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The Forerunner
Fr Dennis Smith, 14th December, 2014

It’s an old tradition in the season of Advent, when we get ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord, to remember the one who prepared the ground for the ministry of Jesus; John the Baptist.

 It’s thought by many scholars that the writer of John’s Gospel, named after one of the twelve disciples, begins by adapting an early Christian hymn as a prologue to the story he was about to tell.

He then follows this by introducing us to John the Baptist.

All the Gospels mention him but John takes a different line to the other three.  For one thing he spreads it over three days. It seems to be a device to make three important points about John. If he could begin the whole Gospel by adapting a hymn, then perhaps he used a sermon as a source for telling the story of this witness to Jesus.

The great American songwriter, Johnny Mercer, once heard a theme used by a popular preacher of the 1930’s and  turned it into a song. Strangely his opening three lines match the three points made in this account of the Baptist.

In the best known version of the song, Bing Crosby sang:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
eliminate the negative,
latch on to the affirmative...”

While the order is different, those are precisely the three points made in introducing John the Baptist. First, the Baptist eliminates the negative by making it clear who he is not. Second, he accentuates the positive, saying who Jesus is. And third, he urges his own followers to “latch on to the affirmative” and follow Jesus.

The Jews at this time were under the rule of the Romans and they longed to be a free people again. They hoped for the coming of the Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed one; their liberator. But alongside this expectation was the belief that the prophet Elijah would return.
After all, according to their scriptures he hadn’t died but had been whisked up to heaven in a chariot. They believed that he would come again to prepare the way for the Messiah.

We need have no doubt that John the Baptist was a real person. He figured in all four gospels and, crucially, the Jewish historian, Josephus, also wrote about him.

He was in the tradition of the prophets. A strange figure, roughly dressed, living a simple life in the desert scrubland  by the River Jordan.

But his preaching, about the need for repentance from sin, drew large crowds and he was ready to baptise them in the flowing waters of the river.
This inspiring man so moved people that word spread that he was Elijah who had returned. This belief was reported by Matthew and Mark. They reflected a view in the Church that to persuade Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, meant that they should also claim that John the Baptist was a returning Elijah.

But the writer of John’s Gospel didn’t accept this and so first he eliminated the negative. He described a deputation of Priests asking the Baptist who he was and John replied with a negative; “I am not the Messiah”. So the questioners went down a notch; “Are you Elijah?” He replied again, “I am not”. They lower the bar again; “Are you the prophet?” “No”.

But then the writer accentuated the positive. “Among you … stands the one who is to come after me. I am not worthy to unfasten the strap of his sandal.”

Then, seeing Jesus, he cried out; “There is the Lamb of God … who takes away the sin of the world … . This is God’s chosen One”.  And then he encouraged two of his own disciples to latch on to the affirmative, to follow Jesus. John the Baptist was, in the experience of the writer of John’s Gospel, the first witness to Jesus, the Chosen One of God.

But who is John the Baptist for us? It’s probable that this interpretation in the Fourth Gospel is likely to appeal to us more than that of the other Gospels. After all, the idea of Elijah returning doesn’t seem a very convincing argument in favour of following Jesus. We’re quite satisfied that the Baptist says that Jesus is greater than himself; that Jesus is “the man of whom … the Spirit comes down … . God’s Chosen One.”

Because of his witness, John the Baptist in many parts of the Church has been counted amongst the saints. For others in the Church, he has been honoured everywhere as the first witness to Christ.

Indeed this was in the Gospel writer’s mind; that the Baptist should witness not just in his own time and to his own people but to all who came after him. He wrote that “a man named John was sent from God and came as a witness … so that all might become believers”. All… everyone… so that we might become believers.

But if he was the forerunner, the one making straight the way of the lord, there will have been others since who’ve witnessed to Jesus as God’s Chosen One. But who are these watchers waiting, ready for the coming of the Lord into the lives of all? As Isaac Watts hymned:

“How beauteous are the feet
who stand on Zion’s hill,
who bring salvation on their tongues
and words of peace reveal”.

Perhaps for us it was one of both of our parents, or someone else in the family, or a priest, a teacher, or in my case, a friend living next door, who took us to church.

Many will have been influenced, pushed by some great hero of the faith, even if the final pull was by some ordinary faithful Christian. Each of us must thank God for the person who was their own John the Baptist. The one who, by their words, or more likely, by their deeds, by the kind of life they lived, has moved us to answer Jesus’ call to follow him in a life of generous love.

This way of life was spelt out in our reading from Paul’s First Letter to the church in Thessalonica. To live in this way is how we should ourselves be John the Baptist for others. It assumes that we are part of a congregation, our starting point is to live at peace with each other.

We are to “admonish those who are undisciplined, encourage the apprehensive, support the weak and be patient with everyone. Make sure that people don’t try to repay evil for evil; always aim for what is best for each other and for everyone. Always be joyful; pray constantly, and for all things give thanks.”

We are to live a life of generous love. That’s the way to be a John the Baptist, a witness and an encourager to others to answer Jesus’ call to follow him.

Remember the words said to have been spoken by Francis of Assisi: “Speak the Gospel at all times; only use words when necessary.”

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