They had been sent by the Pharisees. Temple leaders from Jerusalem wanted to know more about John the Baptist, this person they couldn’t quite categorize: like a prophet, he wore a camel hair shirt and preached a message of repentance; like Elijah, the legendary prophet who preached reconciliation before disappearing into the clouds riding a chariot, whose anticipated reappearance was believed to signal the day of God’s judgement; this man who had enough followers to draw the attention of the folks in Jerusalem—and to show up in the writings of Josephus, a leading historian of the day. But seriously, John, who do you say you are? And what about this baptizing thing, the Pharisees probably also wanted to know? No evidence exists that baptism by immersion, for the purpose of cleansing oneself of sin, existed in the Jewish tradition prior to John. “Who are you?” they asked him.
As happens with incredible regularity in the Bible, we only get glimpses of John in the four Gospels. But those glimpses show up in such key moments in Jesus’ story: when Mary and Elizabeth give thanks for God’s favor in making them both mothers, the gospel writers say that John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary and Jesus’ entrance. Yes, God’s Spirit was with Mary and Elizabeth, but it also touched John. Of course, there’s the scene where John baptizes Jesus and God rips the firmament apart and names Jesus God’s beloved son. Then later, as Jesus travels the country healing, drawing crowds, and angering various authorities, from his jail cell, John sends emissaries to Jesus to ask him the same question the Pharisees ask John in this week’s reading: who are you?
Through these glimpses, John absorbs a lot of divine significance. Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth begins with John’s birth. An angel visits John’s father, Zechariah, a temple priest, and says of John, “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)” Today’s reading is in the first chapter of the gospel of John, right after the book’s beautiful introduction to Jesus’ story: of word made flesh and light overcoming darkness. Our reading begins with this beautiful, poetic statement of John’s central place in everything that comes next: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. (John 1:6-8)” Later in the reading, in response to the Pharisees’ question of who he is, the gospel writers further define John’s role with his response to the Pharisees’ question: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. (1:23)” You Bible nerds out there already know this, but that is indeed a quote from last week’s lectionary reading, Isaiah’s prophetic vision of Israel’s reconciliation with God in their return from exile in Babylon. In the gospel’s telling, John bridges Isaiah’s prophecy and God’s arrival in and through Jesus. John, the embodied, camel-hair-wearing, wild-honey-eating voice in the wilderness, baptizing followers into a new life in God, and doing so at the holy site of Israel’s first crossing into their promised land centuries earlier.
And now we arrive (finally!) at the thing I’d like to invite us to think about. Join me in reading between the lines of John’s story. Here we have a person whose birth was heralded by angels, was in fact a miracle baby in his own right given that Elizabeth was decades past childbearing age when John was conceived. The name of one of Israel’s most revered prophets is evoked in describing his future ministry. A man sent by God. But also a man and not the light. Not, in fact, Elijah, not the messiah. The gospel writers all walk this very careful line of naming John as divinely placed, but not himself divine. As we all know, this story is about Jesus, not John. But reading between the lines, I think it’s possible that the gospel writers took such pains because there were still people who followed John and needed to be convinced that John was not the messiah. Otherwise, why would all the writers need to be so careful in their phrasing?
This framing makes John the Baptist even more intriguing to me because he—or at least who the gospel writers made him out to be in our imaginations—isn’t simply Jesus’ cousin. He was a spiritual leader of status and significance. He was The Guy to many, until Jesus hit his stride.
To be honest, and I’m not proud of this, I get a little defensive on John’s behalf when I think about how history remembers him, as the precursor and not the main plot line. It’s natural to bring our 21st-century eyes to the text, and our culture would label the move from The Baptizer to The Witness as a serious demotion. Because in our day, the spotlight is where the status is, where the narrative is controlled. It’s where the fame and money are. Likewise, being the one with the creative solutions, the most faithful one, is the one recognized and affirmed. There’s this primal response that comes up in me on John’s behalf at the thought of losing his top billing.
It reminds me of a couple of years back. I was telling a friend of mine about the experience of being in my seminary class spaces and thinking with people of color about doing the work of anti-racism. I was telling my friend that I was learning the importance of listening to the stories of people of color and accepting their leadership when it comes to thinking about how to dismantle systemic racism. My friend, another cis-gendered, white man, responded with a similar defensiveness. “I just can’t accept that that’s how I’m supposed to show up,” he responded. “I want to be part of the solution. Why do I have to follow?”
Our culture programs us to raise our hands first, to have the answer, the innovative approach that saves the day and fixes the problem. And our culture rewards individuals for exhibiting these skills: CEOs are paid hundreds of times that of their employees, while folks whose work broadly empowers the community often struggle to get by. In a culture based in the accumulation of individual rewards, ideas, leadership, and prestige become territory to be guarded and protected. Those with differing opinions, and those who draw the spotlight, are opponents.
John the Baptist, of course, inhabits another time and exemplifies another worldview based in Hebrew and Christian theology instead of capitalism and empire. He doesn’t struggle against the idea that the spotlight is not for him, that he is not the light. He accepts that he is making a way for Jesus and for God. And in this, John is a teacher for the fixers among us. The strivers. The solvers. To those folks who wonder who they even are if they’re not the ones with the vision for the group.
John is strong in his identity. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John says, this isn’t my story. I am out here on the edge of my people’s land taking my agency into my own hands, living out a new way of cracking my people’s hearts open for God to speak into them. People think I’m nuts, I eat bugs, I’m far from home, and what I do is making enemies. But I am animated by God’s call to play a small role in God’s story.
As we await Jesus’ birth this Advent season, let us take up the spiritual practice taught by John the Baptist, of willingly accepting our supporting roles in God’s story. Let us step out of the spotlight, which is not the absence of light, but instead a place where all can be seen, out of the glare of individual scrutiny, where ideas belong to the community.
I end with a poem by Mary Oliver, called, “When I Am Among the Trees,” because to me it captures the tragic irony of all of this obsessive individualism we swim in. The more we think about ourselves and compare ourselves to others, the more we doubt ourselves and the beautiful creations we are. She writes,
When I am among the trees,
Especially the willows and the honey locust,
Equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
They give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
In which I have goodness, and discernment,
And never hurry through the world
But walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
Into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
What spotlight are you seeking? How can you loosen your grip, and, like the trees, go easy, leaving a little more space for community and for God? Friends, like John, we are all voices in the wilderness. May our voices form an ensemble, not a collection of soloists. May it be so.