< December 14, 2008 >

Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

 

The Gospel readings for the Third Sunday of Advent in Years A, B, and C focus on the person of John.

This year, the focus is on John's role as the primary witness to Jesus, the Messiah. The Gospel of Luke gives us greater insight into the relationship of John and Jesus, but we will wait with this focus until the text assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-38.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John bear witness to the uniqueness of Jesus' identity: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God" (1:1-2). Jesus is God; Jesus is the Word. These identities are inseparable, and John is the first human witness to this unique relationship of the Father and the Son.

When we meet John in this gospel, we immediately see it is not by happenstance that he will play out his role as the first one to identify Jesus as the Son of God: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John" (1:6). God has chosen John and commissioned his role as a witness to Jesus.

John's witness transcends all of time as he bears witness to the light that has come into a darkened world: "He (John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (1:7-9). John's role as witness and Jesus' role as light are inseparable.

When asked about his identity, John replied that he was not the Messiah, or a prophet announcing the Messiah, or one such as Elijah, or the prophet, Moses (1:19-21). Rather, John identifies himself as the prophetic voice of one such as the figure of Isaiah whose role in the sixth century before Christ announced the return of God's people from their years of captivity in Babylon: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord'" (1:22-23, citing Isaiah 40:3).

John's role is to make straight the way to the one who comes as the Messiah, and he does this through his identity in the role given him by God. He is simply the witness to the one whom God has sent.

The Gospel of John identifies John in a unique way and serves as a marvelous Advent text. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Gospel of John identifies this person only as John, and does not attach his identity as "the baptist" with his person. Only in a very unique way do we hear about the baptism of John in his words: "I baptize with water" (1:26), and in reference to Jesus, John responds, "I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason that he might be revealed to Israel" (1:31).

John bears witness to the baptism event in this way: "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God" (1:32-34).

These verses are not included in the assigned text for this Sunday, but they are very important in filling out the portrait of John and his role in this gospel. What we begin to see is that the figure of John in the Gospel of John plays a unique role. John is not identified as the forerunner of the Messiah, which is his role in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Gospel of John, he is portrayed as the primary witness to Jesus as he looks back on his relationship to Jesus. John is the first person in this gospel to bear witness and confess that Jesus is "the Son of God" (1:34). This confession is heard from a human witness not until the very end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear the confession of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus has breathed his last: "Truly this man was God's Son!" (Mark 15:39).

The role of John continues to unfold in the Gospel of John in 3:22-30; 5:31-35; 10:40-42. In these ongoing texts, it is always clear that John's role is one of the primary witness to Jesus. John is identified as "the friend of the bridegroom" who rejoices in the presence of the bridegroom and announces: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:29-30). Jesus identifies the role of John: "He was a burning and shining Lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (5:35). Finally, many who witnessed John's ministry of witness to the Messiah offer their highest commendation of his God-given role: "John performed no sign, but everything he said about [Jesus] was true" (10:41). His role was now complete as the evangelist John offers the final witness to the role of John: "And many believed in him [across the Jordan]" (10:42).

On this Third Sunday of Advent in Year B, we have a unique opportunity to identify the role that all persons of faith are called to by God. Each one of us who has heard the words of this text have seen the importance of John's witness to Jesus. Like John, God commissions us to bear witness to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one who has come in the flesh, the one who is here with us, and the one who will come again in his reign as Lord of all.

In this, there is no greater witness to the truth of God's work of salvation.