Jn 1:6-8, 19-28. A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness. (John 1:6-28)

Our reading for the Third Sunday of Advent comes from the Gospel of John. In somes ways, this passage echoes the reading from last Sunday. In last week’s Gospel reading, Mark the Evangelist introduces us to John the Baptist and Mark quotes from Isaiah 40:2.  Mark tells us that John the Baptist fulfills prophecies about the coming of the Lord; prophecies that are foretold in the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Malachi. You can access my blog post on last week’s reading here.

"Baptism of Christ." Francesco Albani, 1640. (The Hermitage. St. Petersburg, Russia.)

Let’s examine this Sunday’s  passage from John 1:6-28, excluding verses 9 to 18:

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,'”

as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.

In John’s Gospel, the Sacred Author tells us that John the Baptist is not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  In this passage, John the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40:3, (make straight the way of the Lord) and then tells his audience that he is quoting Isaiah.  When a prophet says “make straight the way of the Lord,” he is saying the Lord is coming, prepare the road.  When he is questioned about his preaching by the Pharisees, John the Baptist gives an evasive answer, saying he is neither the messiah, nor a prophet, nor Elijah.  John the Baptist may not regard himself as a prophet, but all four Gospel authors understand him to be the one who heralds the coming of the messiah.

The Importance of John the Baptist as Forerunner or Herald.

John the Baptist plays a very important, and identical, role in all four Gospels.  He is a cousin of Jesus. But he is also the one who inaugurates and initiates the adult ministry of Jesus by baptizing his cousin and preaching repentance among the Jews.  The baptism of Jesus is an account of such theological importance that is is recorded in all four Gospels: Mt 3:13; Mk 1:9; Lk 3:21; John 1:29. Further, all four Sacred authors emphasize that John the Baptist fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (make straight the way of the Lord): it  is noted in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, and John 1:23.  John the Baptist plays an important role in the Advent cycle of readings because he is the prophet authorized by God to announce the coming of the Lord in the person of Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist and Elijah.

Though Isaiah prophecied the work of John the Baptist, the Old Testament prophet who comes closest to John the Baptist in his role as prophet is Elijah.  The story of Elijah is recorded in 1 and 2 Kings.  John the Baptist and Elijah are both very important prophets because they are associated with announcing the coming of the Lord.  The similarities between Elijah and John the Baptist are numerous.

Both prophets were detested by the existing political powers.  King Ahab called Elijah “the troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).  Herod would have liked to have punished John the Baptist, had it not been for his popularity (Mt 14:5).   Both prophets had as their principal nemesis the wives of these rulers. In Elijah’s case, it was Jezebel who wanted Elijah put to death.  In John the Baptist’s case, it was the wife of Herod who suggested that her daughter ask for the head of John the Baptist.  Both prophets directed strong criticism against those responsible for ritual.  Elijah went after the priests of Baal, brought to Israel by Jezebel.  Elijah even challenged 450 of these priests to call upon their god to immolate a bull. When the priests of Baal failed, they were executed.  John the Baptist, rather unwisely, attacked the  pharisees and sadducees as a “brood of vipers.”

Both prophets are associated with the River Jordan.   Elijah left the wilderness, crossed the Jordan, and ascended into heaven, having been swept up by a chariot and horses.  By contrast, when John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, and he headed into the wilderness for forty days.

In addition to these parallels, we have explicit testimony in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospel.  In Luke 1:17, the angel Gabriel tells Elizabeth that her son will go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus confirms the role of John the Baptist as the one who inherits the mantle of Elijah.  In fact, the parallel is so astonishing to his disciples that Jesus readily acknowledges (Mt 11:14) their likely disbelief:  And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.

Where was Jesus Baptized?

Verse 28 of today’s reading tells us that John baptized in Bethany across the Jordan.  Many readers assume we are speaking of the area around Lake Galilee. But in fact, John’s ministry took place much closer to Jerusalem.  This location was thought to be lost to history, since there is no modern place named “Bethany” on or anywhere the Jordan River.

The Jordan River runs from north to south. It has its origins north of Lake Galilee. It drains into Lake Galilee, and continues into the Dead Sea.  The Jordan runs fifteen miles due east of Jerusalem.  The Dead Sea is separated from Jerusalem by hills and desert wasteland. Between three and five miles upriver from the Dead Sea lies Wadi Kharrar, on the Jordan River.   In this area is an ancient settlement known by various names: Beth-Abara; Beit El Obour; Beit-Anya; Bethania.  This is the place recorded in the bible as “Bethany.”  The most thorough examination of Bethany as the site of the Baptism of Jesus is here.

Wadi Kharrar has been the site of archaelogical excavations for at least fifteen years, and it is the purported site of the ministry of John the Baptist.  However, it lies with the border of Jordan, and excavation is managed by the Jordanian government.  It has not drawn much public attention, yet John Paul II visited the site in March of 2000, and Benedict XVI visited the excavation in 2009.

Blog Post for 1st Sunday of Advent, Mk 13:33-37.

Blog Post for 2nd Sunday of Advent, Mk 1:1-8.

My posts on John the Baptist portrayed in Scripture and Art is here; on John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew are here and here.

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