A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.
This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, ‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked ‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:
a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’
Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.
It would seem that John has not wandered far from Mark's account, yet there are some significant moments in John's retelling that meant something then and so, mean something now.
The calling out into the wilderness from the sacred space of the Temple is an incredible event. The Temple meant everything to the Jews; holding onto the centre of their faith particularly during the occupation was immensely important. Yet people left and went into the desert and down to the riverbank to listen to a disheveled preacher.
John had something; and it was enough of a something to give people hope that their prayers had been answered. The prophets often appeared out of nowhere; voices in the wilderness; voices crying against the empty hearts of those who do not want to hear.
But people did want to hear; they came to hear and stayed to listen. John speaking against the authorities and yet the authorities taking no action against him ; Herod admires him. The Pharisees are asking their questions out of the hope that it could be true- this could be the Prophet - the Messiah.
Would they have know the story of his own miraculous birth? The signs are there.
John has his reply. In John, John is not the Baptist - he is the Witness; the first witness; the pre-natal witness. The Coming of the One has been a part of his genetic patterning; he could not deny it if he wanted to. As great a light as John is - in every cell of his being - he knows he is not the Light.
But he probably would have 'done'. The authorities may well have rallied around him; his followers were clearly devoted to him - the recorded criticism and exclusion of Jesus and his friends. He may have had his idiosyncrasies but there was something familiar in his ministry - 'are you Elijah?' He fits the profile; there had been many, many years of God's silence before John but there is little difference between him and the prophets that had come before.
John's followers were rebels but not radicals. They wanted the Messiah that the Jews had always wanted; they wanted to topple the enemy; to have their land and their place in it. It was about them and their God; for them John was enough.
A true prophet; John knew he wasn't; knew that Jesus would be so much more than he could imagine - couldn't image - remember his message from prison - 'are you the One?'. John (and John) warns us - don't be distracted; look beyond; don't settle for 'enough'.
But we often do; we become captivated by something just a little out of the ordinary; just enough of a challenge. Sometimes we connect with the personality of others who are making the spiritual journey beyond; writers; theologians; priests and retreat leaders and we follow them. We grant them authority through lineage and tradition. We listen to what they say and read what they think; we rely on them to do the 'witnessing' and attach ourselves to their coat-tails.
To paraphrase St Paul we follow Rhor or Merton or Fr so-and-so; but they are just human beings on the same journey as us; we are meant for Jesus. For that personal calling, holding, healing relationship that seems too good to believe; that we don't believe is for us; but that John wants us to believe truly is.
We admire the many that we recognise as witnesses; John himself, the saints, the 'wise' people; we must never forget that we are intended to be witnesses ourselves.
But first we too must 'see' the Light.