John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel readings for the season of Advent. Last week he was the subject of Mark’s Gospel, and this week, as in all three years of the Lectionary cycle, he is once again the subject, this time of John’s Gospel. If this were not enough, Christmas has barely ended before he appears again, on the first Sunday in Epiphany, for the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. So the Lectionary does its utmost to drive home the key role that John the Baptist has to play in understanding the significance of Jesus.
John stands in the long line of Jewish prophets and so forges a link between the promises revealed to Israel over hundreds of years, and the light that comes into the world with the Incarnation of God in Christ. The passages from Isaiah that provide the Old Testament lessons for this week and last have been chosen to underline this link. 'The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me'. So says Isaiah, and John can say just the same.
The image of John that the Gospel passages paint is very much in accord with the prophetic tradition from which he springs. Like almost all the prophets, he is an outsider, roughly dressed, existing on a strange and meagre diet, and proclaiming his message in ‘the wilderness’, which is to say, on the edge of human settlements, whose inhabitants must go beyond town and village limits to hear him. John the Baptist fits the people's preconception of how a prophet should be so well, it is only natural that they should wonder if he might be the promised Messiah.
In this week’s Gospel they ask him outright if he is – but he denies it, and famously points to ‘one who is coming after me’, the thong of whose sandal, he declares, ‘I am not worthy to untie’. The true Messiah, it turns out, differs very greatly from the traditional expectations of the prophet. The Gospels all depict Jesus, not as a voice in the wilderness, but an energetic teacher and healer in the heart of town life. He converses in busy streets, takes part in arguments, visits houses, sits at dinner tables -- even to the point of being accused of engaging too easily with the seedier side of urban life. His clothing, too, as the soldiers at his Crucifixion discovered, is fine enough to be wagered for.
In their depictions of John and Jesus, then, the four Gospels all implicitly invite us to engage in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. It is one that can prove highly instructive and illuminating. The Incarnation, which the Church is about to celebrate, is a unique event, unlike any other revelation of the ways of God. The Gospels do not in any way discount the importance of the prophetic tradition as embodied in John the Baptist. There is this crucial difference, though. The message which Christ at the end of his ministry commissions his disciples to preach, is that the salvation promised to Israel is now for “all the nations”.
This is just one aspect of the difference between the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and the sharp contrast with John the Baptist is an indication early in Christ’s ministry that the 'true' messiah will not run 'true to form' --- as, in due course, the Cross and Resurrection will dramatically confirm.
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