Advent 3B: John 1:1-6, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Those are John’s words to the religious authorities whom come to him. They are his words to us today.
I’ve often heard John’s words as a criticism. It’s as if John is saying, “I’ve been pointing to the one and all you do is look at my finger. I’ve been talking about the one and you let my words go in one ear and out the other. You are not looking. You are not listening. You do not know the one who stands among you.”
But what if John’s words are neither criticism nor rebuke? What if his words are an invitation to wonder, to ponder, to consider anew the possibilities of who this one might be?
I say that because John himself did not know this one. In subsequent verses not included in today’s reading (John 1:6-8, 19-28) John says twice, “I myself did not know him” (John 1:31, 33). John only recognized the one when he saw the spirit descend and remain (John 1:32-34).
So who is this one? What do you think? Who is John referring to?
Most of us would probably say Jesus. That’s the usual answer, the usual way of hearing John’s words. That’s the answer I’ve most often given. But today I want us to rethink the usual answer. Is Jesus the one and only or could there be others? Have there been others before Jesus? Will there be others after Jesus? I want us to hear John’s words in a larger context. I want us to consider that maybe we sometimes focus so much on Jesus that we lose the gospel, and the messenger overshadows the message.
Could this one who stands among us be you? Me? A guest that shows up here on a Sunday? A stranger on the street?
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Jesus is the wrong answer. I’m just wondering if there might be more than one right answer. What if John is not referring to the one as a numerical limitation or an exclusion of all others but as an exemplar? What if John is referring to the way the particular points to the universal? What if this one is archetypal of the many? After all the Christian tradition has never held the one and the many as mutually exclusive. To the contrary, it’s a pretty important part of our faith. We believe in one God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
What if John is saying to us that this one has always been among and still is? That would be a more literal translation of the Greek. The grammar suggests that this one has stood among us in the past and continues to do so now. It also suggests that we did not recognize the one then and we still do not now.
And that raises a good question. Why don’t we recognize the one who stands among us?
Maybe the greatest barrier to seeing the divine presence among us is that we already have an idea or image of who that one is or should be and what that one should look like and do. In other words, we think we know and we stick with what we think we know. We can’t see the one because he or she does not meet our expectations or fit our categories of who he or she can be. Sometimes, we don’t see the one among us because he or she stands outside the box of our beliefs. And more often than not we see and hear in such a way that it only confirms what we already believe.
Fr. Anthony DeMello, in his book Awareness, makes that point with this dialogue:
“Henry, how you’ve changed! You were so tall and you’ve grown so short.
You were so well built and you’ve grown so thin.
You were so fair and you’ve become so dark.
What happened to you, Henry?”
Henry says, “I’m not Henry. I’m John.”
“Oh, you changed your name too!” (DeMello, Awareness, p. 28)
That’s what the priests and Levites are doing with John. They come to him with the usual answers of who he should be; the Messiah, Elijah, the prophet. But he won’t allow them to do that to him. He doesn’t fit their expectations or categories. They do not know the one who stands among them. Sometimes we just don’t see the one who stands among.
Last week there was one who stood among us and we did not know it. On Sunday there was couple from out of state, passing through, on their way home. The woman came to the office on Monday and I overhead her tell our secretary, “We were here yesterday and we really liked the church and service. Last night we went to the Italian restaurant and someone paid for our dinner. So we want to donate to your angel tree outreach the cost of what we would have paid for our dinner.” And then she left. Seems she and her husband stood among as one we did not know.
This kind of thing is happening all the time. John is not announcing something new. He says as much. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). Before John there was Isaiah. And don’t think John was the first to see the spirit descend upon the one. It also came upon Isaiah. He says,
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners”
Wherever these spirit kind of things are happening they point to one who stands among us. And more often than not we only recognize the one in retrospect, just like with that couple last week. And by the way, which one of you bought their dinner? Maybe it was none of you but It could have been you. You might have done that if you were there. You’ve done that kind of thing before, right? And you’ve had others do it for you, right?
So tell me. Who has been one that stood among you and made the divine present? When have you looked back and seen that one doing some kind of spirit thing in your life? And when have you been that one for another?
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” So who is this one? What do you think? Who is John referring to? Yes, it’s Jesus. And yes, it was John and Isaiah. And yes, it’s that couple from last week. And yes, it can be you and me.
And that is not a negation or diminishment of who Jesus is or what he has done. It is rather, a fulfillment of who he is and what he has done. I am not saying anything Jesus himself did not first say. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).
Isn’t that exactly what we prayed for in today’s collect: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” This one who stands among us is the stirred up power of God, a spoon in the hand of God.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Words of hope. Words of promise. Words of God’s faithfulness.
- First Sunday in Advent: I Just Needed To Be Reminded – A Sermon on Mark13:24-37
- Second Sunday in Advent: Comfort For The Displaced – A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
This was wonderful. So very thought provoking. Father DeMello makes a very great point, and really puts this all in perspective. Thanks, Father Mike.
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Thank you. Fr. DeMello has been a good and challenging guide for me.
God’s peace be with you,
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Too advanced or complex for me.
I am sorry as well. I always hope my writing is clear and understanding. I do appreciate you reading my blog.
Christmas joy and blessings to you,