But then, to our relief, we discovered that the third Sunday of Advent basically gives us the same gospel story from a different perspective—John’s version instead of Mark’s.
So, again, this Sunday, we will hear, “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” I didn’t preach yesterday—Seth gave a great sermon on the inner wilderness—but this gives me a chance to say all of the things I wanted to say yesterday but didn’t have the chance.
Mainly, I’m thinking about John the Baptist’s role in pointing forward to something else: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” The baptizer's entire identity—especially as expressed in the Gospel according to John—is about pointing to another. Unlike Mark’s version, where the details are scant, this encounter involves John identifying himself to the religious authorities of his day. “Who are you?” they ask. And, with an awkward triple-denial that says a lot about what he himself is thinking, he replies, “I am not the Messiah.”
“Well, then, who are you? Elijah?” they ask. “Wrong again,” John answers.
“Are you the prophet?” they ask. “Nope.” John says.
Finally, exasperated and running out of ideas, they say, “Then tell us who you are. Give us an answer for those who sent us.” And John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”
John is the voice. He is one who cries out. He makes ready the path of the Lord. He isn't the main attraction. He's just Ed McMahon.
There is something to be said for knowing who one is and for living fully into that identity. The question of identity is brought up again by the religious authorities, who ask why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the messiah or Elijah or the prophet. When asked, John simply said, “I baptize with water. I’m trying to get us ready for the one who is coming.”
It’s a hard life always pointing to someone else—being the Chief of Staff but never the President, being the bridesmaid but never the bride, being the understudy but never the lead. There’s something faithful about that. There’s something faithful and inviting about John’s witness—about losing our sense of self for the sake of one mightier than we.