What we don’t have in the Gospel of St John is an account of the temptation in the desert, nor do we have a narrative account of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. What we do have is the witness of St John the Baptist. It is possible that by the time the priests and Levites came to question John that the baptism of Jesus had already happened, and the time in the desert was reaching its conclusion.
It is possible that after the time in the desert Jesus returned to the place where He had that extraordinary experience of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Most of us go back to places where we have been touched by God when we are in need or seeking guidance. As we read elsewhere in the Scriptures, river banks were popular places to pray.
We know that John the Baptist recognised Jesus, and publicly pointed Him out. But Jesus did not call attention to Himself, so it might not have been clear which man on the river bank John was pointing to.
It must have felt strange to everyone when no one responded, ‘Yes, I am He’. It must have felt strange to John the Baptist too, considering the massive revelation of God he had experienced when baptising Jesus.
If that wasn’t God’s way, (ie pointing out Jesus to a crowd), what then was God’s way? I think we can safely assume that John the Baptist spent the night in prayer about it.
So the ‘next day’ we see John the Baptist standing with two of his disciples. It was customary for teachers to sit when they were teaching, so he wasn’t teaching. He isn’t baptizing. He isn’t preaching to a crowd. It feels like he is deliberately waiting.
In John the Baptist’s shoes after the declaration of who Jesus was fell flat, I would have paid careful attention to the direction that Jesus went when He left the river bank.
Knowing in such an experiential way who Jesus was, every instinct of John’s must have been to leave everything and follow Jesus. To sit at the feet of the promised and long-awaited Messiah, who wouldn’t want that? But the hints of Jesus coming humbly to be baptized and then not declaring Himself indicated a desire for a much more incognito start than a bold, ‘here I am’. If John, by now a well known and public figure, follows Jesus as a disciple, goodbye incognito start. John also recognises that his vocation to call to repentance, to baptize, and to prepare hearts to receive God’s Messiah is still active and more necessary than ever.
Just imagine what a difficult obedience that must have been for John the Baptist! Every fibre of his being must have wanted to be with Jesus, yet he stayed true to his vocation as the voice in the wilderness.
But if he couldn’t go and be with Jesus and follow Him, he could send his heart instead, by showing Jesus to his two most promising disciples, Andrew and John. It must have been very, very hard to cut these two loose. Yet John the Baptist did it.
So John stood there waiting for Jesus to pass by, deliberately waiting with his two best disciples. We are told that John the Baptist stared hard at Jesus. He needed to make sure that it was really Jesus, but also more-than-maybe John needed and wanted to fix the features of Jesus in his mind and memory.
And so it began, this person to person domino effect of meeting Jesus, being changed by Him, and dragging your nearest and dearest to meet Him too.
God’s way is definitely not the way we would do it. We’d get mega-phones and horse-floats and big media releases. God does it person to person, and we know it works.
God’s timing isn’t like ours either. We’d be in a frenzy of getting as many crowds together as possible. Jesus lingers on a river bank in prayer, and has a leisurely late afternoon and evening getting to know two new friends. God isn’t in a hurry, and yet it all works out.
Here we have three major challenges:
The first one is that of being obedient even when it costs us dearly.
The second one, and maybe the more difficult one in our days, is trusting in God, and trusting in His timing.
The third one asks us whether we value following Jesus as much as St John the Baptist did. He desperately wanted to, but that wasn’t God’s will for him. We are able to follow Jesus if we want to; are we taking up that opportunity with gusto?