2011 Advent IV

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2011
Verse 19 of St. John 1:19-28
“Who Art Thou?”

Harken back to the ‘golden’ days of radio, specifically to one of America’s favorite mystery programs. And to a question that began every episode of the program – Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of Men? (The congregation answers – The Shadow knows!)

That is also a question raised too with regard to the Scriptures. Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of Men? The answer: John Baptist knows! John knew and therefore called upon men to Repent and turn from their evil ways; as did all the major and the minor Prophets of the Old Testament as well.

Who art thou? This important question was asked of John by representatives from the Jewish Sanhedrin (high court of ancient Judaism), by representatives of the priests and Levites.
It is a question some of us to could well ask; it being perhaps many years since we first were instructed about him during our days in Sunday School, and time to time from the pulpit.
So let’s refresh of our memories, about his beginning, his message, his part in our Salvation!

The first thing we ought to note is that as a result of his role and place in the Salvation of man, John Baptist would become known as the ‘Forerunner’ of Christ. Before a study of his eventual role, we begin first and earlier; before his birth with his conception. He was the son of Zacharias, an elderly priest of the Temple, and his aged and barren wife Elizabeth, in and through whom, by the grace of God, John was conceived and born! Scripture states this same Elizabeth was kinswoman and cousin to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Zacharias was fulfilling his duty, putting incense upon the Altar of Incense in the Temple, when he was startled by the presence of an angel to one side of the Altar. The angel announced to him that he and his wife would conceive a child. Zacharias doubted this to be possible. Because he doubted the angel’s astounding message to him, he was temporarily struck dumb!

The angelic apparition further instructed Zacharias that the child to be born was to be named John! (The name in Hebrew is Johanan, which means ‘He will be gracious). Recall now that Gabriel is the same angel who appeared and startled Mary at the Annunciation, and there he told her of God’s choosing of her to be the mother of the Christ. Thereupon she con- sented; questioning only how this should come about, not doubting that it would come about.

Back to John. After achieving adulthood John took to living in the wilderness, and was soon to be encountered along the banks of the Jordan, preaching and expounding Repentance to the throngs who came out to hear him. And he further baptized many of those hearers, as a sign and in token of confession of their sins and repentance.

His message of Repentance was reminiscent of the OT prophets’ frequent call to Israel to
repent and return to faithfulness to God; though John’s preaching also foreshadowed the coming of Christ! Large crowds were attracted to him. Among those who submitted to his baptism was the Lord himself; though Jesus had no sin nor had he any reason to personally repent. He submitted to baptism, said he, ‘to fulfill all righteousness.’ What does that mean?

Jesus, the Divine Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity had taken: human flesh and blood, human soul, mind and will, of his virgin Mother: ALL this that he might identify fully with, and redeem humankind. He came, born a helpless little babe. Now at the robust age 30, he requests to be baptized by John in Jordan.

And why? This was Jesus’ way of identifying even further with the fallen Children of Israel, whom he had come to save. It was there at the Jordan John recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah; stating to Jesus that it was he, John, who ought to be baptized by Christ!

John says in today’s Gospel scripture to those who came out to ask him ‘who art thou?’ 1) he John is not ‘the Christ’, 2) he is not the deceased prophet Elias (Elijah), and 3) he is not the anticipated ‘prophet’ who was to come as Israel’s Messiah!

Well then, who are you they further inquire. We must give answer to those who sent us to see and speak with you. Tell us now! John’s answer surely took them by surprise: A voice! THE VOICE of one crying out in the wilderness with the commission he had been given: TO PREPARE the Way of the Lord (quoting this phrase directly from the prophet Isaiah).

To which they further inquire: Well, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the awaited
prophet; what are you doing baptizing these who have come to hear you? The answer to that question they should by now have known, having come out to hear him; if they listened to the
message he preached, before they sought to question him! They would have heard him admon-ish the crowds to Repent and be Baptized for the remission of their sins. Repent, and be ye BAPTIZED as a sign and gesture of your REPENTANCE.

Immediately he proceeds to tell these inquisitors sent by the religious authorities of Juda-ism that he is not acting alone, but is himself the forerunner of a higher religious authority: the long awaited Messiah, the long awaited Christ. He is acting in behalf of the One who shall follow: One among you (that is, a fellow Jew) whom you have yet to encounter. John adds (in verse 33 and as mentioned in all the Gospels) the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit!

Indeed the very next day, John himself would see the Holy Spirit descend directly upon Christ, following baptism by John, as Jesus came up out of the water and the heavens opened.
And the following day he would see Jesus at a distance, and point him out to some of his (own)
followers, saying of Jesus, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ John had concluded Jesus is the Christ; the one sent to save humankind!

But here in today’s text, he testifies solely that the One who is coming is preferred before me. He says also just three verses later: He must increase, and I must decrease! It is small wonder then that he says of himself, in a deeply subservient manner and tone: I am not worthy even to unloose the buckle of his sandals. That is subservience!

In the overall scheme of man’s Salvation, our Lady is accorded great honor – for her willingness and readiness to accept God’s invitation to be the Mother of the Word made Flesh, Jesus the Christ. But, what of John? If Our Lady figures ‘centrally’ in the Salvation Story of man; so must too John Baptist hold a place of preeminence: though he would no doubt argue that he was far less than a servant in the whole scheme of things: Not worthy even to unbuckle the sandals of the Savior, let alone take any credit for doing anything but answering the call to ISSUE THE CALL to man to get ready for the Coming of the Savior, the Christ, the Messiah; and in anticipation of his Coming, to REPENT!

The ‘religion’ parties who came to see and hear and question John, had asked of him, “Who are You?’ Contemporary man might frame the question this way: Who are you to claim you know what lurks in the hearts of men; and say they need to repent of it? Who are you to tell me that I am a sinner? Who are you to tell me I need to repent? Who are you to tell me what to do? As if a man needs Repentance!

Really? As if Man need not desire, nor feel it necessary, to prepare for the Coming of Christ? Or need believe there are eternal consequences to a refusal to do so! John Baptist’s anticipatory Call to Repentence is still the message for all those who would come to Christ! Have you heeded that call?

Who are you, John, to tell me? John’s someone who knows what he is talking about!