Advent and the Joy of Working for a Better World, Part 1

Advent and the Joy of Working for a Better World, Part 1 December 12, 2023


Our reading this month is from the gospel of John.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 

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Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” 

He said, “I am not.” 

“Are you the Prophet?” 

He answered, “No.” 

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 

Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Most scholars agree that John’s gospel was the last gospel in our canon to be written. Mark’s was the earliest, and Matthew and Luke were written between Mark and John. In Mark’s gospel John is a contemporary of Jesus. Jesus begins as one of John’s disciples and part of his Jewish reformation and renewal movement. Once John is imprisoned, Jesus begins his own renewal movement. One gets the impression that John’s followers and Jesus’ followers were in two related but separate movements, contemporaries and occasionally in competition.

John’s gospel presents John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner, the one who announced Jesus’ arrival. In Mark, Jesus is baptized by John, but as the gospels progresses, this fact becomes less and less emphasized until John’s gospel, which conveniently leaves out John’s role in Jesus’ baptism. It is cryptic about it, and this may reflect tensions that had developed between John’s followers and Jesus’s. If that’s the case, the Jesus community may not have wanted to see Jesus subordinated to John in any way in the gospels, even if only by implication.

John’s gospel seems to downgrade John the Baptist for the purpose of exalting Jesus. One example is how, in this gospel, John the Baptist rejects attempts to be identified as Messiah, the Prophet, or Elijah.

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, John the Baptist is dramatically associated with these figures. We’ll explore that association and its implications for Advent, next.

(Read Part 2)


About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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