So I thought it might be good to look at the similarities and differences between the picture of John presented in Mark’s Gospel – last week’s reading – and in John’s Gospel – this week’s reading. But let’s get one thing clear from the outset. John the Baptist is not John the writer of the Gospel. You knew that, but still it can be a bit confusing. John the Gospel writer does, I think, identify with the Baptist a bit, but we’ll come to that.
One similarity between Mark and John’s account of the Baptist strikes one immediately. And that is his humility. He has a phrase, almost a catch-phrase, which occurs in both accounts. Speaking of Jesus, he says he is not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. John clearly believed himself to be vastly less important than Jesus. The fact is, though, that John is a very important figure. This merely serves to point up how incomparably important Jesus is.
The importance of John comes through more clearly in Mark’s Gospel. There we hear how he attracted hundreds of people who came out from the surrounding cities and towns and countryside to hear him preach. He was a charismatic man, a man with a compelling demeanour, a message to which people responded and a ritual to which people chose to submit. To receive his baptism was a sign that his words had struck a deep chord; to receive his baptism was a profound sign of an intention to change one’s life and to seek to participate in the coming, promised Kingdom.
Mark portrays a man with an important message of his own, a man who gathered around him followers committed to preaching his message. John’s account is rather different. And, in a way, we need to hear it in the context in which John places it, surrounded by words which we have not heard this morning, but which many of us will know well. “In the beginning was the word . . .”
That’s how John begins his Gospel, painting a picture on a cosmic scale. This, he tells us, this which I am about to unfold to you, is about one who has existed since before all time. The Logos, the word of God, was the agency though which God created the heavens and the earth. But now, this is a story of how that aspect of God, the Word, was transformed for the transformation of the world, by becoming incarnate in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth.
But John needs a narrative bridge to link the cosmic to the earthly. And that bridge is John. When first he mentions him, he tells us only this – that he was sent from God, that his name was John, and that his job was to testify to the incarnation, to the light coming into the world, that everyone may believe. A vital role, to be sure, but a role of complete self-effacement.
A little later on, John returns to the story of his namesake. But the important thing was not who he was but who he wasn’t. John the Evangelist does not describe the preaching, the listening crowds or the ritual baptism in the Jordan that we learn about from Mark. To his mind, these things are of lesser importance, referred to only obliquely, and not the subject of the narrative.
What the Evangelist tells us about John is this: the authorities sent people to question him, from which we may surmise that he was causing a bit of a stir. When they asked him who he was, he didn’t tell them that he was John the Baptist, or that he was calling people to repentance and baptising them as a sign of their changed lives. He said, “I am not the Messiah.”
The questioners questioned him further. Are you Elijah, or another prophet? “No,” he replied. They were trying to understand him through the prism of their scriptures, but he wasn’t fitting their ideas. “Who are you, then?” they demanded. And John plays a little game with them.
He describes who he was in terms used by the prophet Isaiah – ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’ Only that's not what Isaiah said. He said, "In the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord," using the wilderness as a metaphor, meaning that we are to prepare for God to sweep through the chaos of our disordered, ungodly lives.
Either way, though, it is meaningful. John cries out his message in the literal wilderness and speaks into the wilderness of our lives. The message is from the wilderness to the wilderness and it is this – God is on the way. God is coming to us.
The people sent by the Pharisees had one last question. "If," they said to John, "you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet, why are you baptising?” It is a question of authority. ‘By whose authority are you administering this sign?’ they are asking. John’s answer is as oblique as his earlier ones. He doesn’t tell them, but rather he does what he believed he was there to do. He said, in effect, stop looking at me. I’m of little interest, of little consequence. Start to look for the one you have not yet seen, the one I know is among you but you have not recognised, for he is the one who is really significant; he is the one who is truly important.
Always pointing to Christ. That was John the Baptist – always pointing to Christ. That too is the role of John the Gospel writer – always pointing to Christ.
In the Christmas carol, Once in Royal David’s city, there is a line referring to Jesus, “For he is our childhood’s pattern.” This morning, I would like to suggest that there are aspects of John the Baptist's life which we should adopt as our life's pattern. And from what I have said this morning, I would like to mention three things.
First, there was John’s daring to be different. Too often, in the church, we seek refuge in conventionality. We worry more about preserving what we’ve already got than about doing new things. Many church people spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to keep other church people in line. We tend to think that we always have to get permission to think or do something different. John sought no one’s permission. He derived his authority to baptise from nothing other than his own conviction of his calling from God. To adopt such an approach to authority may be very challenging for us, and especially for those who are heavily invested in ideas of their own authority, but it could also be very liberating and fruitful.
Second, there is the compelling nature of John’s ministry as Mark describes it. In the good news of Jesus Christ, we have a compelling message for the world, that there is a way to peace and reconciliation, that there is a meaning and a purpose to life, that there is ultimate love and acceptance. Thinking about John should challenge us to be bold in our delivery of that message, and nothing will deliver it more clearly than living lives which demonstrate that it is true.
And third, we learn from John's Gospel of the Baptist’s total self-effacement. As his concern was only to point to Christ, so should our lives point to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. We do not preach the Christian message in order that others may hear us preaching. We do not live the Christian life in order that others may see us doing so. We preach that people may hear God, and we live that others may see Christ.