Sunday 27th. November 2016
John the Baptist is one of the important figures we encounter on our Advent journey. All four Gospels record his ministry and each of the evangelists has his own assessment of his role. This evening we have read Matthew’s account of John’s ministry but we have also listened to the lovely anthem by Orlando Gibbons which gives a musical setting to John’s narrative about the Baptist. John highlights the response of the religious establishment to the Baptist’s ministry. They are clearly puzzled by it and unsure how to respond. They are very aware that John is having a significant impact on the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea: there is a new interest in religion and John is the topic of conversation in the market places and the dinner parties. The Scribes, Priests and Pharisees get together and decide to send a delegation to John with a list of questions: Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? (It was widely believed in the Jewish community that the arrival of the Messiah would be preceded by the appearance of Elijah) Are you the prophet? (Moses had prophesised that there would one day arise a prophet even greater than himself). John’s response to each question is a clear unequivocal, I am not!
John’s Gospel is famous for the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus. “I am the good shepherd”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the bread of Life”; “I am the way, the truth and the life.” But in contrast John is the great, “I am not.”
There is a famous altar piece by the Sixteenth Century artist, Matthias Grunewald, the central panel of which is an unusual Crucifixion scene. It depicts an emaciated, agonised Jesus hanging on the cross and at the foot of the cross are four figures. On the right side stands Mary, the mother of Jesus, being comforted by the beloved disciple and next to them kneels Mary Magdalene looking up at the Saviour. But to the left of the cross stands another figure, John the Baptist with one hand holding open a book on which is written, ‘He must increase and I must decrease’ and his other hand is pointing to Jesus. John’s role in life and death was to point the way to Jesus and not to draw attention to himself. Our task in Advent especially but in every season of the year is to focus our attention on Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.