One Who Stands Among You
One Who Stands Among You
It is the third Sunday of Advent and we once again find ourselves with John the Baptist. It is odd how the lectionary has us encounter John two weeks in a row. What new insights might we glean from this encounter?
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Explore the third week of our Advent Living rooms, created by the Rev. Dr. Tori Smit.
One Who Stands Among You
Scripture is a little like an onion. It has layers that can continually be peeled back, delivering deeper understanding and appreciation. Last week we encountered John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel and today we find him again only in John’s gospel. Though in John’s gospel we shouldn’t call him the Baptist, but John the Witness. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
We also have a wonderfully rich passage from Isaiah. Isaiah is frequently used by the gospel writers to point towards Christ as the Messiah. Let’s hear again those opening words from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners” Isaiah 6:1
These words from the prophet Isaiah are the words that Jesus reads in Luke 4, when he is rejected in Nazareth. Clearly this message from Isaiah is central to the ministry of Jesus and is linked to the purposes of why Jesus came and dwelt among us. We couple this with the passage from John’s gospel where John the Baptist when speaking of Jesus refers to him as “one who stands among you who you do not know.”
The poor, the broken hearted, freedom from captives, release of the prisoners, these are faceless nameless individuals. These are who Jesus associates with, and John indicates that like them you also won’t recognize Jesus.
We receive Jesus on Christmas with such fanfare, but I think the reality is we would be hard pressed to recognize him if we saw him, and should Jesus arrive we may find it difficult to follow him.
The passage from Isaiah, ‘to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners’ has often been associated with those who are incarcerated. This has a different meaning for us today than it did when Isaiah penned the words and again when Jesus spoke them. In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were the prisoners. They found themselves in exile in Babylon and they yearned for freedom and a return to the promise land.
When Jesus repeats these words in Luke’s gospel (Luke 4: 18-19) the people of Israel find themselves again occupied by a foreign power, this time Imperial Rome. Again, the prisoners seek release from physical, incarceration for rebelling against Rome, but the people themselves seek release from the emotional and spiritual oppression of the Pax Romana.
These words from Isaiah are about more than a basis for prison chaplaincy, they speak about the desire we have as children of God to be free to live in the light of God’s love. This passage speaks to the core of who we are and the systems which exist within society which shackle us in fear. In the time of Covid-19, we might further ask what does it mean to be set free? How do the promises of God manifest themselves in our lives? How do we understand God’s purposes to be at work in our world?
God desires that we live in harmony with God. That we would abide in the garden. That is the basis for the story of Adam and Eve. To live in harmony with our creator. The story that runs throughout scripture is how humanity, through the lens of a particular people, have tried and failed to live in harmony with God and one another. It is a narrative that is continued in the gospel and if we look at society today we see the same currents. We wish to live in harmony with one another, but we struggle to know what that looks and feels like.
This brings me to the passage in Johns gospel and one particular line jumps off the page at me, “Among you stands one you do not know.” And I return to my earlier comment that we would be hard pressed to recognize Jesus and find it more difficult to follow him. Though we profess to follow Jesus, we may find him to be a stranger.
What does it mean to be a stranger?
In John’s gospel, John the Baptist does not baptize Jesus. The other gospels indicate that he does, but the act of baptism does not occur in John’s gospel. We can infer that the baptism of Jesus takes place, by the setting but this gospel account doesn’t dwell on that detail. In John’s gospel, instead of focusing on the act of baptism we have John acting as a witness to the one who would come. The one who stands among you that you do not know.
It’s a compelling image, the stranger who is in your midst that you do not know. Looking directly at scripture it’s a reminder that if Jesus were to walk the earth today many of us would not recognize him.
Placing this passage within our modern context it raises the following questions:
- What does it mean to be a community?
- How well do I know my neighbour?
- How well do I know my family and friends?
- How well do I know myself?
In the midst of the pandemic, where we are encouraged to maintain social and physical distance, how do we get to know those who stand among us? Challenging questions for challenging times and no easy answers.
For me one thing is clear, John the Baptist points to the one that people did not know. That is also our task, to point people towards Christ. To see Christ in our midst and in doing so, set them free. Amen.
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