Sunday Sermon for December 13, 2020, the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
Readings: Is 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28
In the Gospel reading today St. John the Baptist is asked who he is. He said he was not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet. Instead, he told the people he was “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” You may recognize this from last week’s first reading which was taken from the beginning of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. I think, given what we have mentioned above, it is important to look the person of St. John the Baptist.
First, St. John the Baptist acknowledges that he is not the Christ. He knows his role as the forerunner of the Christ and that he was to point out the Messiah, so he knew without doubt that he was not the Messiah. The people did not know this, however, and the fact that they asked if he was the Christ tells us that some may have thought the Baptist was the Anointed One. In speaking the truth, he dismantled their misguided perceptions.
Second, he said he was not the Prophet. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses tells the people that God would raise up a prophet like himself. Like the title of Christ or Messiah, the title of the Prophet belongs only to our Lord. St. John is a prophet, in fact the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets, but he is not the Prophet of whom Moses spoke.
Third, St. John tells the people he is not Elijah. This may strike us as problematic because Jesus stated emphatically in Matthew 11:4 that John the Baptist is Elijah. All three Synoptic Gospels have references to St. John being Elijah, but Jesus’ statement in Matthew cannot be denied. So, if St. John is Elijah, how can he say he is not Elijah? Is he lying? No. Is he confused? No.
The Baptist is not the historical person of Elijah. The two witnesses in Revelation 11 are often understood to be Elijah and Enoch. These are the two people who have not died; they were both taken up prior to dying. If one of these witnesses is Elijah, then the historical person of Elijah will return near the end of the world to preach a message of repentance. He will be rejected by the people and killed with the other witness. So, this witness described in Revelation is not St. John the Baptist, nor is there any mention that St. John would come shortly before the end of the world to turn the hearts of the children to their Father and the heart of the Father to his children.
Recall that before Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind, the Prophet Elisha asked for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. God granted that prayer and Elisha received the spirit of Elijah. Like Elisha, St. John the Baptist also came in the spirit of Elijah. In the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel the Angel revealed to Zachariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, that his son would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. So, this is how he can, at the same time, be Elijah and not be Elijah: he is not the historical person of Elijah, but came in the spirit and power of Elijah.
When asked who he was, if not any of the above, St. John’s answer would have left the people in even greater confusion than they were before. In quoting Isaiah, he calls himself a voice, but not just a voice, but the voice of someone else: “the voice of one crying out in the desert.” Centuries later, St. Augustine spoke of the connection between John the Baptist and Jesus and said that the Baptist was the voice, but Jesus was the Word. But whose voice is he?
The fortieth chapter of Isaiah marks the beginning of the “Book of the Consolation of Israel.” It simply starts with “Comfort, give comfort to my people.” Verse three begins with “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness…’” In the first verse it seems apparent that God is speaking. Although the third verse is not as clear, we can probably assume it is the same Person speaking. So, the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but He was the voice of the Lord preparing the people of Israel to hear the Word made flesh.
God raised up Elijah and St. John the Baptist in very difficult times. They continue to call us to repent and to rejoice. As it was in their days, so it is in ours: God, Who brings good out of evil, is doing something great. Therefore, rejoice always, and rejoice heartily in the Lord!
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.