Second Sunday of Advent
St Mark’s Church, Casino
5 December 2021
This week and next Sunday we focus on John the Baptizer. That means half of the Sundays during Advent are allocated to this character on the edges of our tradition.
This week we focus on the person of John the Baptizer.
Next week we focus on the message of John the Baptizer.
So we have an opportunity to reflect on someone who plays a significant part in the story of Jesus, but only a minor role in our own faith.
Let me offer some perspectives on John for you to reflect on during the week …
When we pause to think about the historicity of the character of John and his relationship with Jesus, this gets a very high score.
This does not mean that we know much about him or even anything that he said (more on that next week), but it does mean that the idea that Jesus started out as a follower of John ranks almost as certain as the idea that Jesus was killed by crucifixion.
No one would invent either story as they detract from the status of Jesus for his own followers.
In the case of John, no follower of Jesus would ever make up a story about Jesus himself starting out as a student of someone else. A careful reading of the Baptism stories in all 4 gospels shows us that people struggled with this idea and even go to some pains to clarify that John was preparing the way for someone greater than himself, rather than Jesus coming to learn from someone more advanced in the religious life than him.
So we are on firm historical ground when we think about John as the original teacher and mentor for Jesus.
John is one of very few figures in the Bible who we know about from sources other than the Bible itself. Usually the characters who feature so large in the Bible story are actually marginal figures in the larger history of the region, but John gets more than a passing mention in the historical books written by Josephus about 55 years after Easter.
In other words, John has a role in the history books beyond the NT story about Jesus.
He had his own brand, we might say.
People were still talking about him decades after his death because he was a key player in some of the events in and around Jerusalem just before Jesus himself began his public career.
In fact, Josephus talked about John more than he talked about Jesus.
Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
About 75 years ago the famous Dead Sea Scrolls first came to light, and in the time since then we have learned quite a bit about the Yahad, or intentional community, living on the edge of the desert at a place we call Qumran.
It turns out that John was not the only strange character living in the desert and eking out an existence without relying on the town markets in nearby Jericho or Jerusalem.
We cannot tell whether John ever joined the Qumran Yahad, or—if he did—why he left it to become a solitary religious figure. But they had many similarities, including a fierce opposition to the priests who were running the Jerusalem temple in their time.
Although they lived in the desert, the breakaway clergy who ran the Yahad at Qumran practised ritual washing, offering another parallel with John the Baptizer. Where they dug cisterns and constructed complex water channels to harvest every drop of precious water, John used the free-flowing waters of the Jordan.
And actually, it seems John was not such a solitary character after all. We learn from both Josephus and the Bible that John was attracting crowds of people, including the despised priests and other public officials from Jerusalem, as well as forming a smaller group of followers; his own Yahad.
Jesus was one of them and, according to the Gospel of John, so were people like Andrew, Peter and Phillip.
The Jordan River was probably not only chosen by John because it offered a good supply of fresh water. It certainly did that, but it was a significant holy place in the biblical imagination.
This was where Joshua led the tribes of Israel across the river as they finally entered the promised land, according to the Old Testament.
It was also where Elijah had ascended into heaven in a fiery chariot. Since people were expecting Elijah to return when God was ready to save his people from their enemies, John was evoking all these associations when he based himself at the southern end of the Jordan River.
John had chosen a location that was intended to get people wondering. Was Elijah about to arrive? Was John perhaps Elijah? Is the Messiah at hand?
A mentor for Jesus?
Finally, let’s reflect on the idea that John was a mentor for Jesus, a spiritual Master from whom Jesus learned before he commenced his own mission only after the arrest of John.
We have no idea what Jesus learned from John, or how long they spent together, but it is clear that Jesus felt free to pursue his own sense of calling in a different way from John.
So I want to finish these reflections today with three questions:
- Do we have a John the Baptizer in our lives?
- Are we a John figure for other people?
- Do we allow ourselves (and them) to move in new directions?