There Was a Man Named John

If this morning’s gospel reading feels a little familiar to you, well, it should. Last week we read Mark 1:1-8. The first verse of Mark 1 is about Jesus: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But after that, the next seven verses are about John the Baptist. This week, we read from the first chapter of John’s gospel. The first chapter of John is a lot longer than the first chapter of Mark—there’s a lot going on in John 1, from an opening poem about the Word of God to the call of the first disciples. But once again we are reading a passage about John the Baptist. Now, many of you know that I use a list of readings for each week called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is put together by a large group of Christian preachers and scholars—not by me. And when I saw that this Advent two weeks in a row we would have readings about John the Baptist, I wondered why. I imagine some of you are wondering the same thing this morning: why two weeks on John the Baptist?

So I did a little investigating. As it turns out, John the Baptist is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. After all the sermons and Sunday School lessons I’ve heard, all the classes on the New Testament I’ve taken, all the books about the Bible I’ve read, and even the classes on the New Testament I’ve helped teach, I’m not sure that I knew that before this week. John the Baptist shows up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. By my count, he is mentioned in 8 chapters of Matthew, 5 chapters of Mark, 8 chapters of Luke, 5 chapters of John, and 4 chapters of Acts: 30 chapters in the New Testament mention John the Baptist. Only a few other New Testament figures, people like Jesus, Peter, and Paul, appear more frequently. John the Baptist is also one of the few people from the New Testament mentioned at all by non-biblical writers of the time; the 1stcentury writer and historian Josephus talks about John and his execution by Herod.

For someone so prominent in the Bible, we know surprisingly little about John the Baptist. Some scholars believe John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect that lived in small communities near the Dead Sea, but no one knows for certain. He is not the same person as John, the disciple of Jesus. He did not write the gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd John, or Revelation. He was not one of Jesus’ followers. According to Luke’s gospel, John was Jesus’ cousin. Tradition says that John was 6 months older than Jesus, so the church has celebrated John’s birthday as June 25th for centuries. John had his own disciples, some of whom become followers of Jesus in Acts. All four gospels agree that John baptized people in the Jordan River.

As you probably gathered from this morning’s gospel lesson, we’re not the first people to be confused by John. Having heard of John’s baptisms and increasing popularity, an unusual alliance of Jewish leaders sets out to investigate this strange figure. Priests and Levites, on the one hand, and Pharisees, on the other, didn’t always get along. But John has caught their attention, and they want to know who he is. They head out to the Jordan, near Bethany, find John, and start to interrogate him: Are you the Messiah? No. Elijah? No. The prophet? No. It’s almost like Rumpelstiltskin: who is John the Baptist? Will he tell ever tell them?

Of course, you and I have an advantage over the priests, Levites, and Pharisees. All they had were rumors about a man in the desert. We have John 1:6-8: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John is a witness, and the job of a witness is to speak the truth about what he has seen. But John is a funny kind of witness, because his testimony is about something he hasn’t seen, or at least hasn’t seen all the way. In the gospel of John, the first time John the Baptist sees Jesus is in chapter 1, verse 29—the verse right after this morning’s lesson. And John dies long before Jesus is crucified or raised from the dead.

You might say that John the Baptist is the anti-Doubting Thomas. Thomas, infamously, is the disciple of Jesus who refuses to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, “unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side” (John 20:25). Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29b). Blessed, in other words, are those who are less like Thomas and more like John the Baptist.

In the end, I think this is why John the Baptist shows up twice in our Advent gospel readings this year. In this season of waiting, we need the Baptist’s example of belief without seeing, of testimony given out of faith and hope rather than from sight. At this time of year there are many people who have a heard time believing that Christmas means anything more than exchanging gifts and eating lots of good food. There are others who cannot believe that words like peace and love and hope belong to a season that reminds them so painfully of loved ones who will not be present this year to celebrate. And there so many more people who, looking at the world’s troubles and sorrows, cannot believe that Jesus will one day return to make things right, if he ever came in the first place.

In Advent, in the season of waiting, in the special time of preparation for Christ’s coming, belief is not enough. We must also testify. And we must be sure to bear witness truthfully: I am not the Messiah. I am a fellow traveler, nothing more. I am not the one you have been waiting for. But I know him. I wait for him, too. I cannot save you or anyone else. But I know who can. I wait for him, too. I am not the Messiah. But I know him. I know him. I know him. And I wait for him, too.

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