The Third Sunday of Advent
E. Bevan Stanley
December 13, 2020
Year B, RCL
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is John the Baptist, not John the author of the Gospel. This John the Baptist was not the light but was a witness to testify to the light. Later on, Jesus will say of this man that there has arisen no prophet greater than he. What did he mean? What about Elijah, at whose word all Israel suffered a drought for three years and who defeated 450 prophets of the false god Baal at Mt. Carmel? What about Elisha, who raised a widow’s child from the dead and cleansed a foreign general of leprosy? What about Isaiah the great writing prophet who stood fast and spoke of hope when the northern kingdom fell and enemies were at the gate if Jerusalem? Whose three Songs of the Servant spoke of the coming Messiah. What of Jeremiah, who saw Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians and spoke of a day when God would once again gather the chosen to Jerusalem? What of Ezekiel, who spoke to the people in exile of a city of God whose waters would nourish all the world? Jesus said John was greater than all of these.
In today’s reading, the Pharisees come to John and ask him who he is. Specifically, they ask if he is Elijah, or the Prophet, or the Messiah. Why these questions? First, we go back to Moses and the first five books of the Bible. In them Moses told the Children of Israel that there would always be a prophet to speak God’s word to them. And so it seemed to be. Then after the return from exile in the middle of the fifth century before Christ, the spirit of prophecy ceased. In the place of this direct communication from God through inspired leaders, the fixed religion of the priests and the written texts came to be the only authority. Nevertheless, the hope remained that some day, at the end of time, God would send a new prophet.
And that hope centered on Elijah. This prophet never died, but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind and chariot of fire. Jews have held that at the end of time he would return to prepare the way for the Messiah. To this day when Jews celebrate the Passover Seder in their homes, they keep an empty seat at the table reserved for Elijah.
Finally, there was the hope of the Messiah himself. This was based on the promises God had made to King David, that his dynasty would never end. It went underground, as it were, for centuries after Alexander the Great subjugated the entire Middle East. But all during the repressive Greek occupation and then the Roman, the Jews kept looking for the day, when the Messiah, the anointed king, would return and reestablish Jewish sovereignty and usher in a time of peace and justice.
These then are the traditions and hopes that lie behind the questions to John the Baptist. But he said, “No, I am not Elijah. I am not the Prophet. I am not the Messiah. I am merely the voice of one calling in the wilderness to prepare a straight, even, flat road for the coming of the Messiah. Later on, in this first chapter of the Gospel of John, John will point to Jesus and say, “There he is. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John is the one who points to Jesus. In religious art there is a convention that John is almost always pictured as pointing to Jesus. When you see pictures or statues and one of the figures is pointing to Jesus, the odds are good that it is John the Baptist.
This is what makes John greater than all the prophets before him. John the Baptist actually could point to Jesus and say, “Here he is. This one, not me.”
There is another thing about John. Notice where his is first mentioned in the fourth Gospel. Right in the middle of the most abstract and theological passage in all of Scripture. The famous prologue to this Gospel begins: In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. In him was life and the life was the light of mortals. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. No transition, just –Bang! There he is. All of a sudden we have moved from the abstract to the concrete. We start with Word of God. Life. Light. Suddenly, there was a human being. It is in fact the pattern of the Incarnation for which John is to prepare us. The medium is the message. Flesh and blood human to point to the God of flesh and blood.
This is our ministry, too, as individuals. We are to point to Jesus. What makes us happy? Jesus. How can we face our troubles, our husband’s cancer, or the loss of a job? The COVID19 Pandemic? Jesus. What gives meaning to our lives? Jesus. How can you forgive that person who has wronged you? Through Jesus, and by the grace that he gives. We are people sent from God. This person sent from God whose name is Peter, or Richard, or Sara, or David. Each of us is here to be a witness to the light. We are here to point to Jesus.
This is our ministry as the Church as well. We point to Jesus. When we gather for worship, we say to one another and to our guests, here he is. Here is the savior of the world. Here is the hope of the world. Here is the one who can bring us justice and freedom and love. Here is the Word of God read and meditated on and discussed. Here in the Sacrament of God’s life-giving body and blood. Here in the gathering of people all animated by the Spirit of God. We point to Jesus present here and now in our midst, in the world, in our lives.
I love strong starts to stories: “Call me Ishmael.” ‘I sing of arms and the man.” “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Or as in Beowulf, the single word, “Listen!” This Gospel of John has a particularly powerful opening: “In the beginning was the Word.” It is a grand theological vision that sets the context for all that follows. In this Gospel, God is present in the human being Jesus. God becomes flesh. Suddenly, into the midst of this mystical language breaks this very earthy statement; “There was man sent from God, whose name was John.” This divine theology is lived out on this very earthy earth. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
This Advent season is also the beginning of a story, a story we tell every year in the liturgical cycle. Now, at this beginning, when we prepare for the coming of the Messiah, we remember John, the greatest of all the prophets. We imitate him in pointing to Jesus. We take joy in the coming of the one greater than ourselves. We recognize that advent in real people in this very real world. We will stay awake and look for the Christ Child everywhere.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” Amen.