John 1:6-8, 19-28
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”
1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
1:23 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.
1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,
1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
A Question or Two:
- Why does John confess that he is not the Messiah?
- Don’t settle for a simple, or single, answer.
Some Longer Reflections:
Just a note in passing: the storyteller in John disagrees with the storytellers in the synoptic gospels. The synoptic storytellers paint John as Elijah. John’s storyteller emphatically does not. Who is right? Yes.
This is worth noting, but it is not worth spending time manufacturing a way to avoid this obvious contradiction. The storytellers disagree. They just do. That is a problem only if we refuse to accept the gift of a rich and diverse storytelling tradition, the gift of multiple stories, each with its own perspective and point, the gift of being freed from having to engage in tiny little arguments about biblical “inerrancy” that only make us look silly to outsiders.
We are getting close to Christmas. Accept the gifts.
It is somewhat important to sort out who John confesses that he is not, but it is far more important to absorb who he says that he is. He is, he says, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” Commentators often note that this is a misquoting of Isaiah’s words. Isaiah said: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…,” but John (and the Septuagint) have the voice in the wilderness instead of having the “way of the LORD” there. It is worth noting, again just in passing, that this is not necessarily a problem with text or quotation or translation. It may only be a problem with editorial decisions since you could just as well present the text in John (and the Septuagint) as:
Ἐγὼ φωνὴ βοῶντος, Εν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἐὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου… (I am a voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…)
All that requires is a shift in capital letters and commas, and the original manuscripts had no commas and were written all in capitals, so it’s only editors who put the voice in the wilderness. They certainly did this because John (who had wildness in him and around him) was such a powerful attractor that he distorted the original words of Isaiah all by himself. But it is not clear to me that the editors are right, nor is it clear that John would have agreed with them.
The original words put the way of the God whose Name is Mercy in the wilderness.
The words do that because this is a prophecy from the time of the Exile and the promised Return to the Land of Promise. The Jews in Exile knew plenty about the wilderness. They knew that the shortest way home lay straight through the desert: dry, rough, and inhospitable. They also knew that the regular road back to Jerusalem and the Land of Promise lay through the Fertile Crescent, through the territory of the nations that had ridiculed them when they were marched naked into Exile after the Babylonian Conquest. They remembered that experience, and they knew that they would be traveling with few resources, which would force them to rely on the generosity of the people that had taunted them. “Make a straight path,” said Second Isaiah. Where? “Straight through the desert, made miraculously level and life-giving.”
But there is a deeper level to this. The Jews in Exile knew that there were all sorts of wilderness. The word in Hebrew is midbar, which means “a place far away from speech (dabar).” The image is powerful. It combines the silence of wildlands with a hint that these lands were inhospitable because they had not yet been shaped by God’s creating Word (Genesis 1) which made chaos into a place where people could live safely. The Jews in Exile knew about the desert wilderness; they also knew about the chaos of life in Exile, and could anticipate the chaos that would attend their return to Jerusalem, the city that had stood empty and ruined in their vivd imaginations, but which had been inhabited by very real people for the past two generations. This, also presented a kind of wilderness, with no sure track or certain outcome.
“Make a straight road for the God whose Name is Mercy, make it in the wilderness, make it in chaos, make it in our imaginations so that we can bear the hard, chaotic work that lies ahead of us,” so says the prophet. You need a prophet sometimes; sometimes only a prophet can tell you the truth, and also give you the courage you will need to handle that difficult truth.
And that might be the connection that lets both John the Baptist and Second Isaiah speak to the people who will show up for worship on the Third Sunday of Advent.
They are acquainted with the wilderness. All sorts of wilderness, both in them and around them.
You know that wilderness, or at least some of it, and you also know the wilderness that frightens you. John the Baptist comes into this week’s scene singing a song about making a road for Mercy in the middle of any imaginable wilderness. This might be a week to look closely at the First Lesson for this week, also from Isaiah. It expands on what all four gospel storytellers understand to be John’s purpose and task. For all the differences amongst the four gospels, they agree on this: John the Baptist sings the song that Second Isaiah began. That suggests that the gospel storytellers saw the chaos around them as calling for that same voice to cry out, the same voice that the Jews in Exile needed and heard.
As an experiment, read the scene from John’s gospel, and when John the Baptist links his voice with the voice of Second Isaiah, add a verse or two from this Sunday’s First Lesson as well. Now go back to the beginning of the scene and read it again, this time adding yet more words from Isaiah 61.
Now consider this: Where you live, who are the oppressed? Who are the brokenhearted? Who are the prisoners, and who are the mourners? What are the ancient ruins that need to be built up? How can the people who gather for worship this Third Sunday of Advent bind up, and comfort, and build up? It is my conviction that it is the brokenhearted that are best at binding up, that those who mourn are best at comforting mourners, and that those who have lived through devastation are the most helpful at helping us repair ruined cities and broken communities.
There is a lot of binding and healing and rebuilding needed, maybe especially this year. This Sunday is a good day to get on with that work.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
61:3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
61:10 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, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
61:11 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.