When people are called upon to testify in a trial, the prosecutor and the defense attornety normally ask questions of the potential witness. Basically, they want to know something about the individual in order to evaluate the validity and possible impact of the testimony.
In the Gospel for the third Sunday in Advent (John 1:6-8, 19-28), John the Baptist was called upon to testify about Jesus. Priests, Levites, and Pharisees came from Jerusalem to see him because he was popular and knew Jesus well.
The Gospel text says about John, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe in him.” (John 1:7) The Gospel clearly points out that John the Baptist was a “witness” (curiously, the word from the Greek also means “martyr,” which illustrates the rationale of John’s death.) And John was to witness to Jesus as the light, that is to say the light that scatters the darkness of ignorance and evil.
But the Priests, Levites, and Pharisees wanted to know about John himself, hence the direct question, “Then, who are you?” John responded by saying who he was not. He was not the Messiah nor was he the prophet Elijah. Then he said who he actually was.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'” Again, he was affirming his call to be a witness, a witness to Jesus. How so? I’m sure that there are several ways to indicate how one can become a witness, but I would like to suggest two. The first is motivation from John (the “why”), and the second are the tasks from Jesus (the “how.”)
First, the motivation. There was an obvious willingness on the part of John to be a witness (=martyr) to Jesus. This provided the “why” of his preaching and behavior which led to his martyr’s death. Second, the tasks of Jesus. This provided the “how” of what Jesus’ disciples (including John) were expected to do.
In the early stages of his public life, it is possible to say that Jesus made it clear to listeners that he relied on Scripture to be his behavioral guide. He entered the synagogue in Nazareth, took the Isaiah scroll and read,”The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…..” (Isaiah 61:1ff)
Later on the same period, Jesus looks at the synagogue participants and declares forcefully, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) In other words, Jesus was stating the facts of his ministry as Isaiah saw them pertaining to the Messiah: preaching the good news (“Gospel”), manifesting compassion, healing the broken hearted, providing forgiveness to sinners. This was the message to be carried on by his disciples. Today’s first reading makes this clear.
Consequently, when we proclaim that “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” we are stating the force of the Spirit (“the creative power of God”) that comes to us when we are baptized, that is, our anointment as disciples.
The motivation provided by John (the “why”), that is, being a witness to Jesus, and the tasks performed by Jesus (the “how”) enable us to become more effective witnesses. And by our behavior patterns, we can become more credible in what we say about Jesus.