The cover art on today’s service bulletin is a detail from one of the great works of art-Matthias Gruenewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. Created for a hospital and designed so that the patients could see the altarpiece from their beds, the center panel of the altarpiece depicts the crucifixion. Standing beneath the cross is the image of John the Baptist, with the lamb of God, a small lamb carrying a cross, by his side. Gruenewald was a master of perspective and artistic technique, so what stands out to me in this image is John’s index finger, pointing at the crucified Christ, which is all out of proportion with his hand.
In my sermon last Sunday, I talked about the ways in which music can help to interpret scripture. The same is true of the visual arts. Here, Gruenewald has perfectly captured part of the today’s gospel reading, from John. At the same time, Gruenewald conflates John’s depiction of John the Baptizer with elements from the other gospels, so that we lose sight of the way the gospel makes use of John the Baptizer.
In fact, close comparison of the depiction of John the Baptizer in the gospel of John with his portrayal in the other three gospels reveals a number of significant differences. In the synoptics, taking off from Mark, John is depicted as a second Elijah—his description parallels the description of Elijah in 2 Kings. Second, the emphasis in the synoptics is on John’s baptizing and on his apocalyptic preaching: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” to use Mark’s language. Third, the relationship between John and Jesus. In the synoptics, John baptizes Jesus; Jesus doesn’t begin his public ministry until after John is arrested; and Jesus’ message is very similar to John’s; again to use Mark’s shorthand, Jesus preached the very same thing as John: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has drawn near.”
Leave aside for a moment everything you might remember about John from the synoptic gospels. Forget the camel skin and leather belt; forget the locusts and wild honey. Forget even, just for a moment, the baptism for repentance from sins. Focus instead on what we learn about John here in this text. Focus on that long index finger pointing toward Jesus Christ.
For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.
There’s a rather mundane reason to explain why the gospel writer tells the story in this way. It’s pretty clear from the other gospels, from Acts, and other sources, too, that John the Baptist presented something of a problem for early Christianity. There was the obvious issue that the synoptic gospels agree that he baptized for repentance from sins. If that was the case, then why did John baptize Jesus?
There was another issue about the close relationship between John’s teaching and Jesus’ own ministry. The synoptics tell the story that after John was arrested, he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And in Acts, some of Jesus’ followers encounter disciples of John the Baptist who haven’t heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. So it’s clear that in the first century, there was something of a competition between followers of John the Baptist and the Jesus movement.
The gospel writer, then, wants to make clear to his readers that John is not the Christ, that he is a witness to the Christ. He wants to make clear that Jesus Christ surpasses John in every way. So not only does he call John a “witness” but he also has him say, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
But to focus on possible conflict between followers of John and followers is to miss the larger picture. This is not primarily about competition between two first-century Jewish reform movements. This debate about Jesus and John derives from a more fundamental question: their identity. Who are they? That question, though unspoken, lies behind today’s Gospel. People come to John and ask, “Who are you?” When John denies he is the Messiah, they probe further, “Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?” It’s a scene that mirrors another familiar scene from the gospels, when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?” They answered, Some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” So the question of John’s identity is also the question of the Messiah’s identity.
When John rejects the title of Messiah, he challenges the expectations of those who come to him. Without telling them who he was, he pointed away from himself, toward Jesus, who is the Messiah. John functions to help explain who Jesus Christ is. Like John, like his disciples, like those who came asking about his identity, we may not be quite certain who Jesus is, who it is we are looking for.
Who, what are we looking for this Advent? Are we like those who came to John asking him, “Are you Elijah or one of the prophets?” Are we like John himself, who sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” Advent is all about expectation and waiting, but what are we waiting for?
The reading from Isaiah begins with a marvelous image of the prophet proclaiming the good news:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed 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
In Luke’s gospel, these are the words Jesus reads from scripture at his first public appearance in his hometown synagogue. After reading the passage, he sits down and declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Who, what are we waiting for this Advent? Who, what are we looking for? Can our hopes encompass the expansive vision of the year of the Lord’s favor proclaimed by the prophet and by Jesus? Can we imagine bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners? Or is our vision darkened, our imagination impoverished by the onslaught of difficult news profound problems?
Who, what are we looking for this Advent? A little rest and relaxation? A moment’s respite from the struggles of our lives? These are all well and good, but today’s gospel and the reading from Isaiah remind us that our hope must be much bigger than that, our vision much brighter.
As the winter’s darkness continues to settle in, may Advent be a time when we look for, and encounter the Light of the World. Let us continue to listen for the words proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. But may we also do more. Let us, like John, bear witness to Jesus Christ!