Its Not Me.
As it happens on the third Sunday of Advent, we turn to the most Christological of the four Gospels, John, for our lesson: John 1:6-8. 19-28. Again, the lesson introduces us to John the Baptist.
John’s ministry is full-blown when we meet him. He is at Bethany near the Jordan River baptising and making new converts to his call to repent. It is on quite a few peoples’ minds that this prophet out in the desert may just be the Messiah the people of Israel were waiting and praying for – chiefly, the Pharisees, who have sent the priests and Levites to question John.
Are you the one who was foretold, they ask? Are you the Messiah?
No, it isn’t me, John replied. He wasn’t worthy enough to untie the dusty, dirty sandals of the one who would follow.
Just who was John?
We know he was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Prior to his ministry, John may have been a member of the community at Qumran in the Judean Desert, but this is not proved. As with other community members, John had priestly connections and believed in imminent divine judgment; he opposed Jerusalem and the Temple, and used water as part of his ministry and the focal point of it. The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 may have given the community its rationale for being in the desert: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.'” However, these links between the community at Qumran and John are not strong and the Gospels have John working independently from it, or any other religious group. John’s work anticipated and overlapped Jesus; indeed, it will be John who baptises Jesus.
John’s ministry of baptism was directed to the oppressed people of Israel to make a new beginning with God. As I mentioned last week, the location of this work was very significant: the desert wilderness was a place of new beginnings; people were called to come to John in the desert and seek forgiveness not by a Temple sacrifice, but by a ritualistic cleansing. Just as the Israelites came out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, came through the Red Sea out of Egypt, now people were making a new covenant with the Lord, a new commitment, by confessing their sins and being washed with the waters of the Jordan to begin a new life.
This work put a chasm between John the Baptism and traditional Jewish values and law at the time Temple authorities sent the priests and Levites to question John. No, John said, undoubtedly over and over, he was not the Messiah, but was preparing people for the one who would come after him, someone more powerful than he. That someone was Jesus.
John’s ministry marked a transition between the old age and the new age that would begin with the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan.
No, it wasn’t John. It was someone greater.
But one cannot deny John’s place in history as a great prophet and as a leader who turned peoples’ hearts and minds to what was truly important – love of God and one another.
Go in peace,