We have just heard the opening of Mark’s gospel read, and so we are introduced to the two great figures who stand at the beginning of the Christmas story – Jesus and John the Baptist. All four evangelists witness to the truth that you cannot tell the story of Jesus without first speaking about John the Baptist. He is the important figure who introduces the adult Jesus in all four gospels. John worked no miracles, held no office, belonged to no official religious party (although he is thought to have been one of the Essenes). Yet, his importance to Jesus was unique; he stands as the only religious leader that Jesus ever sought out and spoke of with deep affection and admiration. He is described as a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’.
In his poem, St John Baptist, Sidney Keyes catches something of the place of John in sacred history :-
I, John, not reed but root;
Not vested priest nor Saviour,
But a voice crying daylong in the heat,
Demand your worship. Not for me,
But for the traveller I am calling
From beyond Jordan and limestone hills,
Whose runner and rude servant I am only.
Not man entirely but God’s watchman,
I dwell among the blistered rocks
Awaiting the wide dawn, the wonder
Of His first coming, and the Dove’s descent.
John is a waiting figure, God’s watchman, but he is not passive, sitting in the wilderness in solitude, waiting for the one who is to come. Instead, the word of God invades his whole being – calling the people of Israel to a radical change of heart – ready for the Messiah’s coming. His voice, from the wilderness, is powerful; it attracts a people who grow accustomed to God’s silence, hungry to be nourished again by the word which they recognise to be God’s own word. We ourselves need to remember that the Israelites felt that they had not heard the voice of God since the death of the last writing prophets, 400 years earlier. It was believed that the spirit of prophecy had died away and that God spoke only through the ‘echo of his voice’. John the Baptist breaks the silence and this is what gives him his unique authority. No wonder that the people flocked to him – ‘All Judea and all Jerusalem make their way to John’; because in him the people discern the living word of God.
People responded to John’s powerful preaching by confessing their sins to him and undergoing a baptism of repentance. Their change of heart is shown in their public baptism, which would have taken place at one of the fords in the River Jordan. John’s baptism marked a new beginning for them, a time of personal spiritual renewal, whe they would point themselves again to a life of fidelity to God.
The purpose of this energetic renewal movement was to prepare for the one who is to come – Jesus of Nazareth. Although John had his own group of disciples, he never made himself the focus of his prophetic witness; he does not claim that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. What he did say was,‘Someone is following me, Someone who is more powerful than I am, And I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.’
John understands his own place within the larger context of God’s plan, and this frees him to defer to the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ greatness does not diminish John’s importance; John is important precisely because of who Jesus is.
John’s way is a challenge, then, to all of us, to foster the greatness in others without feeling threatened about the value of our own contribution; to be free to celebrate the importance of others because we have a sense of our own worth and value before God.
John manages to do all this and, not surprisingly, Jesus returned the compliment when he spoke of John to the crowds, telling them that there is no greater mother’s son than John the Baptist.
That relationship between Jesus and John contains a wonderful lesson for us all today – if we, too, can be generous enough to recognise the goodness in others, then that can help to call out the God that is within each of us.
When that happens – there can be no losers, and Jesus wins the day. AMEN
Pat Ellis preaching on Mark 1:1-8 (7 Dec.2014 - Advent 2)