This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Lectionary Cycle A during which the Gospel of Matthew is the primary source of Sunday gospel readings. Having made that point, our gospel for today is taken from the Gospel of John. It is a well chosen gospel that follows our celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord in which the epiphenia or revelation of Jesus was the primary theme – one shared with our Sunday gospel.
The Gospel of John begins with its famous prologue: In the beginning was the Word…” Within the prologue the Fourth Evangelist presented John the Baptist as “a man sent from God” who “came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” (John 1:6-8; see also 1:15; and later 5:33) This opening characterization sets the stage for the narration of John’s ministry in 1:19–34. John’s identity is further probed when he is called to account by a delegation sent by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Three times John denies being a particular end-time figure: the Christ (1:20; cf. 1:8, 15); Elijah (1:21a); the Prophet (1:21b; cf. 6:14; 7:40; cf. Deut. 18:15, 18).
After thus affirming three times who he is not, John in our gospel for this Sunday, at long last, is telling his interrogators who he is. Even though he is none of the scriptural figures expected to make their appearance in Israel in the last days, John does respond in terms of a figure spoken of in Scripture. He is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” (1:23) taken from Isaiah 40:3.
On a side note, interestingly, the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:3 has a different punctuation than we are used to hearing. We are familiar with the translation from the Greek (LXX) text of Isaiah 40:3 wherein it is the voice of the one crying out in/from the wilderness – in other words, telling us the location of the messenger. In the Hebrew the messenger cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” – in other words the messenger is speaking to those who are in the wilderness.
In this characterization of John the Baptist, the Fourth Evangelist is consistent with the Synoptic portrayal of the Baptist (cf. Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). According to the Fourth Evangelist, John’s witness centered on Jesus’ role in the divine plan of salvation as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36). At its very heart, the purpose of John’s baptism and ministry is described as being bound up with revealing Jesus’ true identity to Israel (1:31) – hence an excellent choice to follow the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord.
No matter what year (A: Matthew; B:Mark; C:Luke) the gospel for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is taken from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. The purpose for this is essentially the same – following the baptism of the Lord, which reveals the relationship of the Father to the Son and to the Holy Spirit – this week’s gospel reveals the relationship of Jesus to the world. And perhaps no one does so more robustly than the Fourth Evangelist.
The fourth Gospel is a book of “signs;” namely things, events, and people who point to something else. Such “intermediaries” are generally necessary in this gospel in order to come to faith. Even Jesus is a type of intermediary as the logos — the “Word” or “Revealer” of God. The theme and purpose of the “signage” becomes clear in John 20:31 – “But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” This gospel itself is a “sign” to point us to the Messiah, who is a “sign” who points us to God. As O’Day (John, NIB, 524) states about this gospel: “… the story of Jesus is not ultimately a story about Jesus; it is, in fact, the story of God.”
It is to this that John testifies: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”