Reading: John 1:1-9
How do you tell the story of Jesus — where do you start the story? What are the important points to cover? This question has been considered more times than any of us can count. It has been explored in books, in movies (such as The Greatest Story ever told), in music (such as Hadel’s Messiah), in Christmas and Easter pageants, in plays, and of course in sermons. In scripture, we have four gospels which each try to tell the story of Jesus in their own way; three of them are remarkably similar, and the other one is John, which we will study.
Matthew begins with listing Jesus’ ancestors while Mark and John do not find this necessary. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, and every Gospel, including John, follows this pattern. Luke begins with the prediction that John the Baptist will be born, and John begins with a statement that the Word was there from the time of creation, is God, and then goes on to make it clear that this “Word” is Jesus.
The opening of John’s gospel makes sure that the reader knows that Jesus is eternal, Divine, and had a hand in creation while John the Baptist was a divinely called prophet, but while his mission was divine, he was a mere human. Before John begins his narrative with John the Baptist preaching and Baptizing, he thinks it is important to clarify that John the Baptist isn’t the main character, but merely introduces and reflects the main character.
Whenever I begin to read the gospels, John the Baptist’s place right at the start of the story always stands out to me. Every gospel introduces the adult John before they introduce the adult Jesus. Luke’s gospel goes so far as to giving John’s birth narrative before Jesus’ birth narrative; and while John’s birth narrative is quite abstract, and less than a narrative, it does talk about the man sent from God named John before it mentions the Word becoming flesh. You might know that John’s gospel is different than the others; Matthew and Luke closely follow Mark with their own additions, while John makes no apparent attempt to follow the others — whenever John feels it is important to say something in a similar way to the other gospels, it must be important.
One likely reason for this was suggested by my friend and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom who said:
I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.
Jesus’ message was in many ways counter-intuitive and counter cultural. What Jesus taught challenged the way people saw the world, and it even challenged the way that the most religious people worshiped God. It was important that Jesus and his ideas be introduced because otherwise he would be dismissed right away as a madman. Jesus continued with many of the same themes as John the Baptist when John’s ministry ended. As hard as Jesus’ teachings were, they were not without precedent — John the Baptist prepared the crowds to receive Jesus’ teachings — and when John endorsed Jesus, those who understood that John was a reliable prophet knew that John regarded Jesus as his superior.
While this makes it clear why John the Baptist was important, it does not quite tell me why every gospel writer finds this to be important to introduce John first. Even if I say that the point of introducing John is so that we can see the divinity of Jesus at the time John Baptizes Jesus; as John’s gospel starts by explicitly stating that Jesus is divine, the narrative no longer demonstrates Christ’s nature to the reader; there must be another reason.
Recently, I thought about how I respond to stories — I tend to identify with a character; most often the most important character in the story. While I read or listen to the story, I empathize with that one character above all others, and that character is a lens to the rest of the story. Storytellers know that people do this, and they often choose which character this will be. I think it is possible that John is introduced before Jesus because he is a better character for us to identify with.
Jesus is unique. John’s gospel starts by telling us that Jesus is eternal and the God of creation. I might have a good imagination, but I cannot imagine nor identify with the Eternal. John 1 contrasts John the Baptist with Jesus by telling us that one is the Light that enlightens the world, the other bears witness to the Light. I cannot aspire to be the Light, but I can aspire to bear witness to that Light.
I like the idea of John as a positive example; the disciples are not so much positive examples as they are dunderheads. They have a great deal of passion, but it takes an act of God to get even the simplest of Jesus’ teachings through their think skulls. John God the core of Jesus’ teachings before Jesus even started teaching — if Jesus were merely a great teacher, he would be John the Baptist’s disciple; but the point is that Jesus is something greater. John is what, with God’s help, one of us mortals could aspire to be; as far as I can tell, John was as perfect as humanly possible.
One thing I learned when I was worshiping with Arab Christians is that John the Baptist is, in Eastern Icons, depicted with angel wings and is described as the “Angel of the desert”. This is because John was announced Jesus — he did the work of an angel. The remarkable thing is that if we follow what Jesus teaches his disciples to the very end, they are also called to do the work of angels — to announce God’s message to the world. John was, as Jesus said, the best of humanity.
If John the Baptist is an example for me as a witness to the Light, and as to the relationship I should have with Jesus, then this tells me something about the Christian life and the life of a minister. John pointed people to Jesus, and when people followed Jesus and paid less attention to John, he simply said: “He must increase, I must decrease.” As much as I like to be recognized, my job is to point to Jesus and to hope that people see Christ; my highest goal should be to never get in the way.
Of course, another possibility is that this has always been about Christology. Many people focus on the teaching of Jesus, and not the uniqueness nature of Jesus. It is, of course, right to pay attention to what Jesus taught, we are, as Christians, to obey Jesus, but, Christianity is not just about following a teacher, it is about the incarnation of God, and God living among us as a human being. John taught the same things Jesus taught, before Jesus taught them, but John was not divine, merely a prophet. Perhaps the gospels introduce John to show us there is something special about Jesus beyond what he taught. Perhaps we were introduced to a good teacher to show that Jesus was far more than the Good Teacher; if you will, John serves as a contrast between the best of Humanity and the Word made flesh.