Each year, the third Sunday of Advent points us again to John the Baptist. In the year of Mark’s Gospel, which we have just begun, we also get a lot of John’s Gospel. This Sunday we get John’s version of “the voice of one crying out in the desert”: John’s take on last week’s theme. It is worth pondering from many perspectives.
The theme is the similarity and difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. We get a snippet from John’s fabulous prologue, then skip ahead to the beginning of the action, right after the prologue.
John’s prologue interrupts itself. He is talking about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it.” And he will continue, “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.”
But John interrupts himself to talk about John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”
Now, this tells us something about John the Baptist – but also about John the Evangelist, and about all of us.
First, it emphasizes the difference. One purpose of John the Baptist is to show what Jesus is not. John is the great prophet. He calls to repentance. He proclaims the sovereignty of God. John is a great moral teacher. And one of his chief purposes is to show that Jesus is more than that.
John came to bear witness to the light – but Jesus is the true light, through whom we become not just enlightened, but, a few verses later in the prologue, “sons of God . . . born of God.” Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a moral teacher. John – and all moral teaching – is merely clearing the way for something vastly greater, “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” (Like liberals, conservatives sometimes reduce Jesus to a moral scold.)
But on the other hand, John the Baptist is like Jesus. He does enlighten, does point the way. He does prepare us for the Lord, “so that all might believe through him.”
Our reading from Isaiah takes us into this likeness and dislikeness. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor” – says Isaiah. Yes: the spirit was on Isaiah; the Lord anointed him; God sent Isaiah to bring glad tidings – just as he sent John, too.
But this is also – and preeminently – a description of Jesus. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public preaching by applying this reading from Isaiah to himself: “And there was brought to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17-18).
And the people are amazed: “they wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is this not Joseph’s son?” (v. 22). They were surprised that Jesus took the mantle of Isaiah. We can be equally surprised that the mantle of Jesus was on Isaiah.
God has sent us, too, “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.” But like John the Baptist, he has called us not to preach ourselves, but Jesus: a year of favor from the Lord.
Like John the Baptist, we prepare for Jesus’s coming by being his heralds, by showing that he is the healer – he is the healer.
“He has clothed me with a robe of salvation” – He! “So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations” – the Lord! But if I love him, if I long for him, if I want to prepare the way for him, I am called to love that “justice and praise,” to bring his healing to others.
And so in our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances.” The Spirit rests on us, too, sends us as prophets of Jesus.
“May the God of peace make you perfectly holy . . . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” Holiness is his work. But he will do it. He clothes us in his mantle, to prepare us for his coming, and so help prepare the way in this world.
Do we carry the mantle of Jesus? Are we clear that it is his mantle, not ours? Do we point others to Christ?