John reminds me of teenage friends who will say something ironic with a straight face, and pause. Just as you’re wondering if this could possibly be true, they add, “Not!” They’ve told the truth in its opposite.
When asked who he is, John answers with who he is not. “I am not the messiah,” he proclaims. He is not a few other people, too, he tells his questioners. When finally pressed to say who he is, he offers only that he is a voice. Even as a voice, he chooses the words of Isaiah for his message.
The messengers from the Pharisees wants to know why John is baptizing people. In doing that, he shares in a common Jewish custom of purification. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that Rabbi Akiba in the second century makes reference to baptism, and explains, “Baptism is not merely for the purpose of expiating a special transgression, as is the case chiefly in the violation of the so-called Levitical laws of purity; but it is to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God.” Baptism was common to the Essenes at the time of John and Jesus. In the Jewish faith of the time, it was an important part of conversion to the faith, a rite of initiation. “According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple, Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)
John – and later, the Christian faith – adopt and adapt this. In fact, John becomes so famous for this that we call him “John the Baptist.” John is one of those figures whom we understand as a composite. Our picture of him comes from all four gospels. The Gospel of John doesn’t mention the camel’s hair clothing or the lunch of locusts and honey, but we import them mentally from Matthew’s gospel.
More interestingly, John’s gospel doesn’t show John baptizing Jesus. The other three gospels have John baptizing Jesus, and the Spirit descending on Jesus after that. Here, John recognizes Jesus because the Holy Spirit is already present.
“And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’.” (John 1:32-34, NRSV)
Where Luke’s gospel has John and Jesus as cousins, John’s gospel suggests that they didn’t know each other until a moment of recognition where John sees that Jesus has been touched by the Holy Spirit, and is the one sent by God.
At the end of his life, Jesus passes on the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. (John 14:17, 26.) The Spirit that identifies and guides Jesus becomes a gift to the disciples, and then, in turn, to us.
John identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” This title only appears in John’s gospel, although the Book of Revelation picks up the image of the lamb. Lambs were sacrificed in the Jerusalem temple twice a day, and the blood of the lamb marked the Hebrew households as the people prepared to leave Egypt and their lives as slaves. The sacrifice of the lamb in Egypt came as part of God’s work of liberation. John proclaims that Jesus has come to take away the sins of the world, making a theological claim about Jesus’ purpose, and the sacrifice of his life. Some people believe this was Jesus’ saving mission, while others are more inspired by his life. Others find salvation in Jesus from our selfishness, our petty concerns and our self-absorption, and a call back to a Spirit-filled life. “Yes, Jesus, save me from myself,” Marcus Borg has said. Whether it’s salvation from sin, or from our old way of life, John recognizes Jesus as the one who comes to call us back to God in a new way. John the messenger follows the birth of Jesus, and proclaims that Jesus has come to connect us to God in deeper ways. Out by the river, far from the painstaking rituals of the temple, John sees that God is doing something new, through someone new. In the same way, as a new year begins for us, we can hear John calling us back to God.
- John has unusual clarity about who he is not. Our lives are often about who we are – family connections, a student ID, the keys that mark us as a homeowner, our work, or the badge that identifies us as a volunteer somewhere. What if we gave the same attention to who we are not, and let that be a place of freedom? If we are not good at baking, no need to be tormented over the school bake sale because there are other places to help out. If we are not good at meetings, we can find other ways to contribute. The discipline of stretching into new growth is always good, but there’s a delicious freedom in knowing who we are not. Out of his own clarity about who he is not, John also finds the work he is called to do.
- The sermon might explore the image of the Lamb of God. Lambs are cuddly and a bit awkward, not commanding or impressive. Why call Jesus a lamb? How do we understand the sacrifice of Jesus’ life?
- Or, the sermon might explore how we know when God is at work in someone, or in events around us? John recognizes Jesus because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in him? In our lives, how do we recognize the Spirit at work? John was uniquely prepared – he was ready to see. As a new calendar year begins, people may be thinking about life changes — exercise, saving more money, or other oft-made resolutions. If so, they’ve been preparing to make this kind of change. Do we make equally serious preparations to look for God, like John did? John was so focused on the coming of the Messiah that he couldn’t miss it.
- Or, we might look at John as messenger for Jesus, and Jesus as a messenger for God. In what ways are we also messengers for God? How do our lives announce God’s grace, God’s welcome, and God’s freedom? How do our clothes, our finances, our offices, our calendars, our technology and our time point to God – or not?
As always, we give thanks to the fine minds at Working Preacher who devised the Narrative Lectionary.