[December 14, 2014] The Third Sunday of Advent (one more Sunday to go): In the little time that we have we turn briefly to the incredibly rich Gospel according to John. John, the unknown disciple of Jesus to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother (the two of them, at Jesus’ request, mutually “adopting” each other as mother and son), composed this document in far off Ephesus as his recapitulation and crystallization of the Gospel message at a time when the church was experiencing confusion. In the decade of the sixties the church underwent a violent purging by Imperial decree—how that played out in the province we do not actually know, but at this point Christianity became legally banned and therefore no longer enjoyed any protection from persecution wherever it occurred. Worse than this, however—for the church was familiar with persecution from its origins—was that all the key leaders of the church had been martyred, including Peter and Paul. There was a vacuum of leadership. At the end of that decade, moreover, Judaism experienced the desecration and holocaust of its Temple in Jerusalem, its international center. Judaism, which is the base of Christianity, lost its bearings and had to start the process of reorienting and reinterpreting itself in a completely new context (out of which arose Rabbinic Judaism). This crisis also had a profound effect on the church, one that can hardly be overestimated. Jesus was supposed to have returned in glory when these things happened! He did not. So the church also had to reorient and reinterpret itself; and out of these attempts arose the first heresies from seeds that were already in its soil. I speak of Docetism and proto-Gnosticism; in another generation Marcion would come up with his own “reform” in the guise of “orthodoxy.”
Contrary to assumptions of some writers in our own day, no “institutional” church yet existed with powerful bishops running things. You had local congregations that shared a mutual understanding on the one hand and apostles—beginning to be called episkopoi: trans-local workers (ministers of the word, both men and women) who continued the role of the apostles as we know them in the New Testament—on the other, whose role was essentially charismatic, their relation to the churches being by mutual consent.
John was not one of the Twelve nor was he an apostle like Paul. In the decade of the 90s he was referred to as the Elder, perhaps because he was one of the few surviving eyewitnesses of Jesus, and because, as an old man, he was highly respected (at least informally) as a teacher (he wrote the three epistles that we have under his name). As a youth he resided in Judea (rather than Galilee), perhaps even living in Jerusalem or Bethany, and knew Jesus there. He was moreover one who became intimate with Jesus and, in the decades following Easter, lived with Jesus’ mother. Probably, at some point before Mary’s death (and/or assumption), the two of them moved to Ephesus, the heartland of the Pauline mission. His faith was thus nurtured not only by his personal acquaintance with Jesus but also by his long acquaintance with Mary.
His “gospel,” which is entirely different than the form that we see in the accounts of Matthew, Luke and Mark, is a work of art, arranged in the form of a mandala, specifically in a cruciform mandala (with crisscrossing chiasms), and consisting of very few events, each story being a setting in which John presents a theological piece. Its overall form presents Jesus in an unprecedented light. Jesus, strong and assertive, and with a confident sense of humor and sarcasm, comes as Life to us, the uncreated life of God, and John artfully presents this to us with all the feminine metaphors of love and marriage, birthing and home-making. In resurrection, Jesus becomes the Holy Spirit, the gift of the feminine presence—or dwelling (the Shekinah)—of God within us. Can we not see how Mary’s very intimate and feminine perception of Jesus was formative for John? And though Matthew provides us with the Trinitarian Name, and throughout Paul’s writing the “grammar” of his theology is Trinitarian, the Trinity itself becomes most lucid in the Gospel according to John, making his gospel shed an enormous light on the others (and making them in turn shine forth all the more brilliantly).
Be that as it may, let us zero in on today’s text and find out what its function is and what it can say to us. Briefly, John (the Baptist) impatiently points us beyond himself to Jesus: He is not the light, his whole mission is to point us to the light. The light is the only thing that matters here, and that light is Jesus himself. By relating this, John (the Evangelist) is telling us the purpose that he had in mind when he wrote this gospel. As baptism in water does not compare to baptism in the Spirit, so John’s gospel does not compare to Jesus himself. Look beyond the gospel, see through it, use it as a lens not to see John but to see Jesus: who Jesus really is. “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). This is how we can prepare for the “coming” of Jesus in the gospel before us—by looking beyond the witness of John (the writer) to Jesus himself by the Holy Spirit. Don’t get sidetracked by all the interesting little details of gospel-research. Though it has its purpose and should not be disparaged, a person can get bogged down with it, becoming a highly educated Christian and missing Jesus himself, who by the Holy Spirit can be personally (and really) present to us through the text. We can be either too superficially (formulaically) evangelical or too scholarly and intellectual that we miss the reality offered to us.
The prologue of John’s gospel has a cruciform mandalic structure, as does the gospel as a whole. Verses 6-8 are in the third layer of the chiasm, corresponding to verse 15 on the other side of the central verses 12-13. Thus, “A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, he was to bear witness to the light,” corresponds to “John witnesses to him. He proclaims: ‘This is the one of whom I said: “He who comes after me has passed ahead of me because he existed before me.”’” Both of these sets seem abruptly ancillary to the prologue as a whole, yet that is their function—to point us away from the witness toward the center, to Jesus himself come to us as life. Begin to notice how in the pairing, the second element takes up the first and reinforces and amplifies it in a significant way. A poetic mandala works as a tool for meditation: one needs to take in the whole thing and see all at once how the parts relate to each other, and pick up on their dynamism and how the whole thing flows and moves us inwardly in a particular direction.
These verses in the prologue each correspond to a part of the gospel itself. Thus verses 6-8 correspond to 3:22—4:3 where John the Baptist again bears witness to Jesus, but now in a way that is beautifully filled out. In 3:34-35 the Baptist says, “He whom God has sent”—namely Jesus—“speaks the words [ta rhēmata] of God, for he gives the Spirit not by measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all into his hand.” The entire gospel moves towards that moment when Jesus gave the Spirit on the evening of Easter Sunday. It would be worth your while to read through that right now. Likewise, 1:15 (in the light of 1:6-8) corresponds to 12:12-50. John the Baptist has disappeared completely from this last text but Jesus presents himself for a little while longer as the light and he calls on the people to believe in himself as the light (verses 34-36). Let me not linger on this important text, however.
In any case, from the amazing height of verses 1-5 where we see divinity and creation in their pristine light, we seem to drop suddenly with the first word of verse 6 into the realm of history, of the human story. Egenito, “there appeared,” “there came,” “there was …” a particular human being, whose entire significance is that he was sent, sent by another, by God. He did not come on his own initiative, with something of his own to share. He came—having been sent—as a witness, as someone who points to another. This word “witness” is interesting. It is martyria, from which comes our word “martyr.” It does not have this technical sense in the New Testament but it often leads to death and already begins to have this association with laying down one’s life for one’s testimony. Not every formal eyewitness is willing to lay down their life for their testimony; to do so requires a personal investment in and identification with the object of one’s testimony. One has witnessed something not only with one’s eyes but interiorly with one’s whole existential self, one’s being. The gospel writer may be reminding us that all those who recently were martyred or were being martyred for the sake of Jesus functioned like the Baptist—that others might believe in Jesus through them. The point of a witness however is always the object of their testimony, not the testimony itself or the one who testifies. “He was not the light but [was sent] that he might testify concerning [peri] the light.”
That said, the witness is still necessary. “That all might believe through him.” That word “through” shows us how the witness functions. Without the witness, we who are distant in time and space cannot know that to which it witnesses. Moreover, it is precisely John’s witness that is necessary, for John is the one who makes the connection between the prophets of old and Jesus himself. Jesus does not come in a vacuum but as the fulfillment of the prophetic word of hope. The prophets express the hope of Israel congenital with their origin in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and given authoritative expression by Moses (in Deuteronomy). Jesus did not come out of the blue but came as the fulfillment of what was already there, indeed, from the beginning. It was already latent in the creation, and in the truth of all people everywhere. However, it is John who presents Jesus to us in this connection. He is the final word of the prophets, speaking to us of the one who is to come, and at the same time the first to testify that the one who is to come has in fact come. And therefore John is necessary to the extent that all who believe into Jesus believe “through” John.
What does this say about us, then? We become significant when our lives are testimonies to the reality of Jesus’ person. The reality of Jesus’ person is his divine person come to us in our createdness. The fulfillment of our created natures—who we are at our deepest level—is divinity, the divinization of our nature, its participation in the divine nature and in the dynamism of the Triune persons, their relationship to each other. This depends on our authenticity to our created being. Without such truthfulness and faithfulness to our unique selves as God created us, we are thoroughly misguided in our search for meaning. However, this self is full of a longing and desire which cannot ever be satisfied except in that for which it was created—participation in God, the Triune God. Faithfulness to our truest self only happens when we are faithful to God in God’s revelation. When our spirit is awakened to Jesus—his person—we at once become witnesses not to ourselves but to him, for it is in knowing him that each person is given the gift of having reality revealed to them—their own reality in the light of the Triune God. And this is what the witness to others of our authenticity—in relation to Jesus—can do.
1:19-28 begins a bigger section, the chiasm of verses 19-34 running parallel to the chiasm of verses 35-51. This entire section corresponds to 20:19-31, the seventh layer of the entire mandala of the gospel, corresponding to the Sabbath, the seventh day of creation.
First let us take notice of the chiastic structure of 1:19-34. This will over some guidance as to how to interpret it.
Verses 19-23 correspond to 32-34. They both refer to the witness of John the Baptist: “This is the testimony of John” (19) on the one side, and “John testified” (32) and “I have seen and has testified” (34) on the other. Also the envoys speak of themselves as having been sent (22) on the one hand and John speaks of “he who sent me” (33) on the other. These outer verses speak of John as a witness.
Inside this, verses 24-28 correspond to 30-32. The earlier verses speaks of John’s baptizing with water (25 and 26) as do the later (31). In verse 26 John speaks of Jesus as “one whom you do not know” and in verse 31 he says, “I did not know him.” Also, in verse 27 John refers to Jesus as “he who is coming after me” and in verse 30 he says, “A man is coming after me.” These inner verse have the witness pointing away from both his hearers and from himself toward someone else.
The center is verse 29: “The next day [John] saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” This verse shows us the one who is the object of John’s testimony. Moreover, beginning with a word that means, “pay attention!” “look!,” he tells us that this singular object is a person who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of—the whole problem with—the world. This central testimony is taken up in verse 36 of the next segment where the role of witness is transferred from the Baptist to the disciples.
Thus as we enter the body of the gospel we begin with the theme of witness, first the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus and then the disciples who “come and see” Jesus. The theme of witness is taken up again on our way out of the body of the gospel, in 20:19-31—the witness to the resurrected Jesus who shows to his disciples his hands and his side. As 1:19-51 is divided in two, so is 20:19-31. In the first half of one, the Baptist testifies to having seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven and abiding on Jesus, and further testifies that “this one is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” In the first half of the other, the disciples, rejoicing at seeing the Lord receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathes into them. In the second half of the one, the disciples are invited to become witnesses of Jesus. In the second half of the other, Thomas is invited to become a witness of Jesus. Moreover, the reader is invited to believe—and have life in his Name—on the basis of the testimony—not of John the Baptist but—of what John (the evangelist) has written in the gospel, that the reader may become “blessed” without having seen. As we enter the house (or temple) of the gospel we encounter the motif of testimony in the alcove (or outer court) and as we take our leave we encounter it again. But a transformation that taken place in between and as we enter and exit we are not the same. Jesus has gone from “standing among you” (1:26) and abiding “with” us (and us with him), to abiding “in” us through his resurrection and his co-inherence with the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The “Lamb of God” motif sends the reader back to the first half of the Book of Exodus, in which Moses leads Israel out of bondage into the wilderness of Sinai, at the heart of which is the Passover. The house of God motif in verses 35-51, with the disciples “abiding” with Jesus, correspond to the second half of the Book of Exodus focused around the building of the tabernacle of God for their wilderness sojourn. At the end of the gospel, in 20:19-31 the disciples enter the Promise Land of the resurrection, Jesus bringing them peace (reconciliation) and coming to abide in them through the gift of the indwelling Spirit.
1:18 ends the prologue and in 1:19 the gospel narrative begins with the words, “And this is the testimony of John …” who is not a stranger but was mentioned previously in 1:6-8 and 15. Yet between verse 18 and 19 we abruptly plummet from heaven to earth. “This is the testimony of John when the Judeans sent [to him] from Jerusalem priests and Levites in order that they would ask him, ‘Who are you?’” When asked who he was, his response was his testimony. The “Judeans” who sent to him their priests and Levites represent Jerusalem and the establishment of Second Temple Judaism, which revolved around the Torah and the worship of God at the Temple. John, notice, is not in the Temple but in the desert, and not just any desert but “across the Jordan.” In other words, he has not yet entered the Promise Land. What is news to the priests and Levites, or more exactly, to those whom they represented, is that neither have they. Thus John is “a voice of one crying in the desert,” and so he tells them.
What then is his message? “Make straight the way of the Lord” who is coming. The Lord is coming to us in the desert, coming in judgment but also as our liberator to take us into the Promise Land (see Isaiah 40:1-2 that precedes the verse quoted, 40:3). We have here an allusion to the Festival of Succoth, which is prominent in this gospel (chapters 7—10). We need to prepare for his coming by making his pathway straight and smooth.
John the Baptist in a way is like Moses, leading people to the Promise Land, but like Moses he also will not himself enter the Promised Land but only leads the people to it. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus is the Joshua who takes us into the Promised Land and he himself also is the Promised Land.
Just as Moses was questioned by the Israelite leaders again and again, “Who are you?” putting him to the test, so the establishment people of Jerusalem now question the Baptist. These are the people who will oppose Jesus in this gospel. It is not so much the Pharisees in Galilee who oppose him but the priestly establishment of Jerusalem.
John replies with growing curtness, “I am not the Messiah,” “I am not,” “No.” The Jews of the time expected three coming anointed ones: a king like David (the Messiah, the son of David), a prophet (in fact, Elijah, Malachi 4:5), and a priest (a prophet like Moses, Deuteronomy 18:15, 18). Probably this is what their questions allude to. John’s testimony consists first in who he is not. In Isaiah it is again and again God who is, “I am.” He has no competitors, and no one with whom he can compare. He is the first and will be with the last (41:4), and insists, “I am, I am, [in Greek] who blots out your acts of revolt for my own sake and shall not call your sins to mind.” John says, “I am not” (ouk eimi), setting himself quite apart from the Lord God, who is coming. In contrast, throughout this gospel—in fact on fourteen separate occasions—Jesus asserts “I am” (egō eimi) seven times with a predication and seven times without), a divine title used a corresponding number of times in the Septuagint Greek of Isaiah. The Baptist is only a voice; Jesus is the Word. The Baptist, with whom the gospel opens, stands in absolute contrast to Jesus who is the gospel’s subject and on whom the end of the gospel is solely focused. He serves as the stark backdrop against which Jesus appears. “I am not the Messiah,” he says (1:20; 3:28), nor is he the Bridegroom, only the friend of the bridegroom (3:29). He only baptizes in water, the one who is coming will baptize in the Holy Spirit (1:26). “He must increase, but I [must] decrease” (3:30).
When Jesus was in Jerusalem, he said to his questioners, “You sent messengers to John, and he gave his testimony to the truth … John was a lamp lit and shining and for a time you were content to enjoy the light that he gave” (5:33, 35). But “he was not the light; he [came] that he might testify concerning the light” (1:7-8). He was only a lamp, not the light that shone through the lamp. The light, the true light, is Jesus.
The gospel text today ends at the beginning, before the Baptist’s startling, “Behold!” as he looks at Jesus and invites the reader to see what he sees: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So we too will hold back.
His final words in our reading are these: “I baptize in water,” calling people to repent and initiating each one who responds into a life of penitence. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” The Judeans, these people from Jerusalem with whom he is speaking, are Jesus’ own to whom he will come. They will not know him. Moreover, “those who were his own did not receive him.” This gospel brings this out very forcefully. “His own” refer not to the Jews in general; after all, the entire church was Jewish at first and it was these Jews who became “a light to the gentiles.” No, it refers to the people of Judea, the Judeans, and in particular, the people of Jerusalem, the city of David.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know” and whom you are going to refuse to know. He whom you do not know and who you refuse to know “is coming after me”—I will soon be out of the picture; he will come on stage next, after I have introduced him and ushered him in. “The thong of his sandal I am not worthy to untie.” Slaves untie the sandals of their masters. (If you are capable and you expect someone else to untie your shoes, you are treating them like a slave.) You think I am somebody? Think again. I am not even worthy to be the Coming One’s slave.
So John the Baptist comes onto the stage only to dismiss himself. He sets himself up in contrast to the one who is coming in the story after him. He is not the point of this story, nor is anyone else. All the focus should not be on Jesus.
So as we proceed into Advent, next Sunday will be the last Sunday of Advent, we prepare for the Coming One. We can bear him witness, but other than that, we must decrease; he must increase. It is not that we truly are nothing. It is that the only way we can become something is by being filled with him. In this gospel we are filled with him, Jesus, when we are filled with her, the Holy Spirit. She becomes the Jesus who makes house (abides) within us, the Jesus who is the Word of God in eternity, before creation existed, who is the word that articulated creation into being and form, who came in time in our own flesh and who pitched his tent among us, loving us to the uttermost and to the end of his obedience, dying as a grain of wheat that he divinize his human nature and personal history, and by his co-inherence with the Spirit might become fruitful as this one and multiply in us. By the Holy Spirit Christ is “born” in us, and we are born again when we receive his word of life and light—the revelation of himself. We thus become mothers of our Lord Jesus in this world, with a responsibility to not only give him birth but to cherish and nurture him in others, to shepherd his lambs. This will be all be alluded to in next Sunday’s reading.
If last week the Baptist called us to a life of penitence as the way to prepare for Jesus to come into our lives, this week we are called to become like the Baptist, to testify to Jesus with our words and with our life in such a way that people’s attention goes to Jesus and not us. “You are light for the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lampstand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).