Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28
An Identity Crisis?
If last week we met the camel hair wearing, locust and honey eating John the Baptist, this week we do a 180 degree turn and meet a whole different John.
The John of John’s Gospel is never called the Baptist. Rather, this is John the Witness. While he is described as doing some general baptizing here and there, a careful read of John’s story of Jesus’ baptism reveals that John does not baptize Jesus. His primary role is not as one who baptizes but one who testifies to the light coming into the world, a very human witness to a cosmic event. God is about ordering a new creation, a new presence of light in the world but it necessitates a fellow human to point to its presence, otherwise, human as we are, we might not see it. That human is John.
Smack dab in the middle of an out of this world, beyond time and space beginnings of the Gospel of John is John. Interrupting this cosmic birth story, John is first described as who he is not — he is not the light, but came as a witness to testify to the light. Nor is he “Elijah” from the Gospel of Mark. The jump to verses 19-28 in the lectionary passage has John himself answering the question of “Who are you?” with “I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah.” The questioning of John’s identity leads to John’s adamant denial of what he is not.
But even in these obdurate negatives John identifies himself in, through, and by his relationship with Jesus. Whereas Jesus defines himself as “I AM,” John is clear to say, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. He is not the light that shines in the darkness. Yet, even in his resolute claims about who he is not, who he is and why he is here is defined by and inseparable from the presence of the Word made flesh in his midst. He knows nothing but to articulate his identity in connection to Jesus’ identity. Can we make similar claims about our purpose? Can we respond to “who are you?” with the same indivisibility with God and all that God wants us to be? Can we locate our identity as intimately with Jesus?
The John of the third Sunday of Advent is the John that points to Jesus and says, “Behold, did you see him? It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” For John’s Gospel, sin is not our moral laxity or the various transgressions we have committed that we so easily count up on a daily basis. Sin is unbelief which has as its tragic consequence separation from God. It seems that the last thing that separated God from God’s creation was to know what it means to be us. What it feels like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, looks like. So, here comes Christmas.
Our Need for Light
This story of John the Witness also calls attention to a first and fundamental confession of the incarnation, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” Before “the Word became flesh” is the claim that light shines where light should not be. What difference does it make to imagine that a first testimony of God becoming human is light in the darkness? This is extraordinarily hard for us to comprehend when light is taken for granted on a daily, minute by minute, basis. In his book, Christmas: A Candid History,1 Bruce David Forbes provides a helpful synopsis of the importance of light for early celebrations of Jesus’ birth. In the dead of winter, in the midst of darkest and the shortest days of the year, festivals of light were essential. John’s first declaration of the incarnation, that the light of the world is continually shining when darkness should prevail, speaks to a fundamental human need for light. Before there is the Word made flesh, there is the promise that in the midst of all of the darkness of humanity, now light will shine.
My family and I spent a week this past summer at Family Camp at Outlaw Ranch, one of the Lutheran Bible Camps in South Dakota. Taking in the sights in the beautiful Black Hills, one stop was Jewel Cave. The tour’s 723 steps, roughly forty flights of steps, take you deep within the cave. At the opportune time, the tour stops and then, you guessed it, the lights are turned out. Of course, this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of that oft-forgotten fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave five minutes, five hours, five years and still never see our hands in front of our faces. The smallest amount of light would eventually make our eyes adjust and be able to see.
Preparing the Way
What does it mean to testify to the light? Do we imagine ourselves as witnesses to the light as the first expression of God’s presence in the world? Do we think of ourselves as witnesses to the light which shines in the darkness? Into the bleakness of winter will soon come the light of the world. In this time of anticipation, perhaps we can imagine that our welcome for the Word made flesh might be where and how we can shine the light of God’s presence into the shadows of our human brokenness, bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and releasing those imprisoned to freedom.
John the Witness reminds us of the importance of pointing to even the tiniest light and saying “Look, behold, the Lamb of God!” In this season of Advent that is typically described as one of preparation, what does it mean to prepare? Maybe, preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light when there seems to be none. God calls us to be witnesses like John who point to Jesus and say “Look!” so that all might know God’s pastures of peace. Perhaps pointing and saying, “Look!” can be our preparing the way.
1Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.