John 1:6-8, 19-28
Those familiar with the New Testament will recognize the Isaiah reading today. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth where he was brought up (4:14-30). He had been invited to read and comment on the Scriptures. When Jesus was handed the book of the Prophet Isaiah, Luke says, “He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Because he has anointed me to bring the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Is 61:1-2a). After he read it he sat down and the congregants’ eyes were fixed upon him. Then Jesus gave one of the shortest sermons ever preached, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Prophets like Isaiah, John and Jesus call for a complete change of heart and direction. Last week we met the camel hair-wearing, locust and honey-eating John the Baptist. This week we do a 180 degree turn around and meet John the Witness. The gospel writer John never calls the prophet “John the Baptist.” Rather, he is “John the Witness.”
While John the Witness is described as baptising someone here and there, a careful reading of the story of Jesus’ baptism reveals that John doesn’t baptize Jesus. His primary role isn’t as one who baptizes but one who testifies to the light coming into the world, a witness to an event of cosmic significance. God, the uncreated light of Genesis, is entering into creation, a new presence of God’s light in the world. And a very human fellow is called to witness to this event, to this light entering into the world.
While Jesus defines himself as “I am,” John is clear to say, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets. He is not the light that shines in the darkness. The John of this third Sunday of Advent is John the Witness who points to Jesus and says, “Behold, do you see him? It’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He goes on to quote Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3).
John clearly understood his role as the messenger who prepared the way for the Lord. Jesus was the focal point, not John. John had truly listened to God, knew what his own task was, and acted in humility and obedience to follow that call.
Jesus seldom gave a more impassioned testimony than when he spoke in defense and praise of John and declared, “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he…and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come” (Mt 11:11,14).
The story of John the Witness calls our attention to this first 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 the light shines where light should not be. In word and deed, John pointed to Jesus in a way we still remember. And he reminds us of the importance of pointing to the light and saying, “Look, the Lamb of God.”
What difference does it make for us to imagine that this first testimony of God becoming human is “light in the darkness?” What does it mean to testify to the light? Do we think of ourselves as witnesses to the light which shines in the darkness?
In this season of Advent, perhaps preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light where there seems to be none. God calls us to be witnesses like John who point to Jesus and say, “Look” so that others might know God’s redeeming grace and peace. Perhaps this can be our way of “preparing the way of the Lord.”
The dream expressed by Isaiah, witnessed by John and begun by Jesus, is now ours to continue. Through our baptism we are called to proclaim the Lord’s favor, to proclaim good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners. The uncreated light has come into the world – and the darkness has not put it out!
Resources: Karoline Lewis, 2011; Synthesis, 2014; Jude Siciliano, 2011; David Lose, 2014.