Advent 3 2011 December 11th John 1v6-8, 19-28
John the Baptist is the one crying in the wilderness in preparation for the coming of the light of the world, a light that brings life. Yet, although John is so important in our Christmas story he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who follows.
He is commissioned to undertake an important task from God. He is crying in the wilderness (some of us at this time?), the one foretold by the prophets to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, sent by God.
He was sent as a witness to testify that Jesus is the light of the world, not for Jesus' sake, but for our sake. The purpose of his coming was to speak the truth".
Light and life are extremely important images in Johns gospel. The Law in the Old Testament (commandments) has given both life and light because it is Gods revelation. God's Word is now in Christ, who is both life and light. The world is in death and darkness, but Christ comes to bring life and light. In Christ's person and teaching the light, or revelation of God, shines and gives life to those who receive him. John testifies to the coming light, while not being the light himself.
The "Jews of Jerusalem" are the official leaders of Judaism. They are the ones in conflict with John and Jesus and are sticklers for the law.
The "Levites" were assistants to the priestly class and therefore held administrative and security positions in the temple.
They came to ask "Who are you?" and he told them plainly, "I am not the messiah". The authorities have not asked that question, but it is obviously on their mind.
The tradition was that Elijah would precede the messiah, Mal.4:5. John the Baptist might not have known that he was the Elijah. And the tradition was that a prophet like Moses would precede the messiah, Deut.18:15ff.
The delegation asks John whether he is the new Elijah or the new prophet who will precede the coming Messiah. John emphatically denies either.
The delegation finds itself faced with a preacher who is gathering crowds to himself out in the wilderness but is without authority. So they ask John to explain himself.
He is the crying voice in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:3, LXX. "I am" is not in the quote, but are John's words.
"Make straight" - the image comes from the Persians who were great road builders. The crying voice in the wilderness cuts a straight road through the wilderness for the Messiah to travel on as he journeys toward Jerusalem."The shouting one" prepares the way by preaching the gospel.
John gives practical advice on how to live while waiting for the coming Messiah.
The "Pharisees" were the pietists of the day, strict in their legalistic purity. Some Pharisees, who were in the deputation, asked him “Why then do you baptize?" They were immersed as was the custom of Israel, for a person converting to the Jewish faith. The Pharisees' question concerns the Baptist's authority to perform a religious ritual; "Why do you perform what appears to be an official act if you have no official status?".
John answers them, "Although you are not aware of it, there stands among you the one who is coming after me. I am not fit to untie the strap of his sandal".
He emphatically states that all he does is baptize (immerse) people in water. He points away from himself to the one who is coming, who even now stands among the people, but is unknown at the moment. The Son is the one to focus on, he is the great one, whereas John fells he is not even worthy to undertake the most menial task for the one who is "among" his people.
All this happened in Bethany.
There are so many evocative symbols surrounding John the Baptist in the four Gospels. Each gospel emphasizes a different point of view about John. Mark and Matthew emphasize the prophetic nature of John, noting that he is out in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey. They link John the Baptist’s message to Isaiah 40:1-11, that emphasizes him as the prophet preparing the way for Jesus, through making the highway straight in every heart. Luke emphasizes the concern for the poor and the ethical demands for justice. In Luke we hear John the Baptist’s preaching, urging people to share their cloaks and food with the needy, demanding that tax collectors not line their pockets by taking more than is required from people and challenging soldiers to not use their force to extort and threaten people, urging people to share their cloaks and food with the needy, demanding that tax collectors not line their pockets by taking more than is required from people and challenging soldiers to not use their force to extort and threaten people.
Here in John’s Gospel we get a more philosophical treatise on John the Baptist. The first chapter of the Gospel is a description of what it means to call Jesus the Christ. He is the light coming into the darkness, the logos, the Word of God made flesh. The author has eloquently expressed the meaning of the Messiah in ways to which the Greek philosophical mind can relate. Jesus is Plato’s true logos and the Gnostics true light. The Christ is not just another wandering Sophist, but the fulfillment of what Greek philosophy was striving to understand. John is firmly within the tradition of contextualizing the gospel message to gain a hearing. Here in the first chapter he has done this well and also has been clear to show that John the Baptist points the way, though he was not the light himself.
Much of the pain and suffering around us comes from people imagining that they are the light themselves. Carl Jung warned of the dangers of trying to live only in our light. The shadow within is dangerous when ignored. Jung believed that the things that we repress that we don’t want to know about ourselves create this shadow within us. In our attempt to be “children of light” we often repress and try to hide from our greed, selfishness, hostility, grandiosity and pain. We push these things from our conscious selves, but they rise up from our unconscious and control us.
John developed a great audience and power, but he also knew his role. He was a messenger, not the message. He baptized with water, but one was coming who would baptize with the power of fire. John was not about self-aggrandizement, knowing that there was a point where he had to decrease so that Christ could increase. We are not the light, but we point towards the light that enlightens us. As St. Francis put it “We are the moon reflecting the rays of the sun from our surface.” The light that shines from us may be great as we allow more of ourselves to be open to the true light of Christ, but the source of light is still Christ.