As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (NRSV)
Once again we find John the Baptiser encouraging people to look to God in anticipation and hope. His is an advent calling if ever there was one: Prepare well for God is on the move.
In a time when celebrity seems to be the focus and direction of so many lives, the lack of ambition displayed by John may seem odd. Indeed to our western ears – and maybe to those of every age and culture – his action may require explanation: Why does John play himself down? Is he really beyond ambition? Would he not make a great Messiah?
In the eyes of many who listened there is no better option. He has filled them with expectation, confronted evil, turned hearts from selfishness, baptised into a new way of living. Surely even John could reason that good could come out of a messianic claim?
Our passage offers no evidence of John’s wrestling with the expectation of these followers. There is no scene of doubt or struggle with the temptation to power. It reads almost as if he is immune to all the hype.
Of course this does not mean that he was not tempted or even asked of God whether this role might be his. Perhaps all we know, and need to know, is that John found the strength to resist the expectation he nurtured being directed at himself. Whenever people asked for his messianic credentials he pointed to another. Indeed he seems to have a pre-prepared answer emphasising the vast gap between the ‘worth’ of himself and that of the one who is ‘coming’.
He knows of one who will be greater still.
I can not help wondering at how John arrived at such a position. Did he grow up hearing stories of the strange events surrounding his birth and that of his cousin? Did he ask his father, the high priest Zechariah, what it all meant? Did he learn of his future when his mother told of his pre-birth encounter with the ‘Holy Spirit’? Was there ever tension between his cousin Jesus and himself? Did his prepared answer emerge out of a now dead belief that he really was ‘The One’? Sometimes the greatest insights emerge painfully and slowly.
Of course, it may not have happened this way. John may have witnessed a dramatic vision or had a life-changing dream. All we really know is that, in a power-grabbing world, John found the humility to point those who were attracted to his message to another.
Of course, even John could see the parallels. He made a successful mission of water baptism that the Messiah himself built on – baptising with both ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’. Jesus too will be contrivercial enough to be known as one who gathers and separates his harvest. They will both know the fury and wrath of the authorities. Each will lose his life.
Yes, there are strong similarities.
But despite this, from the outset John, and our author, Luke, would have us know that Jesus will take things to a whole new level. So much so that the ministry of John, while being honoured and remembered, will take a backseat. From here he will move through prison, doubt, and death.
But in the four accounts of the life of Jesus, John will forever live in the memory of the faithful as one who ‘proclaimed the good news to the people’.
An epitaph worthy of our gratitude, remembrance, and emulation.