Advent 3: 17 December John 1:6-8,19-28
This week we are again with John the Baptist, but this time we have the version of the fourth gospel. The first three verses pop up suddenly in the prologue which celebrates Jesus as the Word. Jesus is the Word, the Logos.
The preamble to John’s gospel, 1:1-18, uses the ancient Jewish image of Wisdom, pictured as a person with God from the beginning and seeking to entice Israel to the ways of wisdom and away from the enticements of evil. In depicting both enticements female imagery is used. People transformed the image when they began to say: Jesus is the real wisdom which makes sense of this world; he is its ‘logic’, its logos. In Jesus we encountered that logic in flesh and blood. Like wisdom – or better: as wisdom – he was there with God in the beginning. He is God’s communication, God’s representative, and so the one who brings life and light.
When we hear in 1:6 that there was ‘a man sent from God’, we might at first think that it is speaking about Jesus, especially if we are familiar with the favourite terms of the fourth gospel. For among them is the image of Jesus as the one sent from God. But 1:6 is about John the Baptist, as are 1:7-8. The other reference to John in the preamble is 1:15 (not part of the lectionary selection); its content reappears in 1:27. Many believe that the preamble to John’s gospel, often called the prologue, existed once independent of the gospel and reflects an earlier Christian tradition about Jesus as the Logos. Certainly that image does not appear anywhere else in the gospel. It may well be that the author adapted it to make it the introduction of the gospel and it is possible that in doing so he added the verses about John which would then make the transition easier to what followed.
It becomes clear when we look at the lectionary passage as a whole that John the Baptist was important to the writer and to at least some of his hearers. It is also clear that there were dangers in overemphasising that importance. The gospel writer is so focused on Jesus that he has no interest in John’s own contribution beyond that he pointed to Jesus. There should be no mistake about this as his chief role. 1:20 makes it monotonously clear: ‘And he confessed and did not deny and he confessed, "I am not the Christ"’. That is double underlining! Elsewhere we read of followers of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-6) and traditions preserved by the later Mandean sect suggest that some saw in him a saviour. This might explain why the author almost falls over backwards to play down John’s role.
The alternatives, Christ (Messiah), Elijah, prophet, in 1:20-25, remind us of Mark 8:27-29, where the same options are mentioned in Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about what people were saying about him. They appear earlier in Mark 6:14-16. This may have inspired the author to frame this scene. There was an expectation that at the climax of history a prophet like Moses would appear (based on Deut 18:15-18). There was also the widespread belief that Elijah would reappear (based on Malachi 3:1 and 4:5). Some people thought Jesus was crying for Elijah on the cross (Mark 15:34-36). Both figures appear with Jesus in the vision on the mount of transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8). On the way down from the mountain Jesus explains that John equates to Elijah (Mark 9:11-13). People identified ‘the messenger’ in ‘I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me’ Malachi 3:1 with Elijah who is mentioned in Malachi 4:5. The writer of the fourth gospel may echo that tradition in 3:28. But here he sets aside all such honours for John. He cites Isaiah 40:3, as did Mark in 1:3, as a prediction of John’s preaching in the wilderness.
The common tradition shared with Mark reappears also in 1:26-27. It includes: ‘I baptise with water’ but we have to wait until 1:33 for the second half of the saying (according to Mark 1:8), the reference to Jesus’ baptising with the Spirit. The author’s concern appears to be to put John in his place, not too significant but also not too insignificant. John the Baptist’s chief role is to bear testimony to Jesus. It is also the chief role of the Bible (the Old Testament) in John. All the focus is on Jesus.
Nevertheless it is striking that so much that is said of Jesus is also said of John in the fourth gospel. Both are sent from God. The chief role of both is to bear witness. Later John will also be described as a bringer of light (5:35). In that sense both are pointing beyond themselves to someone else. The difference is that John is a human being, whereas Jesus is the divine Word. His humanity is just as real as John’s, but in this humanity the eternal Word communicates as never before. The light and life that is God’s are now made accessible through this Jesus.
The ‘logic’ of the universe, the Logos, the Wisdom which makes sense of it is in him. John the Baptist and the scriptures are now set in this perspective; they are seen as pointing to this single reality. They do not compete; they serve this central focus. Like the use of the image of wisdom, so the use of the traditions about John and of the scriptures serves a single function. This is a radical simplification characteristic of the fourth gospel. Even the traditional sayings and stories of Jesus are made to serve this single theme. He is life and light and truth. This is a way of doing theology and valuing religious tradition which reads beneath religious language a grammar about a relationship with God and centres this on Christ. It is capable of wider application, including the appreciation of quite different religious traditions.
Yet in no way does Jesus compete with God, any more than John the Baptist is allowed to compete with Jesus. Ultimately God is the central focus. This is reflected in the fact that the author uses the same language of Jesus as he does of John: being sent, bearing witness, etc. This characterises the so-called spirituality of the fourth gospel in which everything, including the earthly Jesus, is enveloped in central symbols which speak of light and life, water and bread, sourced ultimately in God alone.
In the Advent season such a reading encourages our focus on that centre, to look where John is looking (especially 1:29) and to know the one whom Jesus has made known (1:18). Ultimately it is about a spirituality which makes sense of life or doesn’t make sense at all.
Epistle: Advent 3: 17 December 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
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