This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Yesterday was an important stage in the Christmas story. The eighth day is of course the Octave Day and part of the Christian tradition – though it may go back in origin to the eight day Feast of Tabernacles in the Jewish tradition. So, the celebration of Easter extends until and includes the Sunday after Easter in which each of the days is celebrated with equal solemnity. But Christmas goes even beyond the eight days.
The traditional and much loved Christmas carol, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ refers to this. The initial celebration of Christmas extends for a full twelve days because it concludes with the Feast of the Epiphany – the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles – on 6 January. That is still to come and that will bring the feasting and the revelling to its conclusion and our journey to Bethlehem.
For the journey is not yet over. There are people still Bethlehem bound, a group of them travelling from the east and on their way to see this thing that has happened. They have been summoned not by angels but by a star and in response they have left their foreign homeland and made the long and treacherous journey to – they know not where. But whilst at this stage we acknowledge that they are on their way we leave them for a while.
Instead the Gospel for the Eucharist today takes us beyond Bethlehem, shepherds, wise men and angels and to the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John takes us to the banks of the Jordan. Yesterday I was reflecting on the name that the baby in the manger was given, the name ‘Jesus’. It is a name that resonates with that great figure of Jewish history, Joshua, who saw the children of Israel across the River Jordan and into the land that God had promised them when they were slaves in Egypt. Crossing the Jordan was their entry into freedom and the end of their wanderings – for this stage in their history at least.
John the Evangelist takes us to the banks of the Jordan and we meet someone else who has already featured heavily in this journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist has left his home and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. He is now in the desert, somewhere in the Judean wilderness. John locates him close to Bethany which will become something of a base for Jesus in his ministry as this was where his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.
There are many ‘traditional’ baptismal sites on the modern day Jordan. One thing that always strikes me though when I go to the Jordan, to any of the sites, during a pilgrimage, to celebrate the ‘Reaffirmation of Baptismal Promises’ is, frankly, how unimpressive the Jordan is.
I’m very fortunate to live alongside the River Thames. Now that is a river! The modern Jordan is a rather pathetic stream of brown and unappealing water. It is rather unattractive to be honest, yet pilgrims go down to its muddy edge to remember their own baptism and to grab a little of the water to take home with them. The truth is that too much of the water is grabbed – not by eager pilgrims – but by the farmers on the Jordan valley. The valley is now green and productive, producing cash crops for the Israeli home and international markets and it is the Jordan that is providing the water for irrigation.
When John was there and the crowds were gathering round him to hear his uncompromising preaching and to receive baptism for repentance at his hands we would imagine that the Jordan was much more of a river than a stream (although Naaman’s reluctance to bathe in it to cure him of his leprosy in 2 Kings 5 might suggest it was always less than impressive). The gospel takes us into a situation in which people are trying to find out just who John is. Just as later at Caesarea Philippi Jesus will ask his disciples who people say that he is, the people quizzing John come out with the same suggestions – the Messiah, Elijah, the prophet? To each John answers ‘No’.
But then he says something wonderful
‘Among you stands one whom you do not know.’
There, somewhere in the crowds, is Jesus, but as yet, no one knows him. Perhaps John hasn’t seen him yet himself. Perhaps the last time they met was when their mothers greeted each other and each unborn child leapt in recognition of the other. John looks into the crowd with eager anticipation, waiting for his heart to leap again. ‘Among you stands one whom you do not know.’
The journey to Bethlehem has been the journey to look into the crib and see Jesus. But Jesus is no longer in the crib, he is alongside us and we often don’t recognise him. Even though we are devoted to him, even though we have made this journey, yet we can still sometimes miss him in the crowd.
In St Matthew’s Gospel even the righteous say to the Lord.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
Just as children will spend hours looking into the complicated pictures in a ‘Where’s Wally?’ book and not find him, so we can so often miss Jesus in the crowd. Yet he is there, alongside us, with us, God with us; known, yet so often unknown, seen yet so often unseen, recognised yet so often unrecognised.
open my eyes
that I may see you,