Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – The spirit of the Lord God is upon 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; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn… to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter… The Lord has done great things for us… Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Luke 1:47-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Respect those who work among you in the Gospel. Be at peace with one another. Admonish the idol. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Do not repay evil for evil. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 – John: there was a man, sent from God. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. I am the voice in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.

John’s John is Just John

Advent often rolls like this: Week one is on the Second Coming. Weeks two and three focus on John the Baptist. Week four focuses on Mary.

You’ll notice that the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55) is appointed as an option for the psalm both this week and next week. I will try to get my Advent 4 post on Mary up early in case you’d like to talk about Mary’s Song on Advent 3.

The first lesson is from Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I’ve been anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to those in prison. 1 Thessalonians also touches this theme with Paul’s encouragement to encourage the faint-hearted. Help the weak. Do not return evil for evil.

The gospel reading comes from John. To save us from an exceedingly long gospel reading, we read John the Evangelist’s introduction of John the Baptist (sic), skip John’s foray into light and then hear about John’s understanding of his call.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. (John 1:6-8)

A man sent from God is a prophet. John the Evangelist and the other gospel writers, hold John the Baptist in high regard. Brian Stoffregen points out no one else in John’s gospel is “sent by God.” In John’s gospel, even Jesus is not sent by God. Jesus is God. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning.”

As Karoline Lewis tells us at Working Preacher, John’s John is different than the synoptic (other gospel) writers’ John. John’s John is just John. Never “John the Baptist.”

Yes, John’s John happens to baptize with water here and there, but this is incidental. He never baptizes Jesus. The Synoptic John is Elijah. John’s John quite clearly states he is not. And unlike in the synoptic gospels, John’s John doesn’t eat bugs or wear itchy camel hair. He never asks anyone to repent of anything. He just points to Jesus. (In fact, does the word “repent” ever show up in John’s gospel?) In our heads we tend to mash up the stories of the four gospels, but to understand John’s theology, we need to, for a moment anyway, get the Synoptic John the Baptist out of our heads. John’s John testifies to the coming of light into the world.

Hear John’s cosmic mystery: In the beginning was the Word. The word was light, the light of all humanity. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. The Word/Light became flesh. John “outed” him. “Look. Him.”

Several pieces of the skipped portion are helpful. In verse 14 the Word/Light becomes flesh to dwell among us. Verse 15: 

John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.'” 

John is the announcer. The testifier. The witnesser. The Voice in the Wilderness, as we shall soon see. The statement “he existed before me” is a portentous theological statement about Jesus preexisting as the Word/Logos. Even if John is older than Jesus, Jesus “existed before” him, John professes.

And verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This is the first time Jesus is named in John’s gospel. It provides a picture of John’s understanding of the gospel. Moses = The Law. Jesus = The Gospel. Jesus is the physical incarnation of the preexisting Logos. John is the transition between Law and Gospel, between Moses and Jesus.

So there is no confusion, however, he makes it clear he is not the light. Who then is he? John tells us in vv. 19-28:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 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. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

John is clear. “I am not the Messiah in Isaiah’s drama. I am the Voice. Karoline Lewis points out that Jesus says “I AM.” I am the way, the truth, the light, the door, and so on. John says “I AM NOT.” Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not the Light.

More importantly, he sees his identity in relationship to Jesus. “Can we say the same?” Lewis asks. Are we also witnesses to the light? What does that mean? Being the Voice? Could we also take our cues from Isaiah: Binding up the broken-hearted? Comforting the weak? Announcing God’s love to prisoners?

Keep in mind that the Greek word for “witness” is martyros. Brian Stoffregen helpfully points out, the verb for witness “occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke, none in Mark, and 31 times in John (five times in chapter 1: vv. 7, 8, 15, 32, 34). Similar statistics exist for the noun, which occurs three times in Mark, once in Luke, none in Matthew, and 14 times in John (twice in chapter 1: vv. 7, 19).” We are called to put our lives on the line for this witness.

Here’s a thought: How are we proclaiming anything to the captives? Specifically, are we visiting people in prison, in detention? The call to visit prisoners plays large in Isaiah 61, and in Matthew 25, which we just read November 23 for Christ the King. “When I was in prison, you visited me.” How are we doing this? Paul Pfeiffer in the SWT Synod is organizing visits with detainees in Karnes City for just before Christmas. Want to join him? Call me. Andrea Martinez in our office organized detention center visits earlier this year. More will be coming. Texas is the incarceration capital of the U.S. Pastor George Bement can tell you about his prison ministry in Houston. Don’t let Witnessing to Light remain an amorphous sentiment in your preaching. Incarnate it. How can we too be the Voice?