PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS, CLIFTON. 14 DECEMBER 2014 John 1.6–8, 19–28 6
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’* 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,* nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Today, the third Sunday in Advent, we light the rose candle. It symbolizes the shepherds’ joy. Why are the shepherds rejoicing? Wha is their joy like? We will return to that. Today’s Gospel reading tells of John. He is confronted by important people from Jerusalem. The people coming to John ask him three questions.
First, they ask: Are you the Messiah? (This was not explicitly asked but was certainly implied; note John’s denial.) A third-century text called the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions attests that some of John’s followers did think he was the Messiah. It is unclear from the bible itself, though Luke 3: 15, the account of this same episode, recounts that ‘everyone was wondering if he was the Messsiah’.
Second, they ask:. Are you Elijah? Aquinas suggests that some might have believed that metempsychosis would have allowed Elijah’s soul to be in John.
Finally, they ask: Are you the Prophet? This refers to Deuteromomy 18 where Moses tells the people of Israel that the Lord will raise up a prophet for them like him from among them. John just says “no. ” John says ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord. ‘
These officials had been sent from the Pharisees and ask John why he is baptizing. John does not tell them. He answers simply that he baptizes. He then proclaims that there is one among them whom they do not know whose sandal he, John, is not worthy to untie. The last thing we are told is that this happened in Bethany where John was baptizing Baptism at that time was a ritual practiced by the Jews to enact spiritual purification. It was an immersion in a pool where rainwater has gathered. These pools are found in synagogues. They were also part of the Temple. John was originally part of a Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Roman historian of Israel Josephus says that the Essenes ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity. The Essenes had an apocalyptic world-view. Baptism was a kind of preparation for the end-times. For Essenes like all Jews, baptism was a rite of spiritual purification. It was used to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with the Lord.
John was being himself baptizing. He never answered those who asked him about his identity with a statement of his own identity. He is baptizing. He describes baptising and then mentions the one who is coming after him. Baptism is preparation. It is anticipation. John is looking forward. All of his answers point away from himself. I am not the Messiah. Are you Elijah? I am not. Are you the Prophet? No! John is pointing away from himself. When pressed about who he is, he quotes Isaiah: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!’
This way of the Lord suggests how God may come to us but also how we may find God. The call to make it straight is a call to make the world better. We might even think of it like making a wheelchair ramp or making adjustments so a visually-imapired person could navigate more easily. Make straight the way of the Lord. This is God’s call through Isaiah and John to change the world to make it ready for everyone-to make the way usable by all-and thus ready for God. The whole drama of John’s questioning happened where he was baptizing. He was doing what he did, baptizing. That was who he was. He was preparing people. Preparing is a way of looking forward. It orients us towards what is coming. This means it also shifts us slightly away from dwelling on ourselves in the present.
We are looking ahead to change. This seems to be John’s message. It seems to be the message of the shepherd’s joy. But this change is not quite what we would expect. John’s preparing people is a kind of evangelization. That is, it opens up new significance in the physical reality and life already there. And the change that comes through evangelization is a transformation of the world. From the ground up. It changes how we treat each other, how we see the world, because evangalization works through all the things of the world. And when we are prepared that way, we start to see people and things differently. We value the fact that we are here at all and that others are here at all. Perhaps the shepherds’ joy is a bit like that. They see the star in its great beauty and are amazed.
Just seeing it makes everything seem a little bit different. Sometimes we may feel that when we have read a great book or heard a great song. I remember feeling that way when I started reading Joyce’s Ulysses. Walking down a litter-strewn street in the heat of the summer with motorbikers in their leathers trying to look tough, I saw everything with different eyes. I had been prepared by entering that world of Joyce’s making to see things differently.
Well, in a much more profound way, John is seeing things differently. His answers to the authorities all point away from himself to the one coming after him. He is not concerned with talking about himself. He was going about his business baptizing. He was preparing people for things he would probably not see happen. When we venture out of our comfort zone, when we get on the wrong bus, knowing we will probably return there sooner or later, we are daring to do that. We may not usually notice a homeless person or a helpless baby crying up a storm except to feel annoyed. But we can be transformed through our baptism , a preparation that launches us out into encountering people we may not be accustomed to encounter.
We must trust that we are doing some good, that the astonishment that has brought us joy like the shepherds will change us and help us change the world, little by little. Look again at the old lady we usually don’t notice. Look again at the crying baby. How do we attend to the crying baby? We do it through communication. Through empathy. Through getting out of ourselves. Through imagining what someone so different from us is. But in crying the baby is also being itself. Babies cry. They do that believing that they will be noticed: it’s a good faith gesture! Babies cry a lot, showing themselves to a world that can seem cold and indifferent yes but also because as babies they need to show they are in need of tender loving care. They are communicating what they are: dependent, in need. Should that surprise us? Or does it remind us of our own dependence on God? As we get ready for Christmas, we look for ways Christ is entering our lives. When it comes, let us be ready to pay attention to the Christ child’s cry.