The Voice of John, John 1:19-28
'I want to make it quite clear, that I'm not a candidate.'
You hear that said over and over again as politicians jostle for position before a major election.
No, they are not going to stand.
No, they have no intention of running for office.
No, they are going to sit this one out.
Then - surprise, surprise, suddenly they make a speech saying that friends have advised them, that pressure has been put on them, that for the good of the country they now intend to stand after all, and at this point we have properly become quite cynical about it all.
However in today’s Gospel we have a story about a man pushing himself forward in the public eye, gaining a large following, and then refusing to claim any of the offices they were eager to ascribe to him.
John, the writer of this Gospel, assumes that we know a certain amount about the 'offices' or leadership characters that many Jews were expecting at that time.
They were waiting for The Messiah. A great king from the house of David who would overthrow all injustice and rule over Israel, and perhaps the world too.
John the Baptist states quite firmly that he is not the Messiah, and seems to mean it; and he is not doing the type of things that a Messiah would do, so was he Elijah, or one of the other great Prophet who has returned?
For centuries the Jews had read in their Bible that the great prophet, Elijah, would return before the great and terrible 'day of the Lord' (Malachi 4.5).
Elijah, it seemed, had not died in the ordinary way, but had been taken up to heaven directly (2 Kings 2) and so many people believed, he would return, to herald God's new day.
Indeed, many Christians believed that John the Baptist was in fact Elijah, even if he did not think so himself, Mark in his Gospel says “But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9.13). This is a puzzle, to which the New Testament does not seam to offers a solution.
John, if he was the returned Elijah, clearly did not want anyone thinking he was and refused all such titles.
Elijah was not the only great prophet in the history of Israel and most people in Jesus' day would have only ranked him second to Moses. However in the book of Deuteronomy (18.15-18) we find that God promises that he will raise up a prophet like Moses to lead His people.
This figure of a yet-to-come 'prophet like Moses' was expected in Jesus' day, though most people probably could not distinguish between the different 'figures' they had heard or read about clearly enough, to know that someone would come to sort out the mess they were in.
A group of priests and Levites came to check John out, having been sent by the Pharisees who were one of the leading pressure groups of the time and who had their own reasons for wanting to keep tabs on people like John the Baptist.
If someone was behaving in a strange new way, announcing a message from God, the Pharisees wanted to know about it, and John was indeed behaving strangely.
Israel's scriptures had not spoken of a prophet who would come and plunge people into water, so why was he doing it?
John's answer, here and in what follows, is that he is getting people ready for someone else. The one claim he makes apart from his belief that Israel's God has commanded him to baptize people in water, is that he is a 'voice'.
Or rather, the voice, the voice spoken of by Isaiah, in the same passage where he speaks of the grass withering but the Word of God standing for ever (40.1-8).
John in his Gospel makes the connection with Isaiah, and what the voice commands, which is to get the road straightened out as the master is coming; the way must be prepared.
I can remember a number of years ago standing at Hammersmith Broadway in London, which is a few busy intersection with many roads joining a very large rounder about with buildings on it.
When the noise of sirens was heard it was a police car being followed by an ambulance, the police car slowed and stopped the traffic at each intersection, and then when the ambulance caught up with it, it sped off at great speed to the next intersection. The ambulance did not seam to slowdown in any way, but just kept going as the police car was clearing the path for it.
This is the sort of task John the Baptist claims to have been given, sounding his siren to clear a path for the one who is coming behind him.
In the opening verses of John’s Gospel we find the following words about John the Baptist: “he wasn't the light, but came to give evidence about it” (1.8).
John is of secondary importance to the Messiah, although he comes before Him in temporal sequence and the reason he comes before him, of course, is that he has to, in order to clear the way ahead.
John the Baptist occupies a position like this in all the Gospels and indeed within the early Church, and we can like the early Church look back to John as its launch pad.
At the same time, there were some groups of John's followers who, for whatever reason, never made the transition to following Jesus. It is possible that the writer of the Gospel, is aware of such groups, and is wanting to emphasize that John the Baptist insisted that people should follow Jesus, not himself.
One of the many points to ponder about the strange character of John the Baptist is the way in which all Christian preachers are called to the same attitude that John had.
We don't preach ourselves, as Paul said, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4.5). Or, as John the Baptist put it, 'I'm only a voice.'