Year B: Third Sunday of Advent
Looking for One You Do Not Know
John 1:6-8, 19-28
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light but came to testify to the light.
John the Baptist’s Testimony to Himself.
And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah.” So, they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as Isaiah the prophet said.” Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet? John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie. “This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
- Looking back on your faith experience, who are some of the people in your life who have “Made straight the way of the Lord” for you? How have they done this?
- Do you think about “Preparing the way of the Lord” for others as part of your Discipleship journey in Advent? How could you do that?
- Many have called 2020 a year of Biblical proportions. How have the health related, social and political events of this past year made you more spiritually aware? What is that awareness about and how are you responding?
- The Baptist proclaimed, “I am not the Christ, but a voice crying in the desert.” Today, acknowledging how we have created our own deserts, how are you discerning the ways God has acted in your midst, transforming you through the varied experiences of these days?
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Margret Nutting Ralph, PHD
Today we read the account of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord in the Gospel according to John. To understand all that John’s Gospel is teaching we need to know something about the social setting for the Gospel as well as the Old Testament passages to which John alludes.
The Gospel according to John is the latest of our four canonical Gospels, dating to the end of the first century AD. By this time the church was having to rethink its expectation that the second coming would occur during the lifetime of Jesus’ contemporaries because that time had now passed. John’s audience wants to know, “Where is the risen Christ? Wasn’t he supposed to have returned by now?
If we keep the Gospel author’s conversation with his end-of-the century audience in mind as we read the Gospel, we will find that many of John’s words take on a second level of meaning: they have one meaning in the interaction of the people in the story (John the Baptist and those questioning him), and another meaning in the conversation between the author and his audience. A good example of this is John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees who are questioning him. He says, “… but there is one among you whom you do not recognize” These words are directed as much at John’s audience, looking for the risen Christ, as they are to the Pharisees who are questioning John the Baptist. John teaches his audience that the risen Christ, for whom they are looking, is in their midst.
As you read the Gospel according to John you will notice that John seems to speak harshly of the Jews. The reason for this is that by the end of the century those Jews who believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ were being expelled from the synagogues by those who did not. This left those who were expelled vulnerable to persecution by the Romans. John is angry at those Jews who do not believe in Jesus’ divinity and who are exposing their fellow Jews to danger.
The questions that the priests and Levites ask John the Baptist are all based on Jewish expectations. They ask whether he is the anointed one (“Christ” means “an anointed one”), a person who would save them when they needed to be freed from a political enemy.
They ask, “Are you Elijah?” This alludes to an expectation based on Malachi 3:23:
Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet.
Before the day of the Lord comes.
They ask, “Are you the Prophet?” This alludes to an expectation based on Deuteronomy 18:15 (cf. 18): “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen.
As John the Baptist describes himself, saying.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.”
He is quoting Isaiah 40‘.3 (see last week’s Old Testament reading). In Isaiah, the Lord whose way is being prepared is Yahweh. When the author of the Gospel pictures John the Baptist using the word Lord to refer to Jesus, the author is claiming the divinity of Jesus, the very claim that some of his fellow Jews reject.
John the Baptist goes on to say that he is not worthy to untie the sandal strap of the one who is coming. John the Baptist was a great man who had many disciples. The Gospels make it clear, through John the Baptist’s witness, that any disciple of his, should be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
John the Baptists vocation was to disquiet people, to convince them that they had accommodated themselves too well to the social and political conditions surrounding them. They had capitulated enough to fly under Caesar’s radar. They had accepted leaders who replaced faith with obedience and valued religious decorum over care for people in need.
According to the Gospels, John’s goading convinced many that their situation was urgent and that hope was worth the risk of change. Baptism signaled this group’s willingness to leave old ways behind so they could be ready for the “mighty one” whom God was sending, the one who would not just wash them from sin, but fill them with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, the people most eager to accept John’s message were the people most disadvantaged by the status quo.
John was one of history’s odd characters, a man willing to give up the security and convenience of a priestly family for the life of a prophet in the wilderness. John’s lifestyle was designed to critique and expose the shallowness of his society. John wanted his people to long for more, because only in the longing would they be moved to go where they could find it.
John took on the vocation to help his people realize that they had traded covenant hope for life in a spiritual desert. He preached to jostle their memories, to shake them up and nudge them toward something greater.
John didn’t claim to be the answer or even to know it. He was simply convinced that the lifestyle of his people was not worthy of the people of God. He called them to dream so big that they would forsake their small comforts to bet on God.
John spoke to his era; Whether they appear dressed in camel’s hair, a bishop’s costume, scrubs, or a COVID-19 mask and Black Lives Matter T-shirt, God is still sending prophets. Their vocation is to cry out about our wilderness, to awaken us into holy disquiet and a dream of the kindness and truth, justice and peace that surpasses “the good life.”
Our vocation starts with listening to them.
[St. Joseph Sr. Mary M. McGlone serves on the congregational leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.]
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.