Wisdom from the Wilderness – The Third Sunday of Advent

27 11 2011

Wisdom from the Wilderness – The Third Sunday of Advent Year B 11th December 2011

John 1 6-8, 19-28   (The full text is below)

Today’s reading has a lot in common with last week’s.  Then we had part of the prologue of Mark’s gospel and now we have part of the prologue of John.  But I wonder what the author would make of this filleting out of verses and presenting them disconnected from the poetry and philosophy with which they have been so carefully interweaved.

I know it has been done for artistic purposes before: Orlando Gibbons doing so with verses 19-23 in his lovely anthem ‘This is the Record of John’.  (BTW: you can hear a performance on You Tube via this link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB8SNobbK6g ) Surely one of the main reasons that John wrote the prologue as he did was to connect poetry and philosophy, to blend Greek and Hebrew approaches, to let narrative and prophecy speak to each other.  To present the John the Baptist verses independently of the big picture feels to me at least, a little dodgy.

Okay – rant over.  Here are some things to ponder.

‘He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light’.  v8. 

This is odd when you think about it. Why should the light – that by which other things are seen – need any further witness?  Maybe John the writer is telling us that his metaphor of Jesus as the ‘light of the world’ has its limits. That his light is, in some ways, invisible or hidden; that it needs the efforts of others to reveal it.  What do you think?

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.’ v 23

This connects John backwards with the prophets, not least Isaiah. But it also links up with those who literally went out to the desert to develop their discipleship: the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt.  These people lived extraordinarily uncomfortable lives and said extremely uncomfortable things.  But I am increasingly convinced that they offer wisdom relevant to us today. Here are a couple of examples.

Abbot Pastor said: ‘if you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a while they will spoil and turn bad.

John the Dwarf:  ‘We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, which is self-justification.’

There is a lot to ponder or to discuss there.  But is this a kind of madness or a new kind of sense?

‘Why are you baptizing?’ v 25. 

This question makes us wonder what baptism meant at the time and who else was doing it.  There were  two Jewish practices which involved washing in water. A purification ceremony of Jews made unclean, for instance by menstruation, and an initiation ceremony for those wanting to enter the Jewish faith. So it was either for the unclean or for the Gentiles. Neither of these is like John’s baptism, which was for everyone. And that seems to be unique. But if it was unique, then why the question. Why not ask ‘what does your baptism mean?’ Maybe that is the force of the question.  The answer…?

Also:  what is John the writer implying about Jesus here? Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, he does not say that Jesus will baptize (see Mk 1.8, Matt 3.11, Lk 3.16 – noted below).  He just says that John the Baptist says that he is unworthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. All four evangelists say that.  Why is it so important? And why the mixed messages about Holy Spirit and fire?

Stephen Cherry

John 1.6-8, 19-28

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

What the others say:

Mark: ‘I have baptised you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ Mk 1.8

Matthew and Luke: ‘he will baptize you with the holy Spirit and with fire’. Matt 3.11 and Lk 3.16




Please feel free to add your own comment or question.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: