Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know
“Among you stands One whom you do not know,” is what John the Baptist said to the religious authorities who descended from Jerusalem to interview him in the wilderness.
In this passage (John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28), which is the gospel text for the third Sunday in Advent, the Baptizer has already been described, and described himself, by intriguing (though to the authorities frustrating) negation. “I am not the Messiah.” “Not Elijah (herald of the Day of the Lord).” “Nor a prophet.” Earlier in the text, in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, we read, “He (John) himself was not the light.”
Seems instructive for the church. We are not the light. We are a witness to the light. I find that in many congregations people go on at length about the specialness/ greatness of their church, as if it were the light.
John wraps up his witness by negation (“I am not the Messiah”) with even more haunting words, “Among you stands One whom you do not know.” He says this to the religious authorities, the people who think they know all about these things. But then and now, Jesus eludes our “knowing,” our classifying, our explanations, our reductions. He is an ascetic who enjoys parties. He is a critic of Jewish religious law who claims to fulfill it. He says that he came not to bring peace but a sword — and blesses the peacemakers. He is fully God and fully human — how can that be? All heresies, as Ross Douthat points out in his Bad Religion, “Extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” They claim to know. The true Jesus is this but not that. No, he is this and that — and more.
Later John the Baptist even says, “I myself did not know him.” (John 1: 31). It was the Holy Spirit’s descending dove that revealed Jesus to John. We don’t come to know Jesus by our earnest efforts, our studies, our spiritual practices or because of our great insight. Jesus is revealed to us. In these things, it is less a matter of “I found it,” than, “It found me.”
The other evening I was one of the several park guides leading an “Owl Prowl” at Discovery Park. Owls are a revelation. Even if you are out looking for them — prowling — as we were, it never seems accurate to say “I found one.” Owls, like God, reveal themselves — or not. Suddenly, a Barred Owl sweeps down from a Douglas Fir to glide across a meadow, wings spread five feet. A revelation. And then it is gone. Or the night silence is broken by the hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Their hoot calls to you, but they remain elusive.
At Christmas we work hard to get it right, perfect even. But the moment we long for isn’t that, not our perfect Christmas, it is the moment of revelation, when the One we do not know reveals himself, comes to find us, and everything is changed.