When I was a small child, one of my favourite books was called ‘The puppy who didn’t have a home’. I would ask for it to be read each night, and share in reading out the words with my mum or dad, whoever happened to be reading it with me. The story was about a puppy who set out on a journey to find a home. Along the way he met various animals; and in each encounter, he faced disappointment and rejection, as each creature denied the puppy was one of them. He wasn’t a duck, or a horse, or a cow or a cat … and so on. Until, one day the puppy met a little girl and wonderfully of course, the puppy had found a home and he belonged!
The story is very simple, but it offers some very human truths in the questions it asks of us: who are we and where and to whom do we belong? It expresses some of our deepest needs.
John the baptiser was being asked the same questions with the same obvious hint of imminent rejection. The Priests and Levites had been sent from Jerusalem by the Pharisees to investigate the disturbance. They were given authority to check out this man who was pulling crowds outside the city to the River Jordan, baptising and preaching a message of forgiveness and repentance, disturbing the peace. They challenged him directly: ‘Who are you?’ (John 1:19). John tells them who he is not; he’s not the Messiah, he’s not Elijah, and he’s not a prophet’.
Often, we do the same, we define ourselves by what we are not rather than positively choosing what we are. We allow others to define us, our behaviour and our thinking, because we want to belong and be welcome. We don’t question the unspoken expectations bringing compliance and belonging. We say, ‘I belong to this group and not that group because they’re different….’
However, John also tells us who he is by his behaviour, his actions and his character as a human being, a man of God. John tells them he is from God. This is his purpose; this is what he does and who he is. It is God who has created him and determined his purpose and his being which he accepted:
‘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
The Priests and Levites then challenge John over his authority to baptise. John quietly states a direct challenge in return as he says:
‘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.’ John 1:26-28
John knows what he does is simply preparing the way. He is not baptising as Jesus will, he is the messenger, proclaiming who is to come, by word and action and belief. He is not subservient, needy or ingratiatingly humble. He is not seeking the limelight or the credit. He is living out God’s purpose which makes him a very special leader for his times.
He is also not frightened by the authorities challenging him. He is speaking truth to power. John is on the same trajectory as Jesus’ ministry would take him, to death; for John by beheading, while Jesus died on the cross. John is a man who belongs in God’s kingdom. A man who knows who he is and why. He is a unique child of God. We are clearly given his identity at the start of John’s Gospel.
There was a man sent from God, …. 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
John’s work is to point to the light, while never making the mistake of pointing to himself as the source of the light. He is pointing to the hope, love, joy and peace the light is bringing, in this season of watching, waiting and wondering. It is also a season of testifying, ‘he came as a witness to testify to the light, so all might believe through him.’
In this advent season, it is a time of dusting off our capacity to give witness, to testify, to stand in solidarity with those who are also testifying through their actions and words like John, speaking and acting against injustice, against the horrors birthed amongst hatred and fear, against a deliberate choice of darkness and ignorance. What is your advent life practice as you too work alongside John offering such testimony? I know we do it through hospitality and welcome, through our care and love for one another, but we also need to do it in the River Jordan against those who seek to stop us from speaking truthfully about injustice and discrimination, against the choice of violence and terror; and we need to do it for those who are strangers, for others who are different, and who are our neighbours as well.
John’s gospel does not include the ‘traditional Christmas story’. There is no visitation, Magnificat, magi and shepherds, no travelling or birthing in a stable, no Mary or Joseph. We are instead, invited into a different world, taking us back before time and creation when God spoke all things into being. This is Genesis revisited, John is telling us the story of darkness being ended, of light emerging, the world being spoken into life and God speaking into our lives and changing them forever.
John invites us to reclaim Christmas as a season of belief for everyone, of all ages. John would have us believe in the Word, the One who will speak and wine will flow from casks of water, who will speak and a man of 38 years will stand up on his own and walk, who will speak and those with nothing to eat will be eating their fill. In John’s story, there is no question about the source of our Christmas joy. The only question I have for each of you is the one I had at the start: whether you believe in this life-giving, new-beginning Word speaking into our hearts and minds and showing us we belong absolutely, and we have God’s work to do to which we have been called, and we can do it with joy, trust, faith, hope, love and peace. This is our belief. Our Joy.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2015. Feasting on the Gospels. John Vol.1. Chapters 1-9. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky, USA.