29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I 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.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John 1: 29-34
Every story, every event has pivot points and pivot people. John the Baptist is the pivotal personality of Advent. His words are the vocabulary of our Advent liturgies. His calling to be on constant watch for the Messiah is the inspiration for how we act during Advent. His faithfulness and his devotion to God’s divine plan provide our roadmap to Christmas.
Take away the preaching and teaching of John the Baptist, and one cannot find the prophetic mantle passed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Yes, John is the figure upon which the Advent story and Advent faith pivot; and, as the pivot of Advent, he is the logical starting place for the gospel story itself.
In the fourth gospel John is waiting, waiting for signs of God. Our Advent-prophet is not passively waiting, as though hoping the nurse will call him back to see his overburdened and understaffed primary care provider. John the Baptist is not thumbing through outdated magazines as he fends off creeping boredom. Instead he is at Bethany beyond the Jordan, holding the mantle of Isaiah, baptizing with water as he declares the justice of God with Messianic zeal. John’s waiting is that of pregnant expectancy, for he knows something new is about to born in the midst of empire and upheaval.
Can’t we easily imagine John with the river dripping from his beard and the water showering off his hands as he declares the age of repentance and the forgiveness of sins? Can’t we just see him gazing upon the people approaching him down in the water? John is like a lookout, only instead of seeking out the movement of an enemy, he is sorting out the activity of God. And God is on the move: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He is preparing himself to testify that “this is the son of God.” Perhaps this is the ultimate of Advent disciplines: preparing ourselves to testify about the wonder and goodness of the Son of God as we know and serve him.
John’s most admirable quality is that he serves his role, the prophetic one, with such humility. The most human tendency when times are good is to view ourselves as being more important than we actually are. Advent faith looks not to ourselves but to the promise of God which is yet to come. And with God, new things, grand promises, and mighty acts of saving grace are always yet to come. John knows he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. Messengers proclaim messages which eventually reach their fulfillment or maturity. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John says (John 3:30), and he means it. Advent faith allows itself to be supplanted by Christmas joy. Messianic hope is overshadowed by messianic presence.
John is the pivot of Advent as he was born to point the way: to the river; to renewal; to the one who shall come after. Jesus is the pivot of gospel because he will be the way. Through the voice of John, our gaze is directed to the manger, where like John in the river, we wait to see the new thing God will do.
A prayer for this day:
Eternal God of Advent and Christmas, help us heed the words of John even as we adopt the faith of John. Be with us as we follow his gaze and behold the One long promised, the one for whom we are waiting. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Edmonston (M. Div., 1999)
White Memorial Presbyterian Church