A fingerpost pointing to the true Way – January 2nd – John 1:19-28
John has been thrown into the witness box. He came to be a witness and hence testifying in any forum would have been second nature to him. So, when the priests and Levites who were sent by the Jews from Jerusalem to interrogate him ask him who he is he “confesses and does not deny it” that he is not the Messiah. John the Baptist identifies himself in, through, and by his relationship with Jesus. Whereas Jesus defines himself as “I AM,” John is clear to say, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. He is not the light that shines in the darkness.
In the Synoptic Gospels, John the Baptist is a prophet who has an important ministry in his own right. He calls people to repentance and eventually dies as a martyr for daring to confront petty earthly tyrants with the word of the Lord. But in the Gospel of John, for the most part, he just points people to Jesus.
Obviously, there was some excitement in the air for the Jewish bigwigs to troop all the way to Bethany across the Jordan. John the Baptist was raising people’s expectations and at the same time upsetting the religious leaders. How had John, this eccentric preacher, become the talk of Jerusalem? Here was a man baptizing crowds and plunging them into the river Jordan. People sought him out; “what then should we do?” they ask him. But even more the question that loomed large was who was he? Was he Elijah, who had ‘ascended in a whirlwind into heaven’ but was to be sent back to the people before ‘the day of the Lord comes’ (Malachi 4:5).
The people of God had long been expecting the arrival on earth of the agent of God’s rule; the Messiah. But John is aware that when the Messiah actually comes many people may not give him due recognition: he will remain unknown to them because he may not fit their preset image of him. People will be too quick to judge by appearances. We all have to take Jesus on his own terms. We cannot prejudge in what precise way he may wish to affect our lives.
The mission of John the Baptist was also to emphasize the importance of Jesus and not his own and so he deflects attention from himself onto Christ. John’s role is to “make straight the way of the Lord” and then to step aside. This is to become a major characteristic of Jesus’ teaching that we learn from him, as from John; namely to be humble. This means facing two realities about ourselves: that there is a very small part of ourselves that is limited and sinful but that this must not prevent us from seeing the far greater part of ourselves that is very gifted by nature and even more so by the gift of Grace.
Those who came to seek Jesus wanted to know who he was. The identity question ‘who are you?’ leaps from this text. Perhaps we seek the same from others. ‘Who are you?’ We put labels on people and think we know them. But can we even fathom the mystery of our own being? We cannot put an easy label on John the Baptist. John knows who he is. He is clear about his call, his identity and mission. ‘I am a voice for the voiceless, a voice in the stillness of the desert, a fingerpost pointing to the true Way – Jesus Christ.’ He points beyond himself. He doesn’t want to be an achiever.
Finally, John represents what all Christians are called to be: witnesses to Christ and heralds of the Good News. The John of John’s Gospel is never called the Baptist. Rather, this is John the Witness. While he is described as doing some general baptizing here and there, a careful read of John’s story of Jesus’ baptism reveals that John does not baptize Jesus in the Gospel of John. His primary role is not as one who baptizes but one who testifies to the light coming into the world. John is a witness (martyría; John 1:7) who testifies (martyréo; John 1:7, 19) to the good news of Jesus Christ. Those two words are used more than forty-five times in John’s Gospel and are expressive of what many consider to be a central theme of the work.
We need to ask ourselves if we are witnesses and heralds of the Gospel? Talk about Jesus, and people will always want to change the subject; often they want us to talk about ourselves. And frequently that may be what we would prefer to talk about as well. We are reminded to thoughtfully consider our testimonies of word and deed. Do our lives witness to the light of God within? In the midst of darkness, disappointments, and dreary outlooks, God sent Light into the world. Trying times have the possibility to yield tremendous testimonies. May God’s people ever bear witness that the Light is come and is now here.