03 December 2014

John 1: 6-8, 19-28, ‘the voice of
one crying out in the wilderness’

The Triptych of the Baptism of Christ in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In our Bible studies in this tutorial group we are looking at the Lectionary readings for Sunday week. The Sunday after next [14 December 2014], is the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B), which is known in many parts of the Church as ‘Gaudete Sunday.’

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday are: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5: 16-24 and John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

6 Ἐγένετοἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης: 7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰςμαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι' αὐτοῦ.8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ' ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός.

19 Καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦἸωάννου, ὅτε ἀπέστειλαν [πρὸς αὐτὸν] οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεῖς καὶΛευίτας ἵνα ἐρωτήσωσιν αὐτόν, Σὺ τίς εἶ; 20 καὶ ὡμολόγησεν καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσατο,καὶ ὡμολόγησεν ὅτι Ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ὁ Χριστός. 21 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτόν, Τί οὖν; ΣύἨλίας εἶ; καὶ λέγει, Οὐκ εἰμί. Ὁ προφήτης εἶ σύ; καὶ ἀπεκρίθη, Οὔ. 22 εἶπαν οὖναὐτῷ, Τίς εἶ; ἵνα ἀπόκρισιν δῶμεν τοῖς πέμψασιν ἡμᾶς: τί λέγεις περὶ σεαυτοῦ; 23 ἔφη,

Ἐγὼ φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ,
Εὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου,
καθὼς εἶπενἨσαΐας ὁ προφήτης.

24 Καὶ ἀπεσταλμένοι ἦσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων. 25 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπαναὐτῷ, Τί οὖν βαπτίζεις εἰ σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς οὐδὲ Ἠλίας οὐδὲ ὁ προφήτης; 26 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁἸωάννης λέγων, Ἐγὼ βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι: μέσος ὑμῶν ἕστηκεν ὃν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε, 27 ὁ ὀπίσω μουἐρχόμενος, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ [ἐγὼ] ἄξιος ἵνα λύσω αὐτοῦ τὸν ἱμάντα τοῦ ὑποδήματος. 28 Ταῦτα ἐν Βηθανίᾳἐγένετο πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ὅπου ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων.

Translation (NRSV):

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He 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?’ 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21 And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22 Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23 He 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. 25 They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptising if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26 John answered them, ‘I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptising.

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11), probably written after the return from Exile in Babylon, looks forward to the total salvation of God’s people – bodily, spiritually, individually and socially. The prophet says God has empowered and anointed him to act on God’s behalf.

Verses 1b to 2 are quoted by Christ when he preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth (see Luke 4: 18-19). “The year of the Lord’s favour” (verse 2; see Leviticus 25:10) refers to the jubilee year, a year dedicated to God, when all shall be free to return home to their families, and a year of rest when the land produces without being sown or worked.

Verses 4-7 tell us that strangers or foreigners from all nations are to contribute to the restoration of righteousness on earth. They will be double blessed and have eternal joy, and God’s agreement will last for ever.

In verses 10-11, the prophet speaks as the renewed Jerusalem. All will rejoice because God has provided salvation and has healed their rift with God, and the people will praise God as an example for “all the nations.”

Psalm 126

The Psalm is a liturgical song for use in public worship. When the people first returned from exile in Babylon, they could hardly believe their good fortune. But after the initial joy, life is difficult, and they ask God to restore their fortunes.

I Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Saint Paul is drawing near the end of his first letter to the Church in Thessaloniki. God’s plan for them, realised in Christ, is to rejoice always, to make their lives a continual prayer, and to be thankful to God, whatever happens to them.

He tells them not to suppress manifestations of the Holy Spirit, not to despise the words of prophets or words of consolation and warnings spoken by members who receive messages from God, and not to ignore predictions of future events. They are to be aware that there are true and false prophets. Some speak God’s word authentically, but others who do not and are false or evil. We must take care and test or discern all supposed manifestations of the Spirit (“test everything,” verse 21).

Finally, Saint Paul prays that God, who brings peace in the community and promises eternal peace in his kingdom, may bring them into union with him. Their relationships with God and with one another must worthy of the kingdom when Christ comes again.

The Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

In the opening verses of his Gospel, Saint John tells us, that the Word, the logos, in other words, what God says, God in action, creating, revealing and redeeming, exists before all time. He is the force behind all that exists; he causes physical and spiritual life to be; life, goodness, light, overcomes all evil. Jesus, the “light” (verse 7), took on being human through God, and is a force for goodness, light, godliness, for all people.

Now he tells of John the Baptist, who is sent or commissioned by God to point to Christ, to “testify to the light” (verse 7). John is the lamp that illumines the way, but Christ is the light (verse 8). When the religious authorities (verse 19) send their representatives, priests and Levites, to assess John's authenticity as a religious figure, John tells them that he is neither of the two figures they are expecting to come to earth: he is neither “the Messiah” (verse 20) nor the returned “Elijah” (verse 21). At the time, Jews believed that one or both would establish a kingdom on earth that would be free of Roman domination.

Neither is John the prophet some expected would be instrumental in establishing the Messiah’s kingdom. Saint John says simply that he is the one who prepares “the way of the Lord” (verse 23), who announces the Messiah’s coming, fulfilling the promise in Isaiah 40: 3.

The representatives of the Pharisees ask John in verse 25 why he is performing an official rite without official status. John tells them that the one to whom he points is already on earth. He is so great that for his part John protests he is not even worthy to be his slave.

Have you noticed the interesting setting for all this story?

It all takes place outside Israel (see verse 28).

Last week, I was recording a television programme for Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level, to be broadcast next Sunday [7 December 2014] on RTÉ1. I was part of a panel of four, and in the test run beforehand, each of us was asked how to be addressed, and for titles for the on-screen captions.

We can become very precious about our titles in the Church of Ireland … “Reverend” … “Very Reverend” … “Right Revd” … Canon … Professor … Dr … Dean … Archdeacon … Your Grace … My Lord … and so on.

I suppose, in terms of respect for the office, or in terms of shorthand descriptions of someone’s function in the Church, they serve a purpose. But respect is not a right, it must be earned, and when we start standing on our dignity, taking ourselves too seriously, something has gone wrong.

I figure if I am known to God by the name I was baptised with, Patrick, then all Christians should feel perfectly at ease in calling me that.

And in terms of office, I should never forget that I too am one of the laos, the People of God, by virtue of my baptism, and that I remain a deacon, someone who was first ordained to serve.

Saint John the Baptist is self-effacing about himself; he is aware of his role, and he refuses to exaggerate it; yet, on the other hand, to descend to self-abasement.

He sees his own ministry as one of waiting and preparing. He is a man sent from God, he is a witness testifying to the light, but he is not the light himself, and he is quick to dispel any confusion. He is not the Messiah, he is not the Prophet Elijah, who was expected to come again. All he says about himself is that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness the words first spoken by the Prophet Isaiah.

The Lamb seated on the Throne ... a fresco on a ceiling in a Greek Orthodox monastery in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Have you noticed the terms Saint John the Baptist uses to describe Jesus outside this Gospel reading?

● “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1: 29 and 36): This title is given to Christ at the beginning of his public ministry as he approaches John the Baptist, and is repeated the next day. It has resonances of the Passover, so John’s Gospel begins with Jesus hailed as the Lamb of God and closes with his death as the Paschal Lamb is sacrificed in the Temple. This title speaks to us, therefore, of self-sacrifice, revealing a God who suffers for and with us.

● The one who existed before John (verse 30).

● The Son of God (John 1: 34): His two acclamations of Christ as “the Lamb of God” enclose or sandwich his other proclamation (John 1:34): “I have borne witness that this is the Son of God” or “God’s Chosen One” (verse 34). This is the first time in this Gospel that Christ is given the messianic title of “the Son of God.” The title of “The Son of God” is another reference to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

Saint John’s description of Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” presents Christ as the Servant of God described in Isaiah as being led without complaint like a lamb before the shearers, a man who “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (see Isaiah 53: 7-12). But this is also read, with the benefit of hindsight, as a reference to the Lamb sacrificed at Passover – in Saint John’s Gospel, the crucifixion takes place at the same time as the Passover.

But the Lamb of God who is taking away not just my sin, not just our sin, not just the sin of many, of Christians, or those we judge as transgressors – not even the sin of the world, but the sin of the kosmos, the whole created order.

There is a difference in translations that speak of the “sins of the world” and the sin of the world.”

The word in verse 29 is the singular sin of the cosmos: ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου. The word indicates being without a share in something, in this case God’s intention or design; or missing the mark.

So often the world has missed the mark in terms of shaping up to Gods plan and intention for the whole creation, the whole cosmos.

Saint John also describes Christ (verse 30) as one who “existed before me” (RSV) or who “was before me” (NRSV), reflecting a recurring theme in Johannine literature of the pre-existence of the Word.

But who do the disciples say Christ is?

Later, they are to give three very different descriptions from those given by Saint John the Baptist:

● Rabbi or Teacher (verse 38);

● the one to see and follow (verse (verse 39);

● the Messiah or the anointed one (verse 41).

Who is Christ for you?

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who is Christ for you? This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again.

He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.

In this time of Advent, can you ask who is the Coming Messiah for you?

At the time, many people had false expectations of the Coming Messiah.

We may see the difference between how Saint John, near the end of his ministry, describes Christ, and how the disciples, at the beginning of answering Christ’s call, describe Christ. But who is Christ for you?

George Fox, the founding Quaker, challenged his contemporaries: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you?

Is he a personal saviour?

One who comforts you?

Or is he more than that for you?

Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Saint Peter later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 16: 15). Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

I find it is a beautiful presentation in Saint John’s Gospel that the beginning of Christ’s ministry is set out over six days. And on the seventh day of that new beginning we have a sabbath – God rests; Christ goes to the wedding at Cana, the third of the Epiphany moments. And there we have a sign, a sacrament, a token of the complete transformation of the created order, a sacramental or symbolic token of the heavenly banquet (John 2: 1-12).

Who is Christ for you?

Is Christ inviting you to the heavenly banquet, to enjoy the new creation, to be in partnership with him, as the Lamb of God, in the renewal of the cosmos?


O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.

Post Communion Prayer:

we give you thanks for these heavenly gifts.
Kindle us with the fire of your Spirit
that when Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 3 December 2014.

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