Eucharist – Advent 3 – Sun 13th Dec
John1.6-8, 19-28 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 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.
First of all, apologies for the blunder near the end of last week’s article, and bravo to all who spotted it. I promise to take greater care this time.
But God is good! Even if no-one else had told me, I’d have discovered my mistake this week anyhow, and realised that John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us about Christ’s whole life, but, like Mark, starts from the days of John the Baptist. I think the clever people who decided which bits of the Bible we read when did this on purpose: in Advent we wait and prepare for the coming of Christ, and hearing too soon about the first time might make us forget there will be a second time, too.
Maybe that’s what’s got into the Jewish religious experts quizzing John the Baptist in our Gospel reading. They’ve been taught, and been teaching, the coming of a Messiah for thousands of years, through texts like our piece of Isaiah. One day, Isaiah says, one day…. and they wonder if this could be it. Or rather, could this be HIM? But if they asked John, straight out, “Are you God?”, they’d be faced with a very dangerous answer, if it was “yes”, and a very difficult situation if it was “no”, because people were already hearing his message. Either way their religious authority is threatened: so they avoid the issue, and set John up to condemn himself in his own words (much as their successors do with Christ: so this too is preparation) And, of course, John sees it coming, and doesn’t answer the question they ask but rather the question they fear; he says not who he is, but who he’s not. This rather riles the messengers, apparently, and they bombard him with a long-standing checklist. Notice that John is quite clear, in himself and to them, about his NOT being the Messiah (whom he recognised in the womb). Nothing they suggest can persuade him to be other that he is: and when they finally give up engineering the evidence, they put power back into John’s hands by asking a question needing a bigger answer than just yes or no, in which he identifies himself as the figure prophesied long ago by Isaiah. He is not the Messiah, he asserts, but a messenger, like them. So, just to make sure (you’ll have heard the saying “don’t shoot the messenger”) they ask another question: if you aren’t any of the people on the list, why are you baptising without the Pharisees’ permission?
The answer John the Evangelist puts into the mouth of John the Baptist must have been pretty mystifying – certainly mysterious – to those without benefit of hindsight: but if anyone could understand it it should have been those expert Pharisees. John tells their messengers, very simply, what he is doing: “I baptise with water”: as anyone might to help someone mark a fresh start, a new beginning, before God, in those days; more than but the same idea as getting ready” for a party with a shower and clean clothes, but not at all like Christian baptism now. Only with the Baptism of Christ himself do things begin to change, and John’s duty toward him be done. Only then do ordinary mortals find out quite who Jesus is: which is why John (and church) keep us in suspense about (whisper it!) C*****tmas.