Incognito

14 December 2014
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

John’s account of John the Baptist varies in significant ways from the account given by the synoptic Gospels. In the first instance, John does not record Jesus’ baptism, whether by John or anyone else for that matter. John the Baptist simply reports having seen the spirit descend from heaven like a dove. Jesus does not go into the wilderness in John’s Gospel. John also does not give us any content of the Baptist’s preaching, other than his testimony concerning Jesus — mostly that the Baptist is not the Messiah, nor Elijah nor the prophet (like Moses). Significantly, John does not record the transfiguration, nor Jesus’ word that the Baptist is Elijah. John the Evangelist is setting up a very different scheme of typology from the synoptics.

When the Baptist shows up on the scene in John’s Gospel, it is to testify to the light, which mostly amounts to testifying that he is not it. When those sent from Jerusalem ask him by what authority he is baptizing, he simply claims that he baptizes with water, and among his hearers stands one they do not know. From reading the synoptics, we would expect him to say, “He will baptize with holy spirit,” but that is separated from this statement by many intervening verses. So, the focus for John the Evangelist is on Jesus being unknown rather than on baptizing in the holy spirit.

John’s Prologue, of course, tells us that the Word came to his own, but his own did not know him. The Baptist’s statement simply picks up this theme. But it is a theme that will persist throughout the Gospel. Even Jesus’ disciples do not immediately know who he is. After the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus gives as his authority that he will rebuild the Temple in three days, the disciples do not recognize until after his resurrection that he was speaking of the Temple of his body. Failure to recognize Jesus as the incarnate Word is one of the main themes for John; failure to recognize where he comes from and his relationship to the Father characterize many in the Gospel.

The fact that the disciples do not recognize any of this until after Jesus’ resurrection is a clue for us to reading John’s Gospel, as well as reading God’s activities in our own lives. Among us stands one whom we do not know, and we will not recognize until after the fact. The one on whom the Spirit rests will be standing among us, once we learn to see. In the letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us not to despise the words of prophets, but to test everything. Again, the idea is that we might recognize what God is saying until proved in the event. We have to be prepared to listen in surprising places.

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