler, though, and purer. It drives to the heart of his ministry and the purpose of the Advent season. Those who presume they are worthy are anything but: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” He speaks of the greatness of the one who has come by referring to his own unworthiness. He was not worthy to untie the great one’s sandal. This is not just some idle saying. It has a basis in the relationship of a disciple to his or her master. Teachers in ancient Israel were not paid, but in partial compensation disciples would perform services for their rabbis instead. However, they had to draw the line somewhere, and menial tasks like loosening the sandal thong came under such a heading.

In fact, there is a rabbinic saying on this theme (in its present form dating from about 250 CE, but perhaps much older): “Every service which a servant performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal-thong.” So John here selects the very task that the rabbinic saying stresses as too menial for any disciple, and declares himself unworthy to perform it. Humility could scarcely take a lower place.

John’s purpose was to make straight the way of the Lord by preparing the Lord’s people for his coming. So it is for us, in a way, with Advent: a time to prepare ourselves for Christmas and Epiphany, in which we will remember the one of whom John spoke and what he came to do for you and me. Advent is a season that invites us to prepare by humbling ourselves and praying and seeking God’s face and turning from our wicked ways. John’s witness of two thousand years ago in Bethany across the Jordan is still true for us today.