Today we turn to John’s Gospel and consider the person and role of John the Baptist. You will notice from the Scripture references at the start of the reading that we are dealing with two separate passages from the first chapter of John’s Gospel.
The first three verses are an extract from John’s famous prologue which opens with the text ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ The second part gives us an account of John the Baptist’s ministry of preparing for the coming of Jesus.
We ought to regard the first three verses as a kind of poetic and theological introduction to the entrance of John the Baptist. Some scholars think that these three verses do not actually belong in the middle of the prologue but were in fact the original opening of the Gospel before the Prologue was added. It is thought that they were stuck in the middle of it by a later editor.
These things should not bother us too much especially as the editors of the Lectionary have put the two sections dealing with John the Baptist together for us on this Third Sunday of Advent.
‘A man came, sent by God.’ John the Baptist surely is a man and not divine but he has definitely been sent by God. He is a man certainly, but a different sort of a man; one with a divine mission.
No one else in this Gospel, except Jesus, is described as being sent by God and perhaps for this reason John the Evangelist is very concerned that things should be absolutely clear and there should be no confusion between John the Baptist and Jesus.
We are told that ‘He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.’ It is supposed that this line was inserted because some of John the Baptist’s followers were still around and perhaps exaggerated his role and may well have given him the title of ‘The Light’.
So although John exalts John the Baptist he also makes it clear that his role was to be a witness and not to supplant the one whom he was foreshadowing.
Another thing that is made clear in these few verses is that the Baptist’s mission was to everyone. From the very beginning John’s Gospel stresses that salvation is ultimately for all.
We move on to John’s encounter with his interrogators and we find a similarity in John’s responses to their questions as we do later on in the Gospels from Jesus. His responses are enigmatic and puzzling to his listeners. Responses that were meant to make his listeners pause and think about what he meant.
John declares that he is not the Christ nor Elijah, nor the Prophet; these are all what is known as Eschatological titles—names by which the Messiah might be known. We understand the first two but the title Prophet should be understood as being shorthand for Moses. What they meant was ‘a Prophet like Moses’.
In the Jewish mind the Christ, in other words the Messiah, is normally accompanied by the two great patriarchs Elijah and Moses. This is brought home to us when in the Synoptic Gospels we find Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration.
When John is pressed further to identify himself he declares that he is ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ thus identifying himself with the Isaiah text of the first reading last Sunday.
In its original context this voice in the wilderness which cried out ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ referred to the angels who prepared the way through the desert for the Chosen People to return to the Promised Land from their exile in Babylon.
But things have moved on because here John means it to refer to his role in preparing the way for God to come to his people.
John then goes on to say that he is not even worthy to undo the strap of the sandals of the one for whom he is preparing the way.
The phrase about the sandals is interesting because this was the task given to the very lowest of all the servants in a household. In saying this he is presented as a model of humility, one of the first characteristics of a disciple of Christ.
John the Baptist has often been described as the Last of the Old Testament Prophets but maybe he ought to be regarded more as one of the first New Testament disciples of Christ. We refer to him as ‘Saint’ John the Baptist and this title places him firmly in the New Testament camp.
We have already pointed out his humility but he embodies other important characteristics of the true disciple of Christ. John the Baptist is first and foremost a proclaimer of the coming of the Kingdom. He fearlessly witnesses to Christ; as it says ‘He came as a witness… a witness to speak for the light.’
But to me before one can be a witness to Christ one has to recognise Christ. This is not an ability everyone has. Not everyone can see Christ’s presence and action in the world. Not everyone is aware of how he influences even their own lives.
In this season of Advent when we are making our preparations for the celebration of Christmas spiritual and otherwise we ought to think about the role of John the Baptist and how similar it is to our role towards the people of today.
John the Baptist seems to come from another world, he proclaims a message, he prepares the way for and points out the Saviour to the men and women of his day.
We too come from another world than that of the people among whom we live. It might not be a desert, but it is different because our values are not the values of this world, our outlook is not the same as those of the people around us.
And we have a message, indeed it is the very same message as John the Baptist: Repent and believe the Good News.
And we point to the Saviour. Our task is to help our families, friends and neighbours to see Christ, to help them to recognise the subtle signs of his presence and action in our world.
This is a great work, a prophetic task; and by undertaking these responsibilities and carrying them out conscientiously we can be sure that we are changing the world, making it a better place and enabling many others to embrace the salvation Christ won for us.
Let us then apply ourselves with renewed zeal and devotion to this task of being modern day John the Baptists, not seeking glory for ourselves but by every thought and action doing our best to point to Jesus Christ, the one true Saviour of the World.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket