So John called a press conference on his home turf, the banks of the River Jordan. It was down near the wilderness where the Israelites first entered the Promised Land. Moses had passed the torch there to his protégé Joshua. All John’s followers gathered, along with the Press Corp and the lawyers of every candidate, of the priests and Levites. John felt more like Moses than Joshua, understanding at last that his ministry of baptism was preparing the way for the Anointed One. So John, “a man sent from God” all agreed, to be as clear as possible, called a press conference, as the national campaign for new leadership was in full swing. And so the writers and reporters from Jerusalem trudged all the way down from the capital, over to John’s open air headquarters on the Jordan River. And he was a good speaker. Electric! He could draw a crowd. John had modified his stump speech. He was “a witness to the light.” “He himself was not the light,” but “he came to speak about” that one, and point to him.
This was an audience that could help get the message out, he felt, and help him clearly point to his successor. There is one “who is much greater than I, who is coming.” It’s not about me, John told them, but “so that [you] all might believe”.
But the very first question was, “Who are you?” You’re the One, aren’t you! John took a deep breathe, realizing this was not going to go well. I know what you’re trying to ask, you want to know if I’m the Messiah, the anointed one. So let me say this as clearly as I can, “I am not the Messiah.” I am here to baptize with water, to cleanse people in preparation for the Messiah to come. Think of this river as one big giant Mikvah, like the purifying baths you use in Jerusalem in preparation for going to Temple, except this is a font for the whole people of Israel, to get ready together. I’m preparing the way, that’s all, for a new recreated Israel, a new Temple, a new Joshua, Jesus of Nazareth! He will lead you on the right path.
Okay, let’s try another question. You there from the Jerusalem Times, go ahead. “Mr. Baptizer, if you’re not the Messiah, are you Elijah?” Okay, listen, “I am not Elijah,” John said. You know very well that Elijah’s return would be the same as admitting I was the Messiah. I am not!
But the whole press corps was in an uproar, “Well then, who are you? What’re we going to tell everyone back at the Capital?” Tell us something about yourself we can print, preferably something juicy!
Okay, write this down, said John, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” The press corps was atwitter now: isn’t that a direct quote from “the prophet Isaiah”? I thought he said he wasn’t a prophet? But we could definitely spin a story with that.
Today, there are many Biblical Scholars who think John was, at one time, every bit the ‘player’ Jesus was. He probably had Messianic pretensions of his own. He had a large following. His ministry of baptism was his signature, his campaign platform. But after being arrested, and shortly thereafter beheaded in prison, is likely when he was written into the story of Jesus who had an even greater following. John’s execution came to foreshadow Jesus’ own, but the postscript and heavenly crowning, which confirmed Jesus’ anointing as Messiah, was totally unlike John, or any other candidate, in that time, or since, a resurrection as the first-fruits of the dead, bringing light and life to all. John’s ministry of baptism prepared the way, and pointed to the true Light, “the light shining in the darkness,” the “Light of the world.”
‘Listen,’ said John, if you guys don’t want to get baptized, that’s up to you. But I can tell this, “among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Believe me, you’re going to be doing a lot more interviews with him, in Galilee and Jerusalem!
At the Nazareth Lutheran Church in St. John, V.I., where I was last Sunday, Pastor Carlyle Sampson entered the ambo, to preach from Mark’s gospel about John the Baptist. His modest open air church a block from the banks of Cruz Bay was full. The people, rich and poor, native born, tourists and other resident main-landers, listened with rapt attention. Now, I have to tell you, Kim and I heard him preach last year when we were there, and we introduced ourselves as fellow pastors in the Lutheran Church. So when he called us this past winter from the Lutheran Center here in Chicago, we were happy to join him for dinner and get to know him and his ministry a little better. Speaking from first hand knowledge, I can tell you Carlyle Sampson is nothing if not a fiercely simple and upright man, a model of humbleness. And so when Pastor Sampson described the straight forward and humble ways of John the Baptist last Sunday, how he lived in the desert and single-mindedly was preparing the way for Jesus, I felt he could have been describing himself, and that he knew of what he spoke. Pastor Sampson wants nothing more than to point to the true light, the one who is coming, the one we all want to meet, who we all crave to know, and have found in some way to be the answer to our deepest questions, and who is the salvation and healing for all our longings in this life, for he is the anointed king, the one who’s the redeemer of our lives.
“I baptize you with water,” said John to the Press Corps, as you wait with anticipation for the Messiah. But do you know he is “standing among you” already! Why are you coming here to listen to me if you’re not going to get baptized? If you will not be baptized with water, surely you won’t be able to be baptized with the Holy Spirit!
Who am I, is not the right question, says John. Who is the Son of God, where is he, and what is he up to now? That’s what you should be asking. “He was sent to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…,” a jubilee year, as the prophet Isaiah said!
Like John, our mission is to be voices and pointers to the anointed Messiah too. We point to the Jesus born in a manger to undocumented, unwed parents, as the savior king. We point to Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners, healer of the outcast, the marginalized and scapegoat-ed. When we are pointers and voices to the gospel, we are re-created and chosen to be a community and support each other in this ministry. We don’t have to be the Savior, but we are ‘elected’ none-the-less, to be witnesses, who point to him.
Call a press conference; alert the media, for, He is coming soon! Christ the new born king is coming soon.