Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2020

John 1:6-8, 19-28 Commentary

“Among you stands one you do not know.”

Those were John the Baptist’s words as recorded in John 1:26.  Of course, at that time it was literally true that a quiet carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire was rubbing shoulders with lots of people—including the crowds that jostled together at the banks of the Jordan River—but no one had a clue that this unimpressive-looking man was The One, the Son of God, the Word of God who had been with God in the beginning.

Among you stands one you do not know.

There’s more gospel and Advent mystery packed into that little line than we may realize.  After all, if the Son of the Living God is on this earth—if the Word of God through whom everything that exists had been made was walking the soil of his own creation—wouldn’t common sense tell you that he’d be someone no one could possibly miss seeing?  Shouldn’t everyone have been able to know who he was at a glance?

Among you stands one you do not know.

Jesus came down to this world in such non-descript packaging that to most people’s minds he didn’t even look like a fake Messiah or some imposter Christ.  Years ago there was a funny story on the news about a Florida congresswoman who hung up on then President-Elect Barack Obama on account of her being sure it was a prank call by some local radio hosts known to prank people on the air by doing really good imitations of famous people.  It took two more phone calls from two other people before she was able to be convinced that the original call had really been from the president-elect!  But it goes without saying that even if it had been a prank call, the prankster would have done his level best to sound as much like Mr. Obama as possible.  When you are imitating someone or trying to fool someone into thinking you are someone you are not, you have to work hard to sound and act the part.

Among you stands one you do not know.

Apparently, Jesus did not even sound or act the part of a would-be Savior of the world.  You could stand in the baptism line right behind him, shuffling toward the water’s edge and waiting your turn to be dunked by John, and have no clue who was in front of you.  You could be at a dinner party with this man and even ask him to pass you the salt and pepper and have no idea that the fingers that would grasp the saltshaker were the same fingers that once set quasars to spinning.

Among you stands one you do not know.

It’s still true today, of course.  But Christians forget the divine M.O.  Since after 2,000 years the Church has managed to make a name for itself; since we have soaring cathedrals and, these days, former sports stadiums-turned churches that pack in crowds of 10,000+ people every Sunday morning; since we’ve built impressive colleges, universities, and seminaries; since we fill whole libraries with the fruits of two millennia’ worth of Christian scholarship—because of all this we tend to think that there is something just obviously impressive about the Christian message and about the presence of Christ in the world yet today.  And so some in the Church are merely agog to read the rantings of Richard Dawkins (God is a delusion) and Daniel Dennett (faith is a pathology) and the late Christopher Hitchens (God is not great) and we feel that we need to hit back at these people.  Hard.  After all, aren’t they missing the obvious?  How in the world can anyone miss seeing the manifest truth of Jesus’ presence in the world?

But no.

Among you stands one you do not know. 

It’s God’s way.  It’s the gospel way.  Salvation comes from the quiet strength, the gentle humility, the servant heart of God’s only Son.  The Word who spoke everything into being was perfectly willing to come to this world less as a Word and more as a Whisper.  He was perfectly willing to remain anonymous to the Herods and Caesars of the world so as to make himself known to blind people, deaf people, lepers, prostitutes, fishermen, and so very many others who were also the invisible members of the world, living on the margins of society, on the wrong side of the tracks.

Among you stands one you do not know.

Jesus knew something about going unrecognized.  He knew something about not being seen.  And so maybe that’s why he was so good at lifting up those others among us whom we do not know: the homeless, the street people, the AIDS victim, the working poor.  These people are also among us and we do not know, most of the time, who they really are, either.  Among us stand those we do not know.  Who are they?  They are image-bearers of God.  They are children of the heavenly Father.  They are precisely the last, least, lost, and lonely whom Jesus came to save, they were the poor to whom Jesus came (a la the Old Testament lection from Isaiah 61) to preach good news and release from captivity.

Among you stands one you do not know.

But if today you do know him, if by the gift of faith you can recognize him, be thankful.  It’s not an obvious truth to recognize.  But once you do discover that this One is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sin of the world, then you can but pray that the Holy Spirit of God will open also your eyes to all the invisible people among us all who in Advent and at all times sorely need to hear the best news ever proclaimed.

Among you stands one you do not know.

But now it is our task to imitate John the Baptist and do our level best over and again to point him out to a world that so needs all the grace and truth Jesus alone brings.

Be sure to check out our 2020 Year B Advent/Christmas resource page for more sermon and worship ideas and links to many sample sermons as well.  Visit us all through Advent!

Textual Points

If you know any Greek at all, then you will recall that the Greek word for “witness” as used consistently in John 1:6-8 transliterates into the English word “martyr.”  And, of course, as the gospels make clear, in the case of John the Baptist his role as witness did indeed lead to his role as a martyr for the one to whom he bore that witness.  That fact is a sobering reminder of what the cost of discipleship / witnessing can be for also all of us latter-day people who can see ourselves in the picture Jesus sketched in also Acts 1:8 when he told the disciples, “Now you are my witnesses . . . you are my martyrs.”

Illustration Idea

From Fred Craddock’s sermon, “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” From A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds (Eerdmans 1994), p. 43.  The reference is a little dated since most maternity wards don’t have big nurseries into which new fathers look for their newborn but we’ve seen this image often enough that it still works:

“The Bible calls [repentance] a new birth.  You’ve been to that window, haven’t you?  The maternity ward, the nursery, and all that stuff up there in that big window.  And all the men outside trying to figure out which one it is?  You know, Julie is in there somewhere, and I know she’s the prettiest one, and you can’t read those little old bands where the arm comes down and the hand joins and there’s a deep wrinkle and there’s that band, and it’s so small, and you say, ‘Well, I think that’s . . .’  And the Bible says, That’s what it is, that is it.  And John offered that.  The Bible says it’s like a snowfall.  You get up in the morning early, and you look out: about four inches and there’s not a print in it yet.  And you look across the alley, and what yesterday afternoon was the ugly garbage dumpster is now a mound to the glory of God.  That’s what the Bible calls it.  And John is offering it.  Did you ever hear John preach?  If you haven’t, you will.  Because the only way to Nazareth is through the desert.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  You can get to Nazareth without going through the desert.  But you won’t find Jesus.


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