We heard about John the Baptist last week, and again, this week, we get another description of him, this time from the Gospel of John. But what is so fascinating to me is that the description we get of him is really… non-descript! We know that he was sent from God, that his name was John, that he was to witness to the light, and that’s about it. That leaves me with a ton of questions, and apparently, I am not the only one, because the Jewish authorities sent people to ask John who he was. He told them straight up that he wasn’t the Messiah, and when they asked if he was Elijah or the prophet said to come as a forerunner to the Messiah, he answered no. The only thing he would tell them is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
It reminds me of a song my mom used to sing to me when I was little: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
The original was about a little girl losing her yellow basket, but reading the Gospel, I re-imagined the song going a little something like this:
Are you the Messiah?
No, no, no, no
Are you Elijah?
No, no, no, no
Are you the prophet?
No, no, no, no
Just a voice crying out,
A voice crying out!
I know… it’s sad, but maybe it’ll help me remember all the people John the Baptist was being mistaken for!
So who was this man anyway? What was he up to? And why does it matter for us?
John the Baptist is described here only in terms of what or who he is not. He’s not the Messiah, the one to redeem all of creation. He’s not the prophet Elijah who was carried into the heavens by a fiery chariot and was, therefore, rumored to come back before the Messiah appeared. He’s not even the prophet like Moses who was supposed to come before the Messiah.
And when he is asked “what do you say about yourself,” he says only that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord!” Instead of really answering, he only points to the coming of the Lord. He tells his inquirers that there is one they don’t even recognize standing in their midst – one who is greater than he is and for whom they should be looking. His calling is to “testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
Now, the lectionary doesn’t do us any favors here because it leaves out the part of the text that tells us who this light is. It’s the part that goes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For those still wondering who the light is, it’s always safe to go with the Sunday School or Seminary answer: “It’s Jesus!”
John is the one called to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for Jesus’ coming, and to point to him when he appears on the scene. He is called a “witness,” or in the Greek, a “martyr,” and indeed, he will give his life speaking God’s truth to the powers that be. His whole identity is bound up in Christ. When Mary visits John’s mother Elizabeth, John leaps in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, rejoicing that Mary and Jesus have come near. From the very start, he is intimately connected with the Savior, and as the text tells us, pointing to Jesus was the very thing he was sent from God to do.
Just as John was called to be a witness to Christ, so, too, are we called to point to Christ. This day in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoicing Sunday – a day to rejoice at the nearness of the coming of the Lord in a season of waiting and preparation. Part of that means pointing out and rejoicing over the places where we see Christ in the world. As a German theologian put it, “The time of fulfillment has dawned. We are already surrounded by the wonders and miracles of God” (Helmut Thielicke). This week I saw the wonders of Christ in so many places – in the faces of friends at a synod worship service, in the sharing of the Eucharist on Wednesday and with some of our homebound members, in a van full of toys collected for LINK, in laughing and praying with others… The list could go on and on. Where did you see Christ? Where can you point to God’s presence or activity in the world?
The world is full of darkness and difficulty, pain and suffering. Sometimes, life is just rough. We, like John, are called to witness to the light – to point out that God is here among us even if all seems difficult. And when we cannot see God for ourselves, we need others to point to God to help us see. We are called to proclaim with joy the wonderful things that God has done – that God is with us, loves us more deeply than we can even imagine, and has forgiven and welcomed each of us as beloved children. That is amazing news and a reason to rejoice if I ever heard one! It’s the type of news that causes the overflowing of poetic praise we hear in Isaiah: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness …For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”
In baptism, we have been clothed with the garments of salvation and the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Just as John’s identity was in Christ, in baptism our identities have been shaped by the cross of Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit. We know that God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do, the connections we have with people in high places, our jobs, our skills, or the amount of money we have. And out of that wonderful knowledge, our praise is to spring up before all nations. We rejoice because of what God has done for us and we are called to share it with others.
I take heart that John is not your normal, average, everyday person. He was a little weird. He was born to parents far too old to have children, he ate wild locusts and honey, he wore camel hair, a garment which was a sign of being a prophet, and he lived out in the wilderness. The wilderness was not a quiet getaway either, but a place feared and seen as disorderly and dangerous, where wild beasts and fierce bandits lived. It was a place of desolation and waste, where people find themselves bewildered and often lost – yet this is the place where the covenant with is Israel was made. This is the place where prophets lived/fled to. It is the place where Jesus will go to be tested and where he will feed thousands. It is a place of trial and difficulty, but also of learning and strengthening one’s reliance on God.
I find great comfort in the fact that God worked through someone who was on the margins, who was outside of the box in order to point to the light of the world. I find incredible hope and joy knowing that God can work through each of us, no matter how “unorthodox” it may seem. Because the beautiful thing is that God works through you and me – through the poor, the marginalized, the hurting, the quirky, the broken, the serious, the weak, the imperfect, and the goofballs to bring about healing and wholeness, and the kingdom of God on earth.
John spends his life pointing to Christ, bearing witness to the light and life that will allow humanity to see God and each other more clearly. He is the lone voice crying out and preparing the way for Christ to come and usher in the Kingdom of God. The voice is a powerful concept in Scripture – God’s voice speaks and brings creation into being. The Word of God, Jesus, becomes flesh and dwells among us. God speaks through us and our fragile voices bear the voice and the words of God – comfort for those grieving, hope for those struggling, laughter for those rejoicing, and encouragement for the downtrodden. How will you use your voice to cry out that Christ is near? How will you use your voice to rejoice that the coming of the Lord is near? How will you use your life to point toward Christ in others and in the world?
My prayer is that each of us will find ways of pointing to and focusing on Christ this season and throughout the year. That we would have the bold and audacious confidence of John the Baptist in claiming our identities in Christ, as well as John’s humility in knowing that the one who is coming is the one far greater than ourselves. Amen.
© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.