This week’s lectionary readings.
The contrast between the presentation of John the Baptizer in Mark and the Gospel of John’s portrayal of him is striking. For one thing, in the fourth gospel, John doesn’t actually baptize Jesus. In addition, Jesus begins his public ministry before John’s arrest. There are other differences, too.
In this week’s gospel reading, we learn about who John is not. He is a witness, or testifier to Jesus Christ, but when asked who he is, whether he is the Messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, he replies, “I am not.” Later in chapter 1, when John sees Jesus, he points to him and says twice, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
The gospel writer is concerned to heighten the difference between John the Baptizer and Jesus, to make clear that John is less important, but by writing in this way, he presents us with questions that, in a sense, we struggle with as Christians. Who is Jesus Christ? For all of the doctrinal formulations that attempted to fix and define Jesus Christ’s identity for all time, the question of who he is, for us as individuals and for our congregations presses itself on us.
How do we experience Jesus Christ? How does he come to us? How do we encounter him in our lives and in our world? We are often tempted, just like those who defined the doctrines of Jesus Christ’s nature, to fit him into a certain philosophical or theological framework. We are tempted, like those who asked John who he was, to try to fit our experience of Jesus Christ into certain pre-defined categories or terms. That’s the case all of the time, but it may be particularly true in this season, when we look for Jesus Christ’s coming in a manger in Bethlehem, and ignore other ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us.
The Gospel of John consistently asks, “Who is Jesus Christ?” As often as not, those who ask Jesus the question, “who are you?” have questions asked back of them, or experience Jesus shattering the categories they use to ask him.
Who is Jesus Christ? To ask that question in Advent is to invite two very different, and in some ways contradictory responses. He is the babe who is born in Bethlehem, but he is also to one who will come to usher in a new age. Those two answers force us to open ourselves up to contradictory and unsettling ways in which Jesus Christ comes to us. To be open to his coming, however it is he chooses to come, is one of the disciplines of Advent.