Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Writing this just after Halloween, I can’t help but think that John the Baptist is the original David S. Pumpkins: you feel like you should know who he is and why he’s here, but, along with the Pharisees, you’re kind of in the weeds on John T. Baptist. Is he the Messiah? No. Is he Elijah? Nah. Is he some kind of prophet you just can’t place…? Nope. He’s his own thing.
Indeed, John denies being a prophet, but as a hermit living in the wilderness (v. 23) who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God (v. 6), he bears the marks of archetypical prophethood. If you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in Mark had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.
So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about his successor’s identity? And why are the Pharisees sending a committee of priests and Levites to vet this guy?
Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message (often times to their detriment; remember Elijah running for his life?). John, of course, wanted the attention focused on Jesus.
But I wonder whether he might also have realized that Jesus was going to break the mold; that he was announcing not just another mouthpiece delivering messages from a higher power, but rather the Messiah (3:28), the Son of God (1:34) who embodies divine love and grace in his very person. God’s new way of being in the world wasn’t going to be like anything the Pharisees had expected; refusing to play into their preconceived categories, as Jesus would later repeatedly do, might have been John’s way of signaling that this was a whole different ballgame.
Prophets also challenged those in power by condemning the way political and religious leaders and the people in their charge were behaving. The Pharisees’ questioning of John shows the institutional elite trying to get a handle on this outsider whose following threatened their authority. Though we don’t hear much about its contents in this gospel, John’s message must have resonated with people; they flocked from the city to be baptized by him.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about baptism. In ancient Judaism, tvilah – immersion in naturally sourced water for purification purposes – was quite common, particularly after coming into contact with a dead body, blood, or other uncleanliness; it was also used when someone converted to Judaism. In both cases, it indicated that the one who had been immersed could now participate fully in the life of the faith community.
There’s lots of good symbolism here – spiritual cleansing, new beginnings, etc. – that fits the synoptic gospel accounts describing John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) Baptism, then, is no holy rite focused on ritual purification, but rather a spiritual version of “build it and they” – or rather he – “will come.”
This approach is emphasized in verse 33, where we hear echoes of the prophet Samuel passing in front of each of Jesse’s sons to discern whom he should anoint as king. John, too, is looking for divine confirmation: “‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus is the fruit of that same tree of Jesse – the son of David; the ultimate Anointed One.
Perhaps surprisingly, John continues baptizing even after Jesus has begun his own baptismal ministry. (3:22) But when his disciples confront him about it, John uses it as another opportunity to clarify that Jesus is the star attraction, that Jesus “must increase” while John “must decrease.” (3:30)
Later, John is described essentially as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel. (3:29) We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over; but not on John the Baptist’s watch! Everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus.
To wit, there’s the bit of prologue included in today’s lectionary passage: John “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.” (1:7-8)
This is, of course, the gospel of John’s underlying message: everything points to Jesus. The gospel writer’s main concern is to convince us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and to help us begin to apprehend the mystical, cosmic significance of that role.
Even so, I hope John’s motive for baptizing struck you as odd.
Odd because we are used to experiencing baptism as a moment centered on the believer: it’s their official entrance into the body of the church, when they receive fully the grace and new life God has bestowed on everyone who believes. All eyes are on the one being baptized: the name of the baptized person, inscribed in large font, is the focal point of the certificate we sign, and we hold a celebratory reception, complete with flowers and personalized cake commemorating the occasion.
But what if baptism looked more in line with John the Baptist’s M.O.: baptism that points not to us, but to Jesus?
I have a rather higher anthropology-to-christology ratio than this proposition suggests. Yet the idea of baptism not as an event that glorifies us, but rather as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.
If you’re inclined to preach a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas, here’s your entry point. But we can go broader than that – and deeper. What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the light, but that we’re meant to witness to it? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us? How do we avoid the pull to perform; to enjoy accolades more than service; to be concerned with optics and success more than substance; to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than God’s inbreaking presence? We as humans (and particularly as clergy) all face these temptations.
In chapter three, John’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)
The main event, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of profound happiness we feel at seeing our best friend happily married, has arrived. For a moment, we forget our own agendas and lose ourselves in joy. As we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, that is true reason to rejoice.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.