Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (17 December 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8 and 19-28 – NRSV)
Our text has three verses from the Prologue and a further nine verses after the Prologue. Francis Moloney notes: “It has often been pointed out that the sections of the Prologue dedicated to the Baptist are clumsy. Despite widespread disagreement on other details, all scholars who attempt to reconstruct a pre-Johannine hymn omit vv. 6–8 and v. 15 as clumsy Johannine additions. Many believe that these additions were an attempt on the part of the Johannine author to assert the superiority of Jesus over the Baptist in a Christian community that may have had a strong Baptist cult (cf. v. 8). For a survey of this discussion see M. Theobald, Die Fleischwerdung des Logos 67–119.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 43.)
Francis Moloney says of the Prologue: “The first page of the Fourth Gospel is one of the most dense passages in the New Testament, a synthesis of the author’s christology and theology. .... The product of a Christian experience that looks back with respect to its Jewish origins, the Prologue has to be understood in the light of the traditional understanding of the God of Genesis and the God of Sinai. The obvious link between Genesis 1 and the opening of the Prologue sets the stage. Before there was anything, there was God. John 1:1 affirms that there was also the Word. The role of the Word, as with any word, is to be uttered. The Word that was turned toward God makes God known, and this revelation has consequences for creation and the darkness of the human situation. It is now possible to become children of God. It is not as if God has never shown any concern for the ambiguity of the human situation. In former times he made himself known; he revealed his glory (Exod 19:16–25) through the gift of the Law on Sinai, through Moses (Exod 20:1–26). The Prologue affirms that Christians have access to the perfection of this former gift. They can see the revelation of the glory of God in his Son, Jesus Christ. God has gifted us twice. His former gift of the Law through Moses has been perfected in the fullness of his gifts in and through Jesus Christ. Only the Son has ever seen God, and the story of his life will tell the story of God’s loving action within the human story.” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 34 & 41.)
All four Gospels speak of John announcing the Messiah – see Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8 and Luke 3:1–20. All of them refer to Isaiah – see 40:3. The Gospel of John alone does not add the descriptor, “the Baptist”.
sent from God: In 1:33 John the Baptist will speak of ‘the one who sent me to baptize’; in 3:28 he says, ‘I am sent before him’. Then in 3:34 John speaks of “he whom God has sent”. In 4:34 we hear Jesus say to his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work”. A similar statement is found in 5:30: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me”. Again, even more definitely in 5:36-38: “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent”. Although John does not use the Greek word apostolos – translated as “apostle” meaning one who is sent – there is abundant evidence that just as John the Baptizer is “sent” and Jesus is “sent” so too the disciples of Jesus are “sent”. The Latin word mittere means “to send”. We get our English word “mission” from that Latin word. The Christian life and mission go hand in hand.
One scholar writes of John’s role as the one who is sent: “The forerunner’s significance to the story is grounded in the fact that he was sent from God, assigned to this specific task. That he was commissioned by the Almighty places him in the same category as Moses (Ex. 3:10–15) and the prophets (e.g. Is. 6:8; Je. 1:4ff.)—indeed, in this respect, he is like Jesus himself, who was also sent from God (3:17; a frequent theme in the Fourth Gospel). Obedient to his commission, he came as a witness to testify concerning the light. The courtroom language of ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ is common in the New Testament but especially in this Gospel. A fuller description of the Baptist’s witness appears in vv. 19–34; 3:27–30; 5:35, with a marvellous summary in 10:40–42. But other witness to the truth of God’s self-disclosure in the Word abounds: there is the witness of the Samaritan woman (4:39), of the works of Jesus (5:36; 10:25), of the Father (5:32, 37; 8:18), of the Old Testament (5:39–40), of the crowd (12:17), and of the Holy Spirit and the apostles (15:26–27). All these bear witness to Jesus, who himself bears witness to the truth (18:37), in conjunction with the Father (8:13–18).
“The purpose of John the Baptist’s witness, though of course not its result, was so that through him all men might believe. John 1:35–37 provides an instance where John’s witness was not only effective but particularly fruitful in its result. Derivatively, because the Baptist’s witness has been bound up in all four canonical Gospels with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, like Abel ‘he still speaks, even though he is dead’ (Heb. 11:4). All who have ever come to faith are indirectly dependent on his opening proclamation of the identity and saving purpose of Jesus Messiah.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 120-121.)
light: In 5:35 Jesus calls John a lamp. In later passages he refers explicitly to Jesus as the light – see 3:19, 8:12, 9:5. The theme of light is in fact present throughout the bible. The separation of light and darkness is mentioned at the beginning of the Bible, it was the first act of the Creator – see Genesis 1:3-4. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God is identified with light (21:23). John says our destiny is to pass over into unending light (1 John 1:5). Matthew cites Isaiah to introduce the preaching and teaching of Jesus: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (4:16)
so that all might believe: In 1:31 John testifies that he came “to reveal him to Israel”. It seems likely, however, that the Greek word pantes here – translated variously as “everyone” or “all” – does literally refer to the rest of humanity.
believe: The Greek verb pisteuō is used more than 100 times in the Gospel of John. And it is always used as a verb, invariably with Jesus as the object.
The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), spoke of three “masters of suspicion” – Freud, Marx and Nietzsche (Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, New Haven: Yale UP, 1970, 356.) These modern thinkers paid special attention to the “the lies and illusions of consciousness”. Whether we like it or not, and uncomfortable as it is, we are all now greatly influenced by this “suspicion”.
None of these “masters of suspicion” would accept the idea of human existence having meaning or purpose – an idea absolutely central to today’s Gospel and everything we understand about the life and teaching of Jesus. Freud, for example, thought that, to ask whether human existence has meaning or purpose is to manifest illness. This is rather ironic, since Freud dedicated so much of his time and intellectual efforts to understanding the meaning and purpose of human behaviour.
Be that as it may, “suspicion” is in the air we – and especially our children – breathe. This is good news and bad news. We do not need prolonged self-reflection to discover that each of us is a born genius at self-deceit. The story of Adam and Eve is telling. When Adam and Eve disobey God, they discover that they are “naked”. Humanity, separated from God, is “naked”. A natural reaction to realizing this is shame. So what do Adam and Eve do? “They sew fig leaves together and make themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7 – ESV). We have been doing it ever since. It seems, we would much rather the fictions and pretenses, the denials and game-playing, seeming rather than being, than the truth of who and what we are.
But this is not the complete story. We can discover who and what we are, we can become who and what we are. But it is a lifetime’s work to allow God to be God in us. John the Baptist’s whole being in this world was to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Thank God he was willing to become the person God made him to be. He found his purpose and meaning – he was sent into this world by God for God’s purpose! Is that not the same for each of us? I may have been an accident on the part of my parents, I am not an accident on the part of God. I exist because God wants it that way.
In a reflection dated March 7 1848, John Henry Newman expressed this deep truth beautifully: “I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. (God) has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.” (John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Meditations and Devotions, Edited by Rev. W. P. Neville, Longmans, Green and Co, 1907, 302.)
Where are you in all this?