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Revealing The One

Australian Resevoir

I have included more than the set reading for this week, to show the context. The set verses are in italics.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’)16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord”
’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is the Big Picture. Everything else is subordinate. Everything else is incidental. We live in “the everything else;” there is no choice. But if we let that “else” become everything , we close our eyes to the light that shines in the darkness.

I have plenty of else about which I can worry. Managing to earn enough to pay the bills, and yet still being able to stay in my very part-time congregation has almost swamped me in the past month. The congregation is on the edge of something big, so I could do without the distraction of too little money. We have family issues to manage, like everyone, and they could do without other distractions, too. And then... there is Christmas; what a scheduling blessing that one of the three traditions sharing our property celebrates Christmas on January 6! All this is just my congregation; my wife has Christmas to manage in her congregation, too.

We all live in the everything else. Sometimes it rises up and we feel swamped and overwhelmed. At other times we are happily distracted by it, focussed on the tasks in front of us; they can be enjoyable and fulfilling. In either case, it is easy to forget that “everything else” is not The Big Picture. The Big Picture is that life has come into being; a life which is the light of all people, and brings us to God. If we are living well, our life focus upon will be on this big picture.

We see this big picture focus as John, the Gospel Writer, deals with John the Baptist.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world..... 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

It is obvious that John the Writer was working in an environment which regarded John the Baptist very highly. Some folk may have believed that John the Baptist was “the One.” The gospel deliberately aims to reduce and restrict his importance. John is not the One. John is not even a returning Elijah (Mal 3:1, 4:5) or the Prophet (the second Moses; see Deut 18:15) who were expected to return before the Messiah. This contrasts with other gospels which  make this very identification (eg Matt 11:14, 17:12, Mark 9:13). Here, John is only the one preparing the way for Jesus.

All we know about John in this gospel, is that he baptised, that he was vastly subordinate to Jesus (not worthy 1:27), and that he was pointing to Jesus. His own ministry of calling for repentance was erased. His status of a prophet, all that hair and honey, was erased. His powerful denunciation of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 3) was erased, along with his teaching. Remember the big picture! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (1:29)

John the Writer must have scandalised those folk in his community who had venerated John the Baptist, or perhaps even worshipped him as Messiah. John the Baptist was reduced to a mere road sign.

In a congregation in my first parish, someone was being a bit precious about the way we used the building, especially in regard to the use of the church porch.  An older member pointed out, with some relish, that the porch was a later addition. What’s more, it was built from the bricks that had once been the men’s toilet. The point was clear. We are simply bricks, building blocks and signs for pointing to the Light. As a church, and as Christians, how much are we prepared to be a John the Baptist, pointing to the light, rather than a figure lit up with our own importance? How much are we preparing the way, rather than building our own church?

The people from Jerusalem asked, Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? (1:25) John Brown puts it like this: if John the Baptist does not claim any recognisable eschatological role, why is he performing an eschatological action like baptising? (The Gospel According to John 1-X1 Doubleday 1966 pp51)

John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The reading set for lectionary stops there, which does not help me understand his answer!

The first thing I can see , is that the tradition of John we know from  the synoptic gospels, is again disrupted by this gospel. I baptise with water, we expect, will be followed by some words about being baptised with the spirit. They are not there until verse 33, in another conversation, on another day. Before then, we see that even John did not know who Jesus was; one whom you do not know (26) applied to him, as well. John is merely a pointer, a road sign. “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (31)

His baptism is not for repentance! It is only that Jesus might be revealed.

This all “took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptising.” Across the Jordan is the place of preparation to enter the Promised Land. John is outside the Promised Land. The meaning of the name Bethany is uncertain. One understanding is that it means the house of poverty, which is well outside the Promised Land.

How will I put all this together in a Sunday sermon, or even for my own life?  I think I will try to stand in the place of one who had revered John the Baptist. I’ll do this because I revere things that are only road signs, and only bricks. In my own life I do what we do as a church; we build great Crystal Cathedrals which are, allegedly,  meant to point to the Christ, but too often become ends in themselves. The cathedrals in Adelaide are magnificent, but they are built of the same sandstone as the other old buildings of the city. They are just buildings, if they do not point to something else.

We do not need them. I once sat in the dark, in the cold, at worship in Ernabella. We were down near the creek, somewhere. No cathedrals needed. It was a beautiful night. The Big Picture stretched above us in the sky. In our tiny little place in the desert, we were at home. Our hearts were full of hope, but then the wailing started. It began out to the east of town, and seemed to flow into the creek crossing, and then split at the t-junction and engulf the town, heading north and south.

People around us stood up, beginning to wail. They disappeared into the darkness, while we few ignorant white folk, outsiders, were chilled, unable to understand what was happening. There was another night when some fool at a meeting had yelled, “Snake!” and we all scrambled up in a few moments of panic. This was the same primal panic, but in a kind of slow motion, atavistic descent into despair, if not terror. Someone had died.

A day or two later we were in the heat and dust of his funeral. The faltering faith of a suddenly dark night began to be restored. Gordon Ingkatji read the Gospel; John 11.

It's hard trying to work in another language, painfully linking syllables together, trying to hear what has been said. But just sometimes everything works. There is no translation by us, the words echo alive in our minds..... We know.....

Munu nyangatja watjara wangka katu mirangu, "Lazarus! Ngalya pakala! Ka wati miru panya paluru ngalya pakanu mara, tjina kulu mantarangka karpintja, mulya kulu tjutuntja. Ka Jesulu tjanala watjanu, "Aralaya, munuya walatjura." And in that peculiar miracle of hearing we know Lazarus has been raised. And into our gloom and despair God sends a small shaft of hope. "Lazarus, come out!" And life comes back alive from the dark cave of death.

Just now the shaft of hope is lost in the final acts of the funeral. We file past the grave, shake hands with the family, look down at the chip-board box, and join the subdued procession back into town. And we go back to our work, and life goes on.

Perhaps then it hits us. Life goes on! People are grieving, but life goes on! Death is not the end! There will be a concrete slab laid over the grave. And in the summer heat the slab will crack. Someone will cut across all the laws of science, and ignorant of good doctrine will be happy that Kunmanara's spirit has escaped to be with Jesus. And we will see very clearly the limitations of time, and science and good doctrine, and we will see the sign in the cracked cement, too. Life goes on.

John the Baptist is a sign, a small crack in the cement of a hard existence. He points us to the One who is to come, and who has come, and who will not leave us. He is not the One. Our church is not The One. All we achieve is nothing, it is not The One; we merely point to the One. But if we look to the One we will find a way. The stifling heat of the days and the debilitating dark of the nights,  will be put back in their place.

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