Of all the Old Testament figures in the Bible, John the Baptist is the most important. He is more important than even Moses or Abraham. Jesus says as much in the Gospel reading for Thursday in the third week of Advent: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7.28).
Then Jesus finishes the sentence: “Yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
John the Baptist stands on the fulcrum of salvation history. On one side is the Old Testament and on the other is the New. Where is the tipping point? Not the Incarnation and not the cross and resurrection. The tipping point is John’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan.
It is at the Jordan that the messianic age is begun. John knew that and so did Jesus.
The Gospel readings for the third week of Advent put John the Baptist at the centre. He is the forerunner of the Messiah; he is also a catalyst for kick-starting the new age.
It was John the Baptist who went into the desert and drew followers to the Jordan. To be baptized by John, one would have to do something almost unthinkable for a Jew. One would have to step outside of the Promised Land and, albeit briefly, go into exile.
To receive John’s baptism of repentance, one would have to go through a new Exodus. Only after receiving the baptism would one enter the Promised Land.
The baptism was a direct challenge to the religious community of the day. It was a statement that Israel had lost its way so badly that it would have to begin again. A new Israel was needed.
In Monday’s Gospel, the chief priest and elders in the Temple challenge Jesus’ authority. They asked him where he got his authority. Jesus responds with another question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” (Matthew 21.25)
It sounds like Jesus is avoiding the question posed to him. But he is not. He is making clear that his authority comes from the baptism he received at the Jordan. That baptism, to be sure, was a theophany. The Spirit was present in a form “like a dove” and the Father spoke in the voice from heaven.
Tuesday’s Gospel continues the story from Monday. Jesus now chastises the chief priests and elders for not believing John. Tax collectors and prostitutes did believe John and they followed him; the religious leaders did not. Jesus issues his judgment: “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21.31).
John’s baptism is that important. It was that important to follow the Baptist out of the Promised Land and back in again. Jesus did that and that excursus was part of his claiming his messiahship.
On Wednesday, the focus remains on the Baptist, but the scene changes to Luke’s Gospel.
Prior to the baptism, John had prophesied that the one mightier than him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (3.11). “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3.12).
Some time later, now in prison, John is stumped. He had thought Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, but he has heard no evidence of that. There is no sign of “chaff” being burned in the unquenchable fire.
You can almost hear John ask, “What’s up?” So he sends two of his disciples to see Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7.20)
Jesus had been curing people of diseases and evil spirits and so he points John’s disciples to another prophecy of the Messiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42.6-7).
Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire will come once Jesus has redeemed humanity through his cross and resurrection. But now he sends back the reassuring word to John: “I am the Messiah. Your baptism has begun to form the people who will receive the Spirit and fire.”
John the Baptist is the last prophet of the Old Testament. He pointed towards the New Way by forming a remnant people eager to leave behind a legacy of sin and alienation from God. The time for fiery baptism in the Holy Spirit is nigh.