As usual, let’s start our consideration of today’s gospel reading with some background and context. Last Sunday, on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, we read the story of Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan according to Matthew. Why are we repeating the story of the baptism again here today? If you remember, all four evangelists tell us the story of Jesus’s baptism because the early Christian Church recognized it as a critical turning point in the story of the coming of the Christ. As you know, the modern Christ community has divided up our liturgical readings from Scripture into three annual cycles. The first cycle, which began with the Advent season just past, reads the Gospel of Matthew. Next year, we’ll be reading the Gospel of Mark. The third cycle we completed last year focused on the Gospel of Luke. John’s gospel—the mystical gospel—is scattered among the three cycles. The passages from John are read particularly on special occasions. That’s why John’s narration of the baptism story appears here today, and only in the first cycle.
We want to know three things about this reading: what’s happening—that is the event that John is describing—what did it mean to the people at the time, and what meaning did John want to convey to us about it? The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus was somewhat fluid and poorly defined. Luke tells us that the two men were related—perhaps as close as second cousins. They would have been aware of each other growing up. In any event, they would not have been strangers to one another when Jesus was baptized. John’s public ministry began long before Jesus’s, so Jesus would have been far more aware of John’s activities than John would have been of Jesus, who only stepped out onto the public stage at his baptism. Therefore, John struggled to understand Jesus’s role in the story of Israel. John recognized that he was in the presence of a powerful spiritual reality, but he would have been at a loss as to how to define it.
Of course, in addition to John the Baptist’s uncertainty, we have yet another layer of complexity because John the Evangelist is much less concerned with historical accuracy in his narrative than with the meaning of the events he’s describing. After all, no newsreel cameras were rolling on the banks of the Jordan River at that time. So, we have to ask, what did John the Evangelist want us to know about this event, and what did he want us to take away from it?
The passage begins, “John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him…” The baptism in the Jordan had already happened. It was quite possibly not even the same day. John and the people gathered around him at that time had already had a spiritual experience on account of Jesus. Consider that John saw Jesus coming. That fact is far more significant than you might have imagined. John saw Jesus in the same way that the Magi saw the star. In that seemingly random everyday event, John recognized something out of the ordinary. That recognition is the key that unlocks the meaning of this passage.
John the Baptist proclaims to the bystanders, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” He’s not referring to the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. The blood of that sacrifice was used for protection against the Angel of Death, and not for the expiation of sin. No. John was, no doubt, referring to the servant songs of the Prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us turned to our own way; and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” [Isaiah 53:6-7]. John the Baptist identified Jesus with the Suffering Servant and, as we saw in last week’s gospel, the voice from heaven—the בת קול (bat qol), the resonance of God’s presence in the universe—confirmed that identity.
Still, John the Baptist couldn’t have intuited or appreciated the full meaning and implication of Jesus’s identity. His statement shows his confusion. He says of Jesus, “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” As so often happens in the Scriptures, this is a prophetic statement. It’s a statement about one thing that’s open to a deeper and broader interpretation in the future. Evidently, John the Baptist was identifying Jesus as the Prophet Elijah who, it was believed, would come again to herald the Messianic king who, in turn, would restore the fortunes of Israel. John the Baptist could not have understood Jesus the way John the Evangelist did: as the pre-existing Word of God who was in the beginning and through whom all things came to be. Although John the Baptist could not have understood this, his words concerning Jesus prefigured that far more profound reality.
Finally, John the Baptist testified about the Spirit of God coming upon Jesus. He says that God told him, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Even though John the Evangelist who recorded these words had experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost event, John the Baptist had not. When the Baptist testified about the Spirit of God, he was referring to the spirit of holiness, the spirit of prophecy, and the transforming power of the unseen God. It was that Spirit that empowered John the Baptist to recognize the same Spirit alive and active in Jesus. John was expressing his understanding that Jesus would share the Spirit of Holiness with others and empower them, too, with the Spirit of prophecy. He didn’t know the Holy Spirit as we experience him.
For John the Evangelist, the limited understanding that Israel had of the nature of God, his presence, power, and transforming love, reached its culmination and completion in John the Baptist. At Jesus’s baptism, in a very real and prophetic sense, the mantle of the Spirit was passed from John to Jesus, from the old covenant to the new, as prefigured by the passing of the prophet’s mantle from Elijah to Elisha in the First Book of Kings [19:19-21]. From then on, the understanding of their God and their relationship with their God shifted.
What was John the Evangelist’s focus in this passage, and why did he include it in his gospel? One reason was to reinforce his insistence that John the Baptist was not himself the Messiah. The Evangelist saw the Baptist in his role as the last and greatest of the prophets of the old covenant. He hinted that the Baptist was himself Elijah come to herald the Messianic Savior, Jesus.
Yet, I think the most important role that John the Baptist played in the Evangelist’s mind and in his gospel was to teach us about spiritual discernment. How do we “see Jesus coming toward” us, and how do we recognize him? On whom do we see the Spirit of God descend? About whom do we hear the message of the בת קול (bat qol) testifying, “This is my beloved?” The Spirit of God within John the Baptist empowered him to discern the Spirit of God in Jesus. The Spirit recognizes the Spirit. The eyes of the soul see what the eyes of the body cannot see. As women and men baptized with the Holy Spirit of God and made daughters and sons of the Father and co-heirs with the Son, we, too, have been empowered to recognize the presence of God where others see only emptiness. Because we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, we can recognize the Christ—often imperfectly at best—where others say God cannot be found. We can look at “what human hands have made” and “the work of human hands” and see there the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.
Why could John the Baptist recognize Jesus, when so many others could not? For one thing, John was looking for Jesus, though he wasn’t at all certain whom he was looking for. He persevered because he was given to know that he would find him. Though he didn’t fully understand, in Jesus, he believed he’d found the one he was searching for. We all search for God. We believe that God is also searching for us. We will surely always find him if we set aside the preconceptions and prejudices of our minds and seek him instead with our hearts. May recognizing our God today in his Word, in the bread and wine of this Eucharist, and in one another bring you the peace, love, and joy of finding yourself once more in his presence.