by John Hare
This is John Hare, one of your wardens at St. John’s. I am going to talk today about John the Baptizer, who features prominently in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Advent from John chapter 1. John the Baptizer is the hinge joining the two parts, or two leaves, of the Bible together, the law and the prophets on the one hand and the Gospel on the other. This is how I think he features in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. He represents the law and the prophets AND he points explicitly towards Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This Gospel, like many ancient texts, starts with a locator, a public event, the public ministry of the Baptizer, but we need to see the significance of this event in Israel’s sacred history as a whole. The people were expecting that before the Messiah would come a prophet, perhaps Elijah returned. The Pharisees sent people to ask the Baptizer, ‘Are you Elijah?’, ‘Are you the prophet?’, ‘Are you the Messiah?’, and to all these questions John answers ‘No’. What was John doing that made this a relevant question? Well, he was Baptizing. But before baptizing, he was calling for repentance. When asked who he is, he quotes ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.
What does the prophet mean with this picture? He means that the obstacles to the return to the land of Israel have been removed. And what are these obstacles? The Baptizer makes this plain. To baptize is to clean. John is baptizing with water. The people need to be cleaned from their sin, and this means that first they need to acknowledge it. As Psalm 84. 5 puts it, ‘Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ It is our hearts that have to be cleaned so that we can follow God’s path for our lives.
Something striking about the Baptizer is that he empties himself and makes himself a servant, even to death. He says, of Jesus, ‘he must increase, and I must decrease.’ ‘The one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’ (which is the work of a slave). ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.’ One reason this is striking is that John was actually older than Jesus by six months. Already when Mary came to visit Elizabeth, John was already old enough to leap in Elizabeth’s womb; in the old word, he had quickened. So in what sense is John saying that Jesus was before him? The prologue to John’ Gospel makes this plain. ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ The prologue is telling us here that the Baptizer has seen the light that came into the world. When the Word came to what was his own, his own people did not receive him, but those who did receive him were given the power to become children of God.
So now the Gospel, the second leaf of the holy book. We are still supposed to keep the law, God’s revelation of God’s way for us, but we are not under the curse of the law, under the vengeance of God, because we have been forgiven and we have been baptized not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. That is, I think, to say that we are given the power to become children of God. We are not merely told how we ought to live, what God’s way is, and we are not merely held accountable to this standard of righteousness. That would be the curse of the law. Rather, we are given, first forgiveness for our failures, and then power to live in the way God requires of us.
This does not mean, alas, that we already live this way. But we are grafted into this new life, in the way a branch can be grafted into the vine, and we are now in the vine. We can, therefore, be witnesses in the way the Baptizer was a witness. We are now in the third week of Advent, and we are thinking about the second coming of Christ. In this way we are like John, even though he was witnessing to the first coming, because we are still witnessing to something that is not yet complete. And like John, I think we get from God a foretaste of what it is going to be like when it is complete. The prologue to the Gospel says, ‘and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ What we have seen already and what we can testify to is not the complete full glory of the only-begotten son, which we will see only when we see him face to face; it is just a foretaste of this. But it is still the glory. Amen.
Let us pray. Dear God, thank you that we have seen already your glory in the first coming of our Lord, and that we can be witnesses also to our hope in the glory to be revealed in his second coming. Amen