The discussion of John the Baptist as “not the light” but rather “a witness to testify to the light” is missing its context. In year C, the Gospel for the third Sunday of Advent is John 1:6-8 and 19-28, the parts of Gospel’s prologue about John the Baptist, and leaving out the parts directly about Jesus.
Reading the prologue to John in its entirety though, it is quite clear: The Word, who came and dwelt among us, is the light, and the darkness can not overcome it. That is a bit of good news we desperately need at the moment, but the Lectionary puts it off until Christmas, giving us the Advent ministry of John the Baptist instead.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
John the Evangelist brings John the Baptist into the story here for the first time.
Perhaps he thought we would mistake the Baptist for the Messiah, or perhaps there were those still in the world who followed John the Baptist but not Jesus. It certainly happened in the Book of Acts, and it seems there remained or arose sects of exactly that nature even into modern times.
Not the Light
Even without that motivation from his imagined readers, John the Evangelist finds this question among the people in John’s own day. He shows the leaders of the Jewish religious community in Jerusalem sending emissaries to ask John exactly this question — or rather these questions.
Who are you?
John 1:19 NRSV
Are you Elijah?
Are you the prophet?
John 1:21 NRSV
Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?”
John 1:22 NRSV
John is clear. Not one of these is a title he’s willing to claim.
But He Is Elijah — Sort of
Perhaps I should stop and address the fact that by Jesus’ later testimony John was actually wrong about this. Jesus said John was, in fact, the return of Elijah they had come to expect (Matthew 11:13-14). There is a message to us here: It is quite possible to be exactly who you are and who God is calling you to be with having the slightest clue about the fact.
But that is not to the point here.
One Crying in the Wilderness
John the Baptist wanted them, and us, to know that he was not the “light,” not “the Messiah,” not “Elijah,” just plain old John from the hill country.
Finally he tossed them a clear answer though, and his self-understanding is revealing:
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
John 1:23 NRSV
Notice that the NRSV ends John’s quotation before the explicit citation of Isaiah. The Baptist might as easily have spoken the words “as the prophet Isaiah said.” He surely knew he was quoting Isaiah.
The fact that John explicitly quoted this passage of Isaiah shows that despite all his denials, he understood himself as functioning prophetically, in preparation for the one he might have affectionately referred to as “Cousin Messiah.”
Maybe that casts doubt on all his denials. Or maybe he just had a very specific understanding of what Elijah’s return would look like. Hard to say.
How Does One Preach This?
I think the tendency in preaching this text is to take that quotation from Isaiah and run with it, turning it into a sermon on the straight highway in the desert, the rough smoothed out, etc. — our Advent preparation.
Or one can find one’s sermon dwelling on John’s submission to Jesus, his affirmation that he isn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals — another aspect of a proper Advent attitude.
Both are fine. Very reasonable emphases in this text.
“Among You Stands One”
What catches my eye is John the Baptist’s testimony about where Jesus was to be found. It’s easy to miss.
The priests and the Levites came out to question John, but they were specifically sent from the Pharisees.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.
John 1:24 NRSV
So here’s this group of Pharisees, a scribe-and-Levite subset of the Pharisees, sent to question the Baptist. Where is the Messiah to be found?
whom you do not know,
the one who is coming after me…”
John 1:26-27 NRSV
We usually set Jesus against the Pharisees, as if they are the bad guys, persecuting innocent Jesus. We mock them as excessively legalistic, strainers out of gnats and swallowers of camels.
But Jesus was “among” them. He was standing there in the midst of the Pharisees —whether in the group who came out that day, or in the main body back in Jerusalem.
Did you ever notice that Jesus actually spends a lot of time with Pharisees in the Gospels? He eats at their houses, they hang around when he’s teaching. He was “among” them.
I think we forget that to our peril. Jesus wasn’t “outside” the Pharisees, casting his accusations and critiques and sarcastic barbs. Jesus was speaking to his own community — yes, a community that became increasingly separate by the end, but which he worked hard to love toward the Kingdom.
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