I heard someone jokingly say recently, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without John the Baptist. “In a sense this comment is true in that we really only think about this great New Testament prophet at Christmas time. Jesus described John the Baptist as more than a prophet, so who was he? The fourth Gospel gives the following account.
(John 1 Verses 6-8) 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (Verses 19-28) 19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
What is the background to this passage? The Jewish leaders were the Sanhedrin who had dispatched a delegation to investigate the activities of an unauthorized teacher. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who not only looked after the Temple but also had teaching responsibilities. The Jewish leaders remembered that Elijah had not died (2 Kings 2:11) and believed that he would come back to earth to announce the end time. There was also an expectation of a variety of others to accompany Elijah. It was sometimes believed that a prophet par excellence like Isaiah or Jeremiah would accompany Elijah (Deuteronomy 18:15). John the Baptist emphatically denies being either “Elijah” or “The Prophet.” Instead, he quotes the prophecy written in Isaiah 40:3 and sees himself as helping people come to the Messiah (the Christ). The Pharisees, the third part of the delegation (Levites, Priests and Pharisees), probe more deeply. Messiah means “Anointed One” in the Old Testament but here The Messiah is ‘The’ Anointed One. What confused the religious delegation was the kind of baptism that John was carrying out. Only Gentiles needed to be baptized by full immersion since Israelites were already clean and did not need to be washed. What John was therefore implying is that the chosen people of God had become unclean and had to be cleansed themselves. Untying sandals was the lowest of menial tasks. Disciples would perform many tasks for their rabbis (teachers), but they would never stoop so low as to untie their sandals. What John the Baptist is saying therefore is however great he is perceived to be, the gap between him and Jesus is so much bigger than they can imagine. Of course, returning to where we started, Christmas would not be Christmas without Jesus so however much we revere the work of John the Baptist, the work of Jesus is infinitely more important. That is the voice we need to listen to this Christmas above everything else.
Old Testament Reading for this day: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Gospel Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24