On this third Sunday of Advent, the theme is joy. It stands out among the other three Advent Sundays, which is why a pink candle is often lit instead of a blue one. The other Advent themes—hope, peace, love—are things that we strive for and do, but joy is something that comes upon us. And as we contemplate joy, we are faced with today’s Gospel, which focuses on John the Baptist.
The Bible is full of mysterious characters. But to my mind, one of the most mysterious is John the Baptist. Who exactly was he? What was he all about? What can we learn from him? And how does he inform our understanding of joy? These are the questions that I kept asking myself 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. Today’s Gospel doesn’t make mention of any of that, but simply 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.
We’re told plainly that John was not that light; he was simply one who testified to it. And that leads into the second question: What was John all about? John’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, and he would baptize them. John’s baptism was one of repentance and messianic preparation, and in that sense it was one particular kind of ritual washing common to Jewish life. But because John was compelling so many to be baptized, he caught the attention of the religious elites. They set out to see him themselves to determine his legitimacy.
When they arrive, John makes it clear to them that he is not the Messiah. Many Jews expected the prophet Elijah to return to prepare the way of the Messiah, but John also denies that he is Elijah. There was also an expectation, particularly among the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, that another prophet would emerge to herald the Messiah. But John denies he is that prophet. Instead, he identifies himself as a voice crying out in the wilderness. He makes no lofty claims of prophetic lineage or authority; he’s just a voice from the desert. When asked about why he’s baptizing, John responds that his baptism is just a water ritual. But the Messiah is coming, he says, who is standing even now among them. Was Jesus there, perhaps himself about to be baptized? Did John know that Jesus was the Messiah before anyone else did? The encounter between John and the religious elites ends with those questions hanging.
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 eccentric and uncredentialed, can herald with passion the prophetic Good News of Jesus. And what is that Good News? It’s encapsulated in the opening words of today’s first reading: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Each of us has a role to play in that work. In the first century, however, that proved to be a dangerous undertaking. If you study John’s life, you’ll find that he ended up a political prisoner and was ultimately beheaded in a very unfortunate end. In Canada that’s not likely to happen to anyone, but if you’re fully on board with the prophetic Good News of Jesus, you might be questioned about it, perhaps even in the halls of political power.
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 doubts began to creep in. 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 without signing off on 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 is yet to be revealed as Messiah. His life has not yet gone public, although it is about to take off. Jesus is 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.