A voice in the wilderness
December 7, 2008
( Is. 40, 1-11; Mark 1, 1-8)
Last week we went ( as we often do at this time of year) to hear a performance of Handel’s Messiah. So as the Old Testament reading was being read, I was hearing it with Handel’s splendid music running through my head.
The reading comes from the section of the book we know as Second Isaiah – a prophet whose message came to the Jews in exile in Babylon after the city had been conquered by Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus proclaimed that all the people taken into exile by the Babylonians should be allowed to return to their own lands. So Second Isaiah imagines the Jewish people undergoing a second Exodus, travelling through the wilderness, where every obstacle in their path has been removed, led like a shepherd by God, who has forgiven them all their sins and now welcomes them back to Jerusalem.
The writers of the Gospels used this ‘wilderness’ imagery again, when they described the ministry of John the Baptist – though the alert ones among you may have noticed a slight adaptation of the text to suit a new situation. Isaiah says: A voice crying, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”. The Gospel writers have: “A voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”, because that better suits the actual historical situation of John living and proclaiming his message in the wilderness of Judea.
All four of the Gospel writers begin their accounts of Jesus’ ministry with John the Baptist. In this year, when the lectionary concentrates on the Gospels of Mark and John we get two of these accounts during Advent – this week Mark’s and next week John’s. Normally on this Sunday in Advent we think about the Old Testament prophets – and it is possible to see John as the last in a long line of prophets who called the Jewish people to repent of their sins and to return to their covenant relationship with God in times of trouble. But that is not the way the writers of the New Testament saw John. They saw him as the Forerunner of the Messiah, the one who proclaimed that the long awaited intervention of God in human affairs was at hand.
During the period since the return from exile in Babylon, an elaborate mythology had built up among various Jewish groups about exactly what would happen when the Messiah came and what events would herald it. One element in these stories said that a great prophet would herald the Messiah; another said some of the great figures from the Jewish past would return to earth to proclaim the imminent arrival of God’s Saviour. Chief among these expected visitors were Moses and the prophet Elijah, both of whom were believed to have been swept up into heaven on their deaths and to have no earthly grave.
Because of his mode of life, living alone in desert regions, and also because of his uncompromising message, John fitted easily into the role of Elijah. The fact that he came out of the wilderness also allowed a connection with Moses. But why did the Gospel writers have to explain his mission at all? There were other people around the time of Jesus, and before, who proclaimed that the time of God’s intervention was approaching, but they are not described in the New Testament. Why was John singled out for this detailed description?
John the Baptist was clearly a problem to those who wrote the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament. He was active at almost the same time as Jesus, although John’s ministry was centred in Judea and Jesus’ in Galilee. Both proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God. John practised baptism (adapting a ceremony that Gentile converts to Judaism underwent to signify a change of faith) to be a sign for Jews of their repentance and a new beginning. Jesus’ followers later took over this ceremony to signify initiation into the Christian community.
Most inconveniently for the Gospel writers, it seems that, before his own ministry began, Jesus went to hear John and was baptised by him in the Jordan. It is possible that he may even have been a disciple of John’s for a while, before his own unique destiny was revealed to him. Certainly, some of Jesus’ disciples seem to also have been disciples of John, including our own patron saint, Andrew.
Both John and Jesus died a martyr’s death, after being persecuted by the authorities. Both left groups of followers dedicated to spreading the message of their prophet throughout the Jewish world. Both were Messianic figures. Because Jesus had been baptised by John, it might seem that he was in some way subordinate to him; but, to those who had witnessed the resurrection, it was quite obvious that Jesus was by far the more important figure. So, how could they deal with the ministry of John without denigrating his message in any way, while still maintaining the superiority of Jesus?
All four Gospel writers do this by incorporating John the Baptist and his ministry into the story of Jesus, and having him point to Jesus as the one who is to come, but they each deal with the story in different ways.
The Fourth Gospel, as we will hear in next week’s Gospel reading, omits any mention of Jesus being baptised by John, although it admits that Jesus came to hear John, and that he was standing among the crowds when John was talking to the priests and the Levites. It has John denying that he himself is the Messiah, or Elijah or The Prophet. He takes on himself the role the gospel writers assign to him, of the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare for the one who is to come, and he acknowledges that the one to come is greater than him and will baptise with the Holy Spirit rather than with water. Finally, he points Jesus out to some of his own disciples and says he saw the Spirit descending on him, and calls him “The Lamb of God”. Then those disciples go off to follow Jesus. Just to make certain no-one is mistaken, the Fourth Evangelist also inserts a parentheses into the Hymn to the Word in his first chapter, mentioning John the Baptist by name and saying he was not the Light but came to bear witness to the Light so that everyone would believe, and that he was specifically sent by God to do so.
Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism by John, but precedes it with a conversation where John tries to argue that it shouldn’t be done, because he needs to be baptised by Jesus. He only agrees to do it when Jesus says it must be done to fulfil what God requires.
Mark simply records that Jesus came from Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan, but , as we heard today, he also has John predicting that he will be followed by one who is greater than him.
Luke has the most elaborate scheme to link the two figures together, and to emphasise Jesus’ superior status. He composes a birth story that makes a family relationship between Jesus and John through their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth. The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel contains two parallel birth stories, one for Jesus and one for John. The superiority of Jesus is emphasised by the more miraculous circumstances of his birth: John is born to a woman who is past childbearing age; Jesus is born to a virgin. Then Luke has John acknowledging Jesus from the womb in the story of the Visitation, and his mother acknowledging that Mary is the mother of the Saviour, and his father setting out in the Benedictus the Christian interpretation of John’s ministry as the one who prepares the way. So, in Luke’s story, John and both his parents acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.
While the story of the family relationship is unlikely to be historical ( particularly since later in his Gospel Luke has messengers coming from John to Jesus, asking if Jesus is the Messiah), it is a subtle way of emphasising that both John and Jesus were serving God in similar ways by proclaiming the message of forgiveness of sins and the coming of God’s Kingdom.
As Jesus says after the messengers come from John, John the Baptist was a great and significant figure. He may not have known who exactly the Messiah was, or when he was to come, or how the salvation he brought would be accomplished, but like the prophets of old, he proclaimed the message he had been given by God faithfully, no matter what the personal consequences were for him, and even when it led to his death. He was truly, as the Gospel writers recognised,
‘a voice crying in the wilderness’.
John’s ministry has a message for us, as we prepare once again to celebrate Christ’s coming into the world at Christmas. We have a gospel to proclaim, but so often the world seems reluctant to hear it, and what we say seems to have little impact . When we hear of evil actions and the tragedies they cause – at the individual, personal level, and on a larger scale, like the terrorist attack in Mumbai – it is easy to conclude that there is no point in preaching about a God of love. John’s example should inspire us to continue to direct the attention of the world to God’s Saviour and God’s loving purpose for his world. Although, like him, we may not always understand what is happening, and although we may not be around to see the fulfilment of the promise, we, the present day ‘voices crying in the wilderness’, have an essential role to play in God’s plan of salvation.