Hidden in Plain Sight: Advent Reflections on John 1
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Third Sunday in Advent
December 13, 2011
"Among you stands one whom you do not know."
Have you ever been in a position of having to defend yourself?
Who do you think you are that . . . . ? What right do you have to . . . ? How dare you . . . ? Who gave you the authority to . . . ?
It's an uncomfortable position. We end up saying things like, "I'm your mother, that's who." Or, "I'm your boss, that's who." Or, "I am the pastor of this church and I am the one who makes those kinds of decisions." In movie stand-offs the answer is "I'm the one with the gun."
When our authority is questioned, we respond by appealing to an authority.
Our own, that of our position—whatever it is that gives us an advantage.
John the Baptist is baptizing in the river Jordan, and the Jews send priests and Levites from Jerusalem to demand who he is and why he is doing what he's doing.
He begins in a spirit of full disclosure: "I am not the Messiah." With that possibility off the table, his visitors play a short game of twenty questions, running out of guesses after just two. "Are you Elijah?" Nope. "Are you the Prophet?" Nope again.
So if you're none of these famous figures, what do you think you are, and what right do you have, and how dare you, and who gave you the authority . . . to baptize? (1:24) If you're not a familiar and famous saving figure, why are you doing what you're doing?
John the Baptist deflects the question from himself to someone else. That is, after all, his entire role. He says, in effect, I'm baptizing because "Among you stands one whom you do not know" (1:26). Everything I do serves the purpose of pointing you toward one who is present right next to you but unrecognized by you.
John is clear that he is not the main event. He is the opening act. We have lots of ways in current parlance of describing people who facilitate the accomplishments of others. Cheerleaders. Sidekicks. Support Staff. Personal Assistants. Wingmen. They sometimes are used in a way that makes them sound second rate. The public accomplishments of many are not possible without the behind the scenes work of talented, committed people. Who often feel second rate. Who are not always appreciated.
As long as no one mistakes him for Jesus, John the Baptist doesn't care whether he is appreciated or not. He is here to do his job. And his job is to constantly remind those around him of the presence of the one who "stands among them that they do not know."
The lack of recognition of Jesus is a prominent theme in John's Gospel. In the Prologue, John says of Jesus, "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him." In several encounters with troubled people in the Gospel, Jesus stands next to them, offering them healing and life, and they fail to recognize him. Nicodemus comes and stands on Jesus' front step in the dark with his half-baked faith. As Jesus offers him the chance to be spiritually recreated, reborn, Nicodemus babbles about climbing back into the womb. "Among you stands one whom you do not know."
In chapter four, the woman of Samaria comes to the well to find Jesus sitting there waiting for her. He offers her living water, and she babbles about how deep the well is and how she has no bucket to fetch the water. "Among you stands one whom you do not know."
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.