(for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014)
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘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.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8 & 19-28, NRSV).
The fourth gospel makes what was implicit in Mark’s opening, explicit: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…’ Clear. Concise.
Of course, our author still tells the story. Leaders travel to interview this wilderness-man. They understand the expectation – of both the people and of their faith – for a ‘Messiah’. They rattle off their questions pursuing any insight into his identity and calling.
John is adamant as to who he is not: ‘I am not the Messiah.’ He also denies being ‘Elijah’ or ‘the prophet’. So far so good.
But his only positive indication as to who he is and what he is doing is a brief reference to the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”’.
It leaves me wondering: How did the ‘priests and Levites hear this? As a guarded criticism of their ministry? Is John cautious about giving them more information about himself? Is he reluctant to tell more of the mysterious light among them? Perhaps all it really tells us is that he is here for someone else.
This focus-on-another permeates the ministry of John. It characterises his every move. It seems so certain. A definite vocation. I wonder what mentors, events, or visions brought about such clarity? We are not told.
What we do see, however, is a man who knows exactly who he is and who he isn’t before God. It is profoundly admirable: John does what God asks – no more, and no less.
And this even when people – both great and small – hunt him down. John is popular, successful, and his self-effacing ministry. He is here in preparation for another.
And now he is even describing to the Pharisees the limitations of his national ministry of repentance and water baptism: ‘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.’
The Pharisees came to look for John. Surely they leave wondering, discussing, reporting, and, indeed, searching for another. They must brim with their questions.
Although he has not even mentioned his name – John’s Jesus-pointig mission is clearly alive, inspiring, and wonderfully successful.