Who are you?

11 December 2011
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent 3B (RCL)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

For the second Sunday in a row, we have a reading about John the Baptist. One notices immediately about this reading what is missing. In all three of the synoptic Gospels, John states that he baptizes with water, but one is coming who baptizes with spirit. Here, when those sent from Jerusalem ask John who he is, he affirms and does not deny, but affirms, the he is not the Christ. Nor is he Elijah, or the prophet. And when they ask him who he is, he says he is a voice. And then, that while he baptizes with water, “among you stands one you do not know.” We wait for him to say, “He will baptize with holy spirit,” but he never does. Even the construction of the Greek, leads us to expect, a “but.” John the Baptist uses the pronoun, “I myself baptize”, which leads the reader to expect, “but he.”

Imagine hearing this read (the first time you would have heard it), on the night of your baptism. You had just been baptized in water, and now you hear that among you stands one whom you do not know. Who? Of course, John’s Gospel is all about the Jesus known in the discourse of the community. One never knows when Jesus will show up. And, of course, we are expecting (from having read the synoptics) that this one will baptize with spirit. At the very end of John’s Gospel, the disciples are gathered in the room with the doors locked, and Jesus shows up and breathes on them, and says, “Receive Holy Spirit. The sins of whoever you release are released to them. The sins of whoever you hold on to are held on to.” So, it is the community which distributes the spirit and forgiveness. Among you stands one whom you do not know.

The passage from 1 Thessalonians reads like a farewell. Perhaps Paul thought Jesus would return before he had the chance to come back to Thessalonika before he could visit again. Despite all of their difficulties, he tells them to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the spirit. Do not despise prophecy. Hold fast to what is good, and shun evil.” This is everything you need for living in the meantime. These are attributes of the community, not things we need to wait for from outside. Among you stands one whom you do not know.

But who is that one? John says that he himself is not the Christ, Elijah or the prophet, but he does not say who the one in our midst is. The next day, when he sees Jesus, he says, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus tells us as he breathes on us, “The sins of whoever you release, they are released.” We are the lamb of God. God tells the prophet, “You proclaim release to the captive.” These things have not happened yet, but in the meantime, we are the one who proclaims them.

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