Advent and the Joy of Working for a Better World, Part 2

Advent and the Joy of Working for a Better World, Part 2 December 13, 2023


John’s gospel seems to downgrade John the Baptist for the purpose of exalting Jesus. One example is how, in this gospel, John the Baptist rejects attempts to be identified as Messiah, the Prophet, or Elijah.

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(Read this series from its beginning here.)

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, John the Baptist is dramatically associated with Elijah:

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11:14)

And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17, cf. Micah 4:5)

But in our reading this week, John the Baptist rejects being associated with any of these figures, including Elijah.

What I appreciate about the picture of John the Baptist that we get in the gospel of John is that it unequivocally locates John’s ministry. Each gospel tells us where John taught. 

When John is cornered in our reading by people demanding that he answer their questions about who he was, John’s response is:

“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

Last week I wrote at length about John’s ministry being in the wilderness as we considered the way John’s ministry is characterized in the gospel of Mark. If you haven’t already read that article, you’ll find it helpful as a foundation for what I’m about to say. (Read that article)

The wilderness in the gospels is contrasted with the central location of power: the temple state, centered in the temple as the capital in Jerusalem. John is characterized as working outside the centers of power, property, and privilege. Here I want to be very clear that this is not imagery that symbolizes some conflict between Christianity and Judaism. Rather, these are symbols of long standing within the Jewish society at that time. They represent Jewish voices in conflict with one another over what fidelity to the God of the Torah looked like in relation to economics, society and politics. These were all deeply religious matters in that culture, and religious fidelity demanded people live in certain economic, social, and political ways.

The symbols being contrasted, then, are those of priest and prophet. And while those contrasting symbols are complex, they hold meaning for our justice work, today. We’ll unpack this, next.

(Read Part 3)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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