December 11, 2011
Sunday Between December 11 and December 17 Inclusive
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 1:6-8, 19-28, The Message or John 1:6-8, 19-28, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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It is important to remember that there are two people named John in the Second Testament: John the Baptizer, and John the disciple of Jesus after whom this Gospel is named.
The writer of the Gospel according to John is not so much interested in telling us about what Jesus said and did; he wants us to see who Jesus is. John wants us to see beneath the easy-to-observe outward actions to the hidden, inner, true meaning. Notice how many times the word “light” and “enlighten” are used in only two verses, 7 and 8; and that the key question in verses 19 to 28 is “Who are you?” (For more background on John, see Introduction to John.)
At the time of Jesus, the question, "Who are you," was not understood as meaning, "Tell me about your personal beliefs, values, convictions, etc., etc." It meant quite simply, "Where were you born? Who are your parents?" Because these two things - and only these two things - absolutely determined one's social status. And one absolutely only did what one's social status allowed.
Elites are the gate-keepers of social status. Thus their questions to John are challenges meant to undermine his popularity and put him back in his place - as a low-status unknown.
Later in Verse 27, John will use this concern about status to proclaim an impossible status for "the one who is coming after me." Untying the thong of another's sandal was something only a slave would do - it was beneath the status of a student or disciple. And so, John's logic runs like this:
You think I am behaving like the Messiah, Elijah or a prophet.
But compared to the one who is coming after me, I am not even worthy to be his slave!
So if you think I am acting above my social status, wait till you meet the new guy!
When John the Baptizer says in Verse 26, “Among you stands one whom you do not know,” he states a truth – we do not truly know who Jesus is – that the rest of the Gospel will try to make plain to us.
This verse needs to be read not as an accusation against the obstinacy of the Pharisees, but as an objective statement about us: we do not know who Jesus is; we have not seen the light; and it is of vital importance that we see this light and come to know who Jesus really is.
It also makes a delightfully poignant, but still objective, statement that Jesus is already present, already standing among us. The one who is coming is already here!
Sermon Thoughts (Not the sermon)
I have said earlier that it is crucial for our salvation that we know what is the work of God, and what is our work; and that we don’t get these two things mixed up – expecting God to do what we must do, or, trying to do what God must do.
One key distinction between what is our work, and what is God’s work is that it is our work to prepare for God’s presence, to be open to God, to trust God, to receive God presence, to respond to God’s blessing, and to accept the mission that God gives; but it is God’s work to provide both the seed and the fruitfulness.
The seed which God provides is both the purpose and the process for life.
We live in a world, and have been born with bodies, hearts and minds that are designed to live. This is given by God. But the world – and we – are also designed in a way that abundant life only comes by living a certain way. This too is built into the fabric of the universe by God. And the bible, and particularly the life, teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus, reveal what that fabric is: God loves justice. (And also steadfastness, kindness, etc.)
It is crucial to understand that the purpose and process that God provides are both organic, natural, and unavoidably built into the universe. They are not rewards for good behaviour. But like a gardener, if we provide good soil and care, the plants have built into them the “desire” to grow and produce fruit.
In the same way, this Advent season is a time for us to wake up and see the light. It is time for us to do what is our work: to prepare the soil of our souls, so that the seed of God’s word can take root in us and put down deep and strong roots. It is not our work to provide the fruit.
We live in a time when people are hyper-focused on “making a difference” and producing “outcomes.” We are often fearful about the future of congregations, but the scriptures are clear: it is not our work to grow. The cycle of growth is already built in by God and God will provide the fruitfulness. Our work is to be healthy soil.
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, "Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John," (see link below), pages 29-48.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
John 1:6-8, 19-28 (NRSV)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." 21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23 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.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 1:6-8, 19-28 (The Message)
6 There once was a man, his name John, sent by God 7 to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. 8 John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
19 When Jews from Jerusalem sent a group of priests and officials to ask John who he was, he was completely honest. 20 He didn't evade the question. He told the plain truth: "I am not the Messiah."
21 They pressed him, "Who, then? Elijah?"
"I am not."
22 Exasperated, they said, "Who, then? We need an answer for those who sent us. Tell us something—anything!—about yourself."
23 "I'm thunder in the desert: 'Make the road straight for God!' I'm doing what the prophet Isaiah preached."
24 Those sent to question him were from the Pharisee party. 25 Now they had a question of their own: "If you're neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, why do you baptize?"
26 John answered, "I only baptize using water. A person you don't recognize has taken his stand in your midst. 27 He comes after me, but he is not in second place to me. I'm not even worthy to hold his coat for him."
28 These conversations took place in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing at the time.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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