Advent 3 · John 1:6-8,19-28 · December 14, 2008
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
The Gospel for Advent 3 from John seems to overlap extensively with the previous Sunday’s Gospel from Mark. Both provide an introduction to John the Baptist, and both describe details of his ministry. Our goal this week, then, will be to discover the ways in which this text builds upon the last one, furthering our Advent preparation. If this pattern hasn’t become tiresome yet, a theme like “We are Confessors for the Lord and to the World” might help highlight some of the distinctive features of John’s account of John. I intend to take full advantage of the two common meanings of the word confess.
We confess for the Lord and to the world that we are not the Christ.
John the Evangelist will leave the reader in no doubt concerning the identity of this “man sent from God.” The fact that he should even be mentioned on the same page with the Word who was God and the Light that shines in the darkness gives him an importance that is difficult to exaggerate. He may not have been face-to-face with God, but he was from God. In John’s Gospel in particular, it is no small thing to be called “sent from God,” a description usually reserved for the Son.
Equally important for the reader to know is that John the Baptizer realized this. It is difficult to think up a way to add greater emphasis to a point than the evangelist’s language does in 1:20—”He confessed and did not deny, and confessed that… ” Commentators have often pointed out the significance of the theme of recognition in the Gospel according to John. To truly recognize Jesus as the Christ (cf. 20:31), we also have to be certain about who is not the Christ. Thus, John’s confession that he is not himself the Christ, prepares the reader to hear John point out the Lamb of God when He appears. John is a voice; he is not the Word.
Though we might allow for someone in “Bible times” to mistakenly think of himself as the Messiah, we tend to regard anyone making that claim today as about the same as someone claiming to be Queen Elizabeth, Friedrich Barbarossa, Elvis Presley, or Mickey Mouse. This is a matter for medical or psychiatric attention or even a case for law enforcement officials; it hardly seems worth wasting pulpit time on it. Yet, if we paraphrase John’s confession as “I am not your way, truth, and life; I am not the one who will or even can save you,” we begin to see how there may be a reason for some Advent reflection here, even on our part. If John, “greatest of those born of women” (cf. Mt 11:11), took such great care to make it clear that he was not the one who could save, perhaps we need to take a little more care.
The irony here for us, of course, is that the Advent season is all about us becoming more and more like Christ, “living as children of that True Light” (cf. the Epistle from 1 Thes 5), speaking the truth in love (confessing), growing up in every way into Christ, putting off the old self, being made new, putting on the new self created after the likeness of God (cf. Eph 4). As Thomas Merton has said, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ,”¹ and yet, for us that growing and renewing must always begin with the honest confession that we are not the Christ. We, even all of us together as the Church, have not become the savior. We are not the way. The lost are not to be renewed by becoming like us in every way. This can, of course, be overstated, but I think you get the point. Our Advent confession begins with an honest appraisal (i.e., an appraisal based on God’s self-revelation in Christ and empowered by His all-knowing Spirit), and that honest appraisal confesses, does not deny, but confesses: “We are not the Christ.”
We confess for the Lord and to the world that Jesus is the Christ.
The first part of our Advent confession, important as it is, cannot bring anyone to salvation. The best it can do is to keep someone from following a wrong path to its dead end. Like the world of John, our world needs more than a negative confession. The world needs confessors who, like John are not afraid to attract attention to themselves in order to be heard. They need confessors like the Baptizer in the great medieval paintings who stands there for all to see, with his finger— rudely but unflinchingly—pointing out the Christ.
And John’s confession in w. 26—27 is especially appropriate for Advent-inthe-Year-of-Our-Lord-2008 confessors. “There is someone standing right in the middle of you all, and you don’t even recognize him!” We are not introducing someone new, someone who has just appeared on the scene. He’s been standing there all the time! (Note the perfect tense of the verb.) This verse foreshadows John’s riddle in v. 30, but that’s not the main point for us here. John is asked to defend his novel ministry in the only categories his opponents could operate in. John responds, however, by saying, “I’m not innovating at all. I’m simply doing what Isaiah, so long ago, said needed to, and one day, would be done. I’m simply trying to draw your full attention to the One you’ve been ignoring, failing to see, avoiding. But He’s still there, right in the middle of you all.” And if he is right in the middle, that means he’s standing right next to each and every one of you.
The second part of John’s confession here is just as important for us and makes something of a thematic inclusion with the first part of the text. So clearly does John want to distinguish himself from the Christ that he here confesses that he is not even worthy to be his slave. Craig Keener reveals the force of this confession:
The most demeaning tasks performed by a household servant involved the master’s feet (washing the feet, carrying sandals, or unfastening thongs of sandals); to do such work was to be a slave. Thus although ancient teachers usually expected disciples to function as servants, later rabbis entered one caveat: unlike slaves, they did not tend to the teacher’s sandals. But could John really claim himself unworthy to be the coming one’s slave? If so, he exalts the coming one in virtually divine terms.²
This picture is especially important in John’s Gospel, where taking care of a person’s feet plays such an important role in indicating the depth of love and the nature of relationships. We have become and we do call ourselves “slaves of Christ Jesus,” but this Advent confession removes all doubt that we have somehow come to merit such a high honor.
A closing thought: it is difficult to overcome the temptation to see an almost tongue-in-cheek play on words in this text. We grow weary in treating this passage because we are dealing with two men named John and must constantly distinguish them as “John the Baptist” and “John the Evangelist” or “John the Apostle.” Strange, isn’t it, that this should be the one Gospel where the Baptist is simply “John”?
The Fourth Gospel provides no list of the names of the Twelve, so our author cleverly avoids the need to ever refer to himself as “John.” He is, you recall, always and only “the disciple Jesus loved.” Still, everything said about the Baptist in John 1:6—8 would apply perfectly to the Evangelist as well. Our author is so far from being the Christ, so far from even being worthy to be His slave, that he won’t even give posterity his name. Clearly John is providing us with multiple examples of what it means to be Christ’s Advent confessors. Advent calls us to join in that great crowd of pointers and shouters. I have said more than once that I would truly be able to rest in peace if, on my tombstone, were inscribed the words of John 10:41—”He did no sign, but everything that he said about this One was true.”
¹ Originally from Merton’s 1965 Seasons of Celebration, I am quoting it from Thomas J. O’Gorman, ed., An Advent Sourcebook (Chicago: liturgy Training Publications, 1988), 57.
² Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (2 vols.; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 1:448.