Every Advent, John the Baptizer makes an appearance in our gospel readings. And each Advent we are tasked to ask ourselves, “why?” What is so important about John that his birth story parallels Jesus’ own, as it does here in Luke’s gospel? What does John’s presence show that we would miss without him?
John the Baptizer’s story often does not show up in our collective visual mash-up of nativity stories. He’s not one of the shepherds, or one of Herod’s henchmen, or a heavenly angel hanging out with Gabriel, though—in Luke’s gospel– his father Zechariah will experience his own kind of annunciation. The angel Gabriel pays John’s dad a visit to let him know that he and Elizabeth will need to trade in their Medicare cards for diapers and sleepless nights.
In those early days, when the angel visits Zechariah, John’s father-to-be and a priest to boot, Zech is understandably terrified. And, very similar to what he says to Mary, the angel tells the trembling Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:12-17)
Well, that’s some message! We can’t blame Luke for wanting to foreshadow Jesus’ birth with John’s. Zechariah then questions the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel politely identifies himself, but then makes poor Zechariah mute for not initially believing him. I’ve always thought that a tad unfair, but perhaps Elizabeth will need a mute husband to help her thru her pregnancy. It will go better with Mary. In any case, we know that the infant John was a peer of Jesus, being about 6 months older, and we know that Elizabeth and Zechariah were still expecting John when Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus. Furthermore, sprinkled throughout the gospels, we are given little tidbits of information that hint at the growing relationship between John and Jesus as they mature to help us understand their particularities of style, emphasis, and faith. In John’s case, we are told that the child, John, “grew and became strong in spirit,” and “he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”
So John doesn’t show up at the manger as an adult, but he has a significant place in the story. Our gospel writers illustrate his impact and influence on Jesus, by highlighting John’s birth story too, in the same way we might share the birth story of any important figure—how it was that this special person came about—and the way we share what celebrities looked like before their big break or discovery. John was out in the wilderness leading his own movement, drawing the crowds to him, preparing the way for Jesus, preparing the crowds, and acting within the larger story of God’s redemption.
Here’s the thing: there is no Jesus without John.
What do we know about John, besides his austere manner, his eating of locusts and wild honey, and his camel-hair clothing? As a grown man, he stands out there in the desert calling, calling, calling…and the people of his day and time flock to him, including Jesus. John’s power was so great that the historian Flavius Josephus (37-100) mentions him—and then shows how Herod feared his power and influence, thinking John to be capable of raising a rebellion. Josephus calls John a “good man” who was slain by Herod out of fear, and we learn from the gospels that after hearing of the beheading of John by Herod, Jesus withdraws by boat privately to a solitary place near Bethsaida.
Jesus was likely baptized by John, receiving the same baptism of forgiveness and repentance that others did—though the reasons why will continue to be debated even to this day. Was Jesus without sin? When did Jesus know that he was the Son of God? What did John know or believe about Jesus?
The point is, before Jesus shows up at the water’s edge, John is incubating a movement. John preaches salvation in the midst of a hostile empire. John preaches the coming of the Messiah to a people who are hurting under an oppressive regime and to a people yearning for peace. And the people liked to listen to that message; as austere as John may have been, I suspect that there was something incredibly pastoral about him too to draw in his listeners and to keep them coming. John preaches that God sees, God cares, and that the common person has a role to play in helping to usher in God’s realm.
And then Jesus shows up. Yet, Jesus does not come unanticipated or out of the blue. Someone prepared for him. Someone laid the foundation. Someone cleared the bramble, helped to remove the heavy boulders, and helped to make a path on which Jesus could walk and grow.
The actor Denzel Washington has said, “Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” It is not too much to say that Jesus stood on the shoulders of John, in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by the peace-making of Gandhi.
In Stride Toward Freedom, King wrote,
“Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance…As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform.
Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was…
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for do many months.”
But let’s get more personal here. Who are your mentors for peace? Perhaps you don’t refer to them as mentors, but towards whom do you look when you strive for peace in your heart? To whom do you turn your gaze when you seek peace in your relationships and in your personal affairs? And what about peace in your communities? On whose shoulders have you stood to catch a glimpse of a world that is possible in your lifetime? When your surroundings feel oppressive and soul-wearying, or when you were just starting out and challenged to find your meaning and purpose, who has helped you to find your way?
For some of us, there may be a flesh-and-blood mentor who laid a path upon which you were drawn to walk. For others, it may have been an inspirational teacher or friend, or a spouse or partner who encouraged you or showed you a different way of being in the world. Still others may have found hope and help—and yes, peace—in the writings and recordings of others.
Jesus—as special as he was—was nurtured and prepared for. And we do for others, what he does for us: to prepare the way – making the rough places smooth, the valleys filled, and the mountains made low. Which is to say, there is someone working right now with you on your path to peace—removing obstacles for you, lifting up the downtrodden places in your heart, and helping things to go more smoothly for you as you move along this journey that we call life.
In his lifetime, some believed that John was the great Elijah come back from the dead. John denied it. Yet John surely had some primary influence on his life that led to his being out in the wilderness convincing the crowds to change their ways and to usher in a new age. And Jesus was among those listening at the water’s edge.
Who might be listening to you, Church? Who might be hearing a call from Jesus through you? And on whose shoulders do you currently stand?
The late Rev. Walter Soboleff, a Presbyterian and member of Alaska’s Tlingit people, once told a story of his teacher pulling him aside and saying: “Take care of the old person you are going to become.”
“I never forgot that,” said the Rev. Walter Soboleff, when he was 102 years old. “At first,” he said, “I thought it was a very strange talk. But it just remained with me. I remember that through grade school, through high school, through college, through graduate school.
“I can’t forget that day. He just kept saying it to me: ‘Take care of the old person you are going to become.’”
As Steve Quinn wrote, the 10-year-old who heard those words would become an Alaska icon who would fight racism while trying to stem the methodical erosion of Alaska Native culture.
Which is to say, sisters and brothers, we never know on whom we may have an effect, or when that might happen, or through whom God may choose to speak.
This Advent, as you reflect on peaceful words and actions, may you discover for yourself those who might be, even now, guiding you towards paths of peace. May you discover your own unique peaceful mission, in the footsteps of Jesus, and—like MLK– may you see your mistakes and misjudgments as opportunities in disguise. And lastly, may you take care of the old person you shall become. And in so doing, may you take care of the old person this country shall become. Amen.
 Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, pp 96-97. http://www.thekingcenter.org/news/2012-10-gandhis-birthday-dr-kings-tributes-mahatma
 Steve Quinn, “Words of Grace for a Century: At 102, Alaska Native icon Walter Soboleff still leads by example,” Presbyterian News Service, March 28, 2011. First Alaskans, February/March 2011, 1, firstalaskansmagazine.com/index.php?issue=02-2011&story=sobeleff.