The Bible is full of fascinating characters. But to my mind, one of the most fascinating is John the Baptist. Who exactly was he? What was he all about? What can we learn from him? And on this third Sunday of Advent when the theme of joy is before us, how does John the Baptist inform our understanding of joy? These are some of the questions that I kept asking myself the last few days I as was contemplating today’s Gospel.
So, first, who was John the Baptist? We know from the Gospel of Luke that he was born to Elizabeth, a relative of Jesus’ mother Mary. It’s sometimes assumed that John and Jesus, who were just a few months apart in age, grew up together as cousins and had a close friendship, but that’s unlikely. Jesus was raised in the north, in Nazareth, whereas John grew up in the south, in the region of Judea, and spent lengthy periods in the desert. It’s very possible that John was once part of a sectarian offshoot of the same ascetic community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. But by the time he reached adulthood, he was apparently an independent ascetic, living in the desert, wearing clothing made of camel’s hair, and regularly snacking on locusts and wild honey. The beginning of the Gospel of John describes him as a “witness” sent by God “to testify to the light”—the light of renewal and deliverance, of liberation, embodied in the one expected as Messiah.
John the Baptist’s work of testifying was prophetic. He was a critic of the status quo. And many people were attracted to his message, so much so that they would flock to him by the shore of the Jordan River, where he would baptize them. His baptism was one of repentance and messianic preparation, consistent with various ritual washings common to Jewish life. John’s call to a radically transformed mode of living was so urgently compelling that he caught the attention of the religious elites, who considered him a threat. John was an agitator with a knack for making people in positions of power very uncomfortable. Herod Antipas, who ruled over Judea at the pleasure of the Roman emperor, was a particular target of John’s prophetic scorn. It got to the point where Herod had had enough. He ordered John’s arrest and imprisonment.
That’s where today’s Gospel picks up the story. John is a political prisoner. A fair bit has happened since John was baptizing the crowds who would go out to hear him, including Jesus himself. Jesus has now become very publicly active, and we get a sense that John is somewhat confused. Initially John was certain that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah, but doubt is beginning to creep in. Perhaps Jesus isn’t living up to the expectation that John has. So he finds a way to send out word to Jesus: “Are you the one? Or should we be waiting for someone else?” Jesus’ response is curious. He doesn’t say, “Yes, indeed, it’s me!” Instead, he points to the work he’s doing: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the diseased are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” We’re not told about John’s reaction to what Jesus said. In fact, not much is known of John after this point, except that he was executed in prison a little while later.
That brings me to some brief concluding points. What can we learn from John the Baptist, especially about joy? I think John is representative of anyone who yearns for the renewal of creation, anyone who believes that the Way of Jesus is a path to realizing this dream. Anyone, no matter how ordinary or eccentric, can herald with passion the prophetic Good News of Jesus. And what is that Good News? We get a clue from the way Jesus speaks about John to the crowds. He tells them, “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” But then he says, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s own phraseology for the reign of God—the new creation that Jesus manifests in very tangible ways. That new creation is what might be called the Great Reversal, where the first are last and the last are first, where the poor are blessed and the rich are sent away empty, where carrying your cross, not avoiding the cross, is the path to salvation. It’s in that context that John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls the greatest, is actually the least. That’s because in the new creation, there is no greatest and least. No one is forgotten and left behind, and no one gets too far ahead. It is the “beloved community,” to borrow an expression of Martin Luther King, Jr. If you feel like a nobody, if you are left behind, in the new creation you are not forgotten. Even the least are given the best seats at the banquet table. What’s central to Jesus’ Good News is that the new creation isn’t something located on a distant horizon. It’s happening right now wherever people together are striving to live into the Great Reversal.
Another thing we can learn from John the Baptist is that we don’t need to have all the answers about who Jesus is. John didn’t. Initially, he was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got second thoughts. In his thinking, Jesus didn’t seem to fit the messianic mold. So John wondered, “Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” In our day, we might be asking other questions: Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Did he rise from the dead? Has he really saved us? Is he alive now and evermore? How will he come again? It’s okay to raise these questions, to be honest about our doubts, even as we journey along the Way of Jesus. We may be totally committed to Jesus’ Good News while still struggling to make sense of all the fine details of the Nicene Creed.
Let me mention one more thing we can learn from John the Baptist. In the episode of today’s Gospel, Jesus’ public life is still in its infancy. His identity as Messiah is not yet widely appreciated. In some ways he’s still a future phenomenon. For us today, however, we look backwards. Jesus is a figure of millennia past. It’s tempting to see Jesus as exclusively that, almost passé. But the mystery of Christian hope is that, while Jesus walked the earth 2,000 years ago, he will come again. We look forward to the coming of the resurrected Jesus in his fullness among us. That is our Advent hope. It generates our work for peace; it animates our love for each other and the world; and all of this brings us joy. We have joy because, for all our shortcomings, God is not finished with us yet. The Way of Jesus is not an aimless journey; it’s headed somewhere, and we’re being pulled ahead, mysteriously, by God’s Spirit. The same Good News that John the Baptist heralded and that Jesus proclaimed will still transform our world as we embody it. That’s a joyous hope.