The tradition regards John the Baptist as important enough to salvation history to devote two Sundays of Advent to him. This is understandable. After all, we did hear that he is the hinge on which the history of God with God’s people turned. Since he bears this significance for God’s people, we don’t mind going out to the desert to meet him there a second time. Indeed, we welcome the opportunity, especially if it promises to deliver further insights into our Advent hope, of which we stand in very great need today.
So we return to the desert to see John. Only, when we are there, we don’t find the people who thronged to him from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside. Instead, we find their religious leaders, the priests and Levites and later the Pharisees.
The former went out because they did not know if they could go on any longer as they were. They were longing for a new beginning, desperate for a fresh start. For this reason, they probably best understood what John was about. John sought to stir up hope in a God who was about to bring into the world something never seen or even imagined before, and these people responded with repentance and faith.
But the latter go out for another purpose altogether. They are the guardians of the established order. They go out to the desert, not to hear John preach, but to interrogate him, to gather intelligence on him, and, ultimately, to categorize him.
We have to have our placeholders, don’t we? We need to have our boxes. This area of life goes into this box; that area of life goes into another box. When we have all these in their proper boxes, and then have all our boxes in a row, we feel secure.
We even do this with people—maybe especially with people. At parties or social gatherings, (if indeed we can still remember in our post-Covid locked-down world what these used to be like), the first thing we ask a person we’ve just met is: “So what do you do?” We may say that we are only trying to be polite, only trying to make conversation. But is that really all we are trying to do? What if our new acquaintance gives us a reply that defies our attempts to categorize him, to place him in the box that we have for him? Let him be a student, for example. We ask him the further question: “So what do you study?” And he replies: “Entomology” (which I learned recently means the study of bugs). “Well,..” we say, and then find a convenient excuse to retreat from the conversation.
The priests and the Levites have to ask John: “Who are you?” They too have their boxes in which everything and everyone have to fit. “Are you the Messiah? If so, and we can fit you into that box, then our job here is done, and we can sit back and relax.”
But John is not the fulfillment of all our expectations, the goal of all our searching. That is to say, he is not the Messiah. The gospel lesson tells us that he has come as a “testimony.” The word in the original is the one from which we derive our word “martyr.” By this word we understand one who stands by the truth of his conviction even at the cost of his life. And indeed, John will later suffer a martyr’s death at the hands of King Herod.
So John has come as a testimony. Even though he is a lamp that burned and gave its own light (John 5:35), he himself is not the light, but rather the one who testifies to it. Therefore, he stands in the darkness among those who are also in darkness. It’s not an easy task for John. Nor is it an easy task for those who stand in the long line of preachers after John. How many people experience life as darkness, a vast night of despair, especially in 2020? Then to testify to the light means to encourage people to place their trust in what is still invisible, in what has promised to come, but has not yet arrived, and to do this in the middle of the night. It means to convince people that “even if their weeping remains for the night, their joy will come in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). It means to tell people that “those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5).
But for the priests and Levites a “testimony” is not a workable category. They ask him if he is Elijah. The Old Testament tells us that the prophet Elijah will come before the returning Messiah (Mal. 4:5). Since Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot before his death (2 Kings 2:11), the Jewish people hold that he is still mysteriously alive and will return at the end of time. Even today an empty seat is placed at the Jewish table on Passover for Elijah. For who knows which of the devout Jewish families the prophet will visit to announce the arrival of the Messiah?
Elijah was zealous for the pure worship of God. He contended against the prophets of Baal, who spread idolatry throughout the land. No doubt this is something that John could stand behind. But that does not exhaust who John is. If it did, then it would be too easy to put John in a box, turning him into an established figure instead of letting him burn like a blazing fire.
The authorities try one last time. They ask John if he is the Prophet. They refer here to the cryptic figure mentioned in Deuteronomy 18, which tells about a prophet like Moses who will come to Israel in the future. Some thought that this would be the Messiah himself. Others thought he would be the greatest of the prophets. Opinions varied. But in John’s case none of it matters: He is not the Prophet.
If John is not one we can categorize and put to rest, then who is he?
John replies in language we heard last Sunday. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” (John 1:23). But this must have only further frustrated the authorities. How does this reply actually help them to categorize John, to put him in a box? To recall our earlier example, it’s like asking our student what his major is, only to hear him reply, “wisdom.” Perplexed, and maybe even mildly annoyed at his cheekiness, again we awkwardly retreat from the conversation.
But the religious leaders are undeterred, and will not leave John alone. They press him to give an account of his actions, so that they can check their boxes, return to their offices, and file their reports. Why is he performing baptisms if he is neither the Messiah nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?
Evidently, the act of baptizing suggested to them an authority that only an exceptional person could exercise. This remarkable man at the River Jordan certainly had a vision, a strong impression of something that had to come to pass if the covenant between God and God’s people was to be renewed, if life was to begin anew, but his reply is modest. He baptizes only with water. That means he still remains bound to this order of things. To be sure, John’s words and actions constitute a spectacular sign, but no more than a sign. He points the religious leaders away from himself to the one whose way he is making straight.
The purpose of the sign is to make known. The irony, however, is that John points them to the one who stands among them incognito. “Among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). No doubt the author is alluding here to the statement made just earlier: “[The true light] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not know him” (John 1:10). But is there perhaps more in John’s observation for us to see? Is there perhaps here a word addressed to us, one that we must hear today?
We are used to celebrating Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter in the rhythmical routine of the church year. Our prayers, our Scripture lessons, and our sermons provide us with the salvation story, with what we need to know about the one to whom John is testifying. But do our celebrations open up for us a life-changing encounter with the living Lord? Or do they rather give us ready-made boxes in which Jesus has to fit?
But if John cannot be made to fit into our boxes, how much less can Jesus be made to fit? He cannot be reduced to a formula, a slogan, a message on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. And if our churches today have been complicit in this, then we should not wonder why the younger generations are not attending. Jesus is not one we can categorize and put to rest, so that we can blithely go on with our daily lives. If that is all he is to us, then how can we really say that we know him? Then what John says of the Pharisees applies to us too: there stands among us one we do not know.
Author Eugen Drewermann wonders whether our preparation for Christ in the season of Advent should be done differently. He suggests that we should erase everything we thought we knew, leaving us with a blank slate. We should rule out all the language games by which we classify, order and categorize everything and everyone. Then that odd man on the Jordan could be more than a mere historical figure to us; he could be for us as he wanted to be for his contemporaries. Let him come then today and testify to the light. Then perhaps we could really open up ourselves to welcome the one to whom he is pointing, the one who is willing and ready to come to us in a new and transformative way.
All this leads us to the question: Could it be that two thousand years after Christ, after the soaring cathedrals and massive megachurches, after the universities and seminaries, after the libraries filled with countless volumes of Christian scholarship, we still have to learn everything again from the very beginning?
Yes, we should always have the open posture of the inquisitive child, who never ceases from asking questions. You know the children who always ask, “Why? Why?” Indeed, unless we change and become like children, we will not enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3). We should not presume that we know the Christ who stands among us, or rather, that we know as we ought.
We should never think that we ever outgrow that age when we ask the fundamental question: “Who are you, Lord?” Are we greater than John the Baptist himself? Later John was arrested and thrown into prison. From the darkness of his prison cell, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). Are we not especially inclined to ask this very question from the darkness of our own lives, whatever form that darkness may take?
Jesus does not scold John for asking such a question. He does not say: “John, how can you, the one set apart to make straight the way of the Lord—how can you possibly ask such a question?” Instead, he graciously answers him in John’s own language, the language most familiar to John, that of a prophet. “Go and tell John this: The blind receive sight, the lame walk…. and the poor have the good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). The language here is remarkably similar to what we heard in our Old Testament lesson earlier: “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted…and to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1,2).
Nor should we be ashamed to ask the same question, that is, “Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?” even if we have been in the church for many years, even if we have professed Christ for many years. He will not scold us, but will be pleased to come to us, to tell us who he really is. Let us then be open to this event, or rather, to this advent. Let us pray for it and eagerly expect it, both for ourselves and for the church today. For this is what Advent is about: to welcome the Christ who has promised to come to us anew. Amen.