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Looking up content for: John 1:6-8, 19-28 (posted on December 8, 2008)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Associated tags: The Lectionary Gospel, Year B, John
Comments and Observations
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As Fred Craddock once pointed out in his brilliant sermon “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” John the Baptist was easily the most famous preacher of his generation. The historian Josephus once wrote that in his estimation, this man John was a vastly more important and impressive figure than his cousin known as Jesus. Even years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the apostles visited the city of Ephesus to proclaim the gospel. They ran across a large church that called itself "The First Church of John the Baptizer." The members of this congregation had all been baptized into the name of John. When the apostles inquired if they had been baptized into also the name of Jesus, the people replied, "Who's that? Never heard of him." Years earlier it was John, not Jesus, who got King Herod's attention. So he arrested and eventually executed John. But once Jesus began to make a bit of a stir himself, Herod's first reaction was to say, "That must be John again! He's back from the dead!"
Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John as written by John the apostle was the last one of the four gospels to be composed. By the time Saint John got around to writing all this down for us, it was already late in the first century, long after Peter and Paul had been killed and likely well after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been circulated, too. But even that late in the game, it is glaringly obvious from John's gospel that in many places John the Baptist was still more famous than Jesus.
Unlike the other three gospels, John opens his book with a soaring introduction which is its own kind of poem or hymn. But early on in his song, John has to interrupt himself. Just imagine it this way: suppose your congregation is singing the carol "Joy to the World!" With one voice they belt it out: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!" But what would people think if at that point you as the pastor suddenly waved your arms to hush them and then said, "OK, everyone, now remember, we're not singing about John the Baptist here! Got it? Good, let's go on. 1-2-3 go: 'Let every heart prepare him room . . .'"
That would widen some eyes. But that's what John does. He is crooning away about the Word of God that was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made. This Word was the light of men and it shines in the darkness. But then he stops and says, "But I'm not singing about John the Baptist! He was not the light I'm talking about!" Apparently the Apostle John had to say that or else there would still have been people, even that late in the first century, who would have thought John the Baptist was the Light of the world.
In fact, as commentator Don Juel pointed out, in this chapter John the Baptist becomes the man who is not. He is not the light. He is not the Christ. He is not Elijah. He is not the final Prophet. He is not worthy to untie the true One's sandals. He is not the one to baptize with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had a kind of reverse resumé. Typically on a resumé you list all the thing that you are, all the things you have done and accomplished. But John had a resumé that was like a photographic negative: before he could say who he was and what he had come to do, he had to go on and on to say who he was not and what his work would not be about!
But suppose we want to be more positive. What did John the Baptist come to do? He came to bear witness. When Jesus was baptized, he was a just another moist face in the crowd. Only John saw the reality. Only he could give testimony to it. A little beyond this particular Year B lection, John will say in verse 31: "The reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel."
Isn't that remarkable!? All of John's crazy shenanigans; all that shouting and ranting and raving and fire-and-brimstone preaching; all that spectacle of camel's hair clothing and the funny diet of grasshoppers dipped in honey; all those countless baptisms in the Jordan's muddy waters--all of it was mainly aimed at that one moment when John would point his finger and bear witness to the One everybody had been waiting for. Who knows precisely when it was that John the Baptist realized this was his purpose in life. But at some point it became clear to him that he had to start this ministry of baptism so that when God's Christ appeared, he would be there to tell the world about it.
John spent a good deal of his time making clear to people what and who he was not. Oddly enough, when he finally got around to being more positive by telling people what he in fact was, that did not generate much press. The things he was not were all very impressive. Had he been any one of those things, waves of excitement would have washed over people everywhere. But as it turned out, he was just a witness, just a sideline player.
The Greek word is a form of the word martyr, which means witness and has also gone on to mean in English anyone who dies on account of testifying to his or her faith. That fate would come to John, too. But the point is that the things John had to deny about himself were more interesting to most people's mind than the one thing he did turn out to be: a simple witness, a finger-pointer, one who deflected the spotlight from himself in order to throw it onto someone else.
We have good reason to be thankful for John. But I wonder if we really take his example to heart. How many of us are content to be the one who was not? If we are honest, most of us prefer to have an identity and to make a name for ourselves as something other than "just" being a witness to the gospel. Before he ascended into heaven after his resurrection, Jesus told the disciples (and by the Spirit tells now also us), "You are my witnesses to tell the world the gospel." This is to be our identity. We are here to bear witness, to give testimony, to tell the world what we believe is true about Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of all people. In Advent or at any time, are we able to be enthused by this secondary role of bearing witness to the One who has come and who will come again?
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
“Among you stands one you do not know.” Those were John the Baptist’s words as recorded in John 1:26. Of course, at that time it was literally true that a quiet carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire was rubbing shoulders with lots of people—including the crowds that jostled together at the banks of the Jordan River—but no one had a clue that this unimpressive-looking man was The One, the Son of God, the Word of God who had been with God in the beginning. As noted elsewhere in this set of Year B sermon starters, it was John’s #1 task—indeed, it was perhaps his sole task—to point out The One whom everyone else was failing to recognize. He was a witness to the Light of the World. John was there to point him out.
Among you stands one you do not know. There’s more gospel and Advent mystery packed into that little line than we may realize. After all, if the Son of the Living God is on this earth—if the Word of God through whom everything that exists had been made was walking the soil of his own creation—wouldn’t common sense tell you that he’d be someone no one could possibly miss seeing? Shouldn’t everyone have been able to know who he was at a glance?
Among you stands one you do not know. Jesus came down to this world in such non-descript packaging that to most people’s minds he didn’t even look like a fake Messiah or some imposter Christ. In early December 2008 there was a funny story on the news about a Florida congresswoman who hung up on President-Elect Barack Obama on account of her being sure it was a prank call by some local radio hosts known to prank people on the air by doing really good imitations of famous people. It took two more phone calls from two other people before she was able to be convinced that the original call had really been from the president-elect! But it goes without saying that even if it had been a prank call, the prankster would have done his level best to sound as much like Mr. Obama as possible. When you are imitating someone or trying to fool someone into thinking you are someone you are not, you have to work hard to sound and act the part.
Among you stands one you do not know. Apparently, Jesus did not even sound or act the part of a would-be Savior of the world. You could stand in the baptism line right behind him, shuffling toward the water’s edge and waiting your turn to be dunked by John, and have no clue who was in front of you. You could be at a dinner party with this man and even ask him to pass you the salt and pepper and have no idea that the fingers that would grasp the saltshaker were the same fingers that once set quasars to spinning.
Among you stands one you do not know. It’s still true today, of course. But Christians forget the divine M.O. Since after 2,000 years the Church has managed to make a name for itself; since we have soaring cathedrals and, these days, former sports stadiums-turned churches that pack in crowds of 10,000+ people every Sunday morning; since we’ve built impressive colleges, universities, and seminaries; since we fill whole libraries with the fruits of two millennia’ worth of Christian scholarship—because of all this we tend to think that there is something just obviously impressive about the Christian message and about the presence of Christ in the world yet today. And so some in the Church are merely agog to read the rantings of Richard Dawkins (God is a delusion) and Daniel Dennett (faith is a pathology) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not great) and we feel that we need to hit back at these people. Hard. After all, aren’t they missing the obvious? How in the world can anyone miss seeing the manifest truth of Jesus’ presence in the world?
But no. Among you stands one you do not know. It’s God’s way. It’s the gospel way. Salvation comes from the quiet strength, the gentle humility, the servant heart of God’s only Son. The Word who spoke everything into being was perfectly willing to come to this world less as a Word and more as a Whisper. He was perfectly willing to remain anonymous to the Herods and Caesars of the world so as to make himself known to blind people, deaf people, lepers, prostitutes, fishermen, and so very many others who were also the invisible members of the world, living on the margins of society, on the wrong side of the tracks.
Among you stands one you do not know. Jesus knew something about going unrecognized. He knew something about not being seen. And so maybe that’s why he was so good at lifting up those others among us whom we do not know: the homeless, the street people, the AIDS victim, the working poor. These people are also among us and we do not know, most of the time, who they really are, either. Among us stand those we do not know. Who are they? They are imagebearers of God. They are children of the heavenly Father. They are precisely the last, least, lost, and lonely whom Jesus came to save, they were the poor to whom Jesus came (a la the Old Testament lection from Isaiah 61) to preach good news and release from captivity.
Among you stands one you do not know. But if today you do know him, if by the gift of faith you can recognize him, be thankful. It’s not an obvious truth to recognize. But once you do discover that this One is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sin of the world, then you can but pray that the Holy Spirit of God will open also your eyes to all the invisible people among us all who in Advent and at all times sorely need to hear the best news ever proclaimed.
If you know any Greek at all, then you will recall that the Greek word for “witness” as used consistently in John 1:6-8 transliterates into the English word “martyr.” And, of course, as the gospels make clear, in the case of John the Baptist his role as witness did indeed lead to his role as a martyr for the one to whom he bore that witness. That fact is a sobering reminder of what the cost of discipleship / witnessing can be for also all of us latter-day people who can see ourselves in the picture Jesus sketched in also Acts 1:8 when he told the disciples, “Now you are my witnesses . . . you are my martyrs.”
From Fred Craddock’s sermon, “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” From A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds (Eerdmans 1994), p. 43:
“The Bible calls [repentance] a new birth. You’ve been to that window, haven’t you? The maternity ward, the nursery, and all that stuff up there in that big window. And all the men outside trying to figure out which one it is? You know, Julie is in there somewhere, and I know she’s the prettiest one, and you can’t read those little old bands where the arm comes down and the hand joins and there’s a deep wrinkle and there’s that band, and it’s so small, and you say, ‘Well, I think that’s . . .’ And the Bible says, That’s what it is, that is it. And John offered that. The Bible says it’s like a snowfall. You get up in the morning early, and you look out: about four inches and there’s not a print in it yet. And you look across the alley, and what yesterday afternoon was the ugly garbage dumpster is now a mound to the glory of God. That’s what the Bible calls it. And John is offering it. Did you ever hear John preach? If you haven’t, you will. Because the only way to Nazareth is through the desert. Well, that’s not exactly true. You can get to Nazareth without going through the desert. But you won’t find Jesus.”