Advent 3 – Annemarie Woodward

Advent 3 – Sunday 14th December 2014.

St Mary’s, Hadlow

(John 1: 6-8 and 19-28)

The First Witness

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit

Not a locust in sight; no wild honey; no trace of a camel hair jerkin[1] or a rough leather belt: – simply ‘a man sent from God, whose name was John.’[2] In this one, brief sentence St John the Evangelist concentrates on John the Baptist’s identity and authority. Nothing more – if we want to flesh out this incredibly controversial figure, we have to turn back to Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Matthew and Mark concentrate on the adult John – a dynamic, wild-haired prophet, who appears from the desert waste, calling for the children of Israel to repent of their sins, and baptising penitents in the waters of the River Jordan.[3] Luke is the only gospel writer who reveals John’s pre-ordained destiny. The only son of devout, aged[4] parents, Elizabeth[5] and Zachariah,[6] John’s coming is foretold by the angel Gabriel:[7] ‘even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.’[8]  ‘With the spirit and the power of Elijah …. (he will) make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’[9] [10]

This beloved, longed for son is brought up in the strict Nazarite code[11] within a priestly household, and, at some point – possibly at the age of 12 – flees into the desert beyond the River Jordan to live as a solitary hermit for about twenty years, preparing himself spiritually to be the messenger, the voice crying in the wilderness.

Now – lean, disciplined, and obedient to his God-given calling – he takes centre-stage:[12] fulfilling Isaiah’s great prophecy ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’[13] Here is John the Baptist: messenger, forerunner, ambassador – the first true prophetic voice to be heard in Israel after a silence of 450 years.[14]

When I started to prepare for today I realised how difficult it would be to juggle two “Johns”, so St John the Evangelist will be the gospel writer, and the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth John or John the Baptist. I was also conscious of the fact that the gospel writer was working in a turbulent environment[15] which continued to venerate John the Baptist. Many of his disciples still clung to the belief that John was, indeed, the Messiah. In focusing directly on John as forerunner and witness, the gospel writer tacitly refutes this claim by telling John’s story in a straightforward narrative sequence, allowing the Baptist’s clarity of purpose and his deep humility to speak for themselves.

The first part of our reading outlines John’s status, authority and function. The gospel writer focuses on John’s rôle as the first living witness to the adult Jesus as Messiah – the Son of God:[16]He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.’[17] Jesus’ total immersion in the River Jordan is almost airbrushed out of the picture; at no point in this gospel is John referred to as ‘the Baptist’.[18] The writer’s sole concern is to focus on John as witness; John’s identity and rôle are depicted as, and inseparable from, the presence of the Word made flesh. ‘He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light’.[19]

At first glance, these three verses look somehow out of place, cutting across the poetic style and rhythmic progression of the Prologue. The Fourth Gospel opens with the unique identity of Jesus: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.’[20]  Echoes of creation in Genesis, with stark, contrasting images of light and dark are carefully woven into the pre-existence of Jesus – the new Adam: ‘in Him was life, and the life was the light of all peoples.’[21]

But take another look – this brief narrative acts as an integral part of the Prologue, ‘providing an interpretative key to the passage as a whole.’[22] Here we have the first human witness to the unique relationship between God the Father and God the Son – a living, breathing witness to the light of salvation that has come into this dark and sinful world. In this deeply spiritual passage where light and life co-exist in the Word made flesh, John the Baptist creates a bridge between Old and New Testaments. He is revealed as forerunner and follower, prophet and witness, ambassador and disciple, priest and servant.

We come now to John’s first act of witness. The setting for this encounter is ‘Bethany across the Jordan.’[23] This is not the Bethany of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. ‘Across the Jordan’ defines the location as being outside the Promised Land: possibly the crossing point where Joshua led the children of Israel out of the wilderness into the land of milk and honey; possibly the place where the prophet Elijah ascended into heaven in a chariot of fire.[24]

Here, John is interrogated by a motley collection of priests, accompanied by a group of the Levites[25] who acted as temple administrators and guards – even, on occasion, as musicians and singers. But this is no courtesy call: at a time when messianic[26] hopes are high and messianic movements politically dangerous, John’s eloquent preaching, together with the aching spiritual void at the heart of Israel, has proved incredibly powerful – possibly even threatening. Jerusalem’s ruling élite is becoming increasingly anxious – hence the delegation.[27]

John is confronted by two sets of questions – the first on identity, the second on baptism. Both seek to undermine his authority and destroy his credibility. ‘Who are you?’[28] Priest and Levite alike are determined to pigeon-hole John, to put him firmly in his place. ‘Wwho are you’ means simply where were you born? Who were your parents? These men don’t want to hear about John’s beliefs, convictions or values. Origin and parentage alone determine social status in first century Israel, and you step outside your given social status at your peril. John sidesteps their questions, stating only that he is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet.[29] Three brief obdurate negatives. No supporting evidence. No further comment – nothing. Imagine their frustration – they are getting nowhere, and they dare not go back to Jerusalem empty handed.

In desperation they plead with him: ‘Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’[30] Yet again John gives little away. ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness – make straight the way of the Lord.’[31] I am only the voice. No more, no less. Their frustration now quickly turns to anger – after all, they know that John’s charismatic preaching has created a powerful following. So, his inquisitors seize on John’s denials, twisting them in order to challenge his authority: ‘Why, then, are you baptising if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet’?[32]

They have heard – they may even have seen for themselves – that John has baptised hundreds, if not thousands of penitents. They have been told that John’s baptismal rite created men and women anew. This was not the traditional private act of baptism designated by the Law for converts. When John immersed men and women in the River Jordan, the penitents emerged from the waters determined to leave their old life behind by making a very public proclamation of new birth.

John’s reply again sidesteps the question: ‘I baptise 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.’[33] Here John is making a clear distinction between his own identity, mission and baptism and the identity, mission and baptism of the Messiah. He makes no claim to greatness for himself. He does not even aspire to be a disciple. At that time a disciple was expected to do everything for his teacher that a servant does for his master – with one exception. Disciples did not tend to their masters’ shoes or feet – this was left to the slaves of the household. He – John – sees himself as less than a slave. He is simply the messenger, preparing Israel for ‘the one who is coming’.

It is at this point that the gospel writer brings John and Jesus together, on the day after John’s interrogation. Although not part of our gospel reading this morning, John’s declaration is incredibly powerful: ‘‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…. I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’[34]

Forerunner and follower, prophet and witness, ambassador and disciple, priest and servant – what an amazing man: the question is – can we be like John? I’m not saying grab a camel hair jerkin and a handful of locusts, and rush out into the desert wastes of Hadlow, but we can all bear witness. We can all testify to the light, the ‘true light which enlightens everyone.’[35] Webster’s dictionary defines ‘testify’ as “to talk and answer questions about something while formally promising that what you are saying is true.” Trusting in the love of God and steadfast in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we can testify: each one of us can shine the light of God’s presence into the dark shadows of our world, not only in what we say but – crucially – in what we do, how we behave, how we treat other people.

Our gospel reading today sets us a formidable challenge. In his humility, confidence and clarity of purpose, John the Baptist refuses to allow anyone – least of all himself – to make it all about him. John’s laser-focus is categorically away from himself and on to the one who was coming. John knew that his star would fade, but the true light would never fade.[36] St Francis of Assisi puts it beautifully: “we are the moon reflecting the rays of the sun from our surface.”

John’s example is humbling. If we make our lives all about “us” – if we put self first and foremost – we’ve missed the point. The light of God’s grace can shine in each one of us, and that light will grow if we allow more of ourselves to be open to the true light of Christ, but the source of the light is – and will always be – Christ alone. Amen.

Footnotes

[1] John’s roughly-woven camel hair coat echoes the raiment of Old Testament prophets (Zacheriah 13:4), especially Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).

[2] John 1:6

[3] Matthew 3: 1-6 and Mark 1: 1-5. John the Baptist’s sojourn in the desert has echoes of Elijah’s life (Elijah was lifted up to heaven on a chariot from the place where John first appears, calling for repentance. John’s clothing is also reminiscent of Elijah.

[4] Luke 1:7 [Childlessness was considered a disgrace in Israel – (see Genesis 16:4 and 30:23) which could only be resolved by divine intervention]

[5] Elizabeth was related to Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Luke 1:36)

[6] Zachariah was a devout priest. When Gabriel appeared before him, he was exercising a once-in-a-lifetime event for a priest – burning incense in the temple.

[7] Luke 1:13 [The angel also directs Zachariah to name his son John – 1: 63]

[8] Luke 1:15

[9] Luke 1:17

[10] Zachariah cannot believe what he is hearing, and is struck dumb (Luke 1:20) and John’s destiny remains a secret until he is eight days old. Zachariah only recovers the power of speech when he insists, by writing the words on a tablet, that his son is to be called John (the name deriving from a Hebrew term signifying “Jehovah is gracious”) (Luke 1: 64). He then gives voice to the powerful Benedictus, prophesying that his son ‘will be called the prophet of the most high; (who) will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.(Luke 1: 76)

[11] Numbers 6: 10-21

[12] ‘John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the peoples of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.’ Mark 1: 4-5

[13] Isaiah 40:3

[14] John the Baptist, Prophet and Disciple Alexander J Burke Jr St Anthony Messenger Press page 6

[15] St John’s gospel was probably written between 80 and 90 AD, and second century tradition places the writing in Ephesus.

[16] In St Luke’s Gospel the aged Simeon is the first recognise Jesus as the Messiah – “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” – when Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple. (Luke 2: 25-32)

[17] John 1:7

[18] The only indication we have comes at the end of the gospel reading. John 1: 26 and 32-34 When questioned by the Levites, John replies ‘I baptise with water’ (v.26)

[19] John 1:8

[20] John 1: 1-2

[21] John 1:4

[22] Michael Mullins The Gospel of John – A Commentary. [Columba Press, 2003] page 44

[23] John 1:28 Possibly Bethabara (Ibid page 83)

[24] 2 Kings: 2:11

[25] John was performing a totally new baptismal rite – he was not obeying the Old Testament prescriptions of ablutions; he was eschewing the ritual laws and sacrifices for repentance which had, up to now, been carried out in the temple by a hereditary Levite. John the Baptist’s rite was public, not private. [John the Baptist, Prophet and Disciple] Alexander J Burke jr(St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, Ohio p.77)

[26] John’s actions, in baptising penitents, was seen by many to be fulfilling the messianic expectation of Elijah, a prophet, the Messiah and the Kingdom.

[27] The ruling clique (themselves beholden to their Roman rulers) was made up of the high priests, the Pharisees and the Saducees – all powerful figures in the Sanhedrin.

[28] John 1:19

[29] Israel believed that the great prophet. Elijah, would return (Malachi 4:5). Elijah had not, according to history, died, but had been taken directly up to heaven (2 Kings 2). The reference to ‘the prophet’ recalls Deuteronomy 18: 15-18 when God promises He will raise up a prophet like Moses to lead the people, prior to the arrival of the Messiah.

[30] John 1:22

[31] John 1:23 Here John the Baptist is quoting the great prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3)

[32] John 1:25

[33] John 1: 26-27

[34] John 1: 29-34

[35] John 1: 9

[36] In John 3: 29-30 John the Baptist says ‘He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’

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