Advent: Day 17 – Tuesday, December 19, 2023

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
John 1:6–8, 19–28

The coming of Jesus has more witnesses than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Okay, maybe not that many — but a lot. Every Gospel begins with accounts of witnesses. Matthew begins with the witnesses of genealogy, Mark with John the Baptist, Luke with his own reflection of witness, and finally the Gospel of John who introduces us to John the Baptist again — a witness to the Light.

Now, at first we’re not actually sure who this John is. The Pharisees give us some options though — running the list from greatest to least: The Christ? Elijah? a prophet? But it seems that he is simply a nameless “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” not even worthy to untie the sandal of the coming messiah. Not exactly the ideal way to set up a character — and certainly not one with such an auspicious message to deliver!

When I think about who John is in the story of the Bible, I’m reminded of a conversation I’ve been having with my 11-year-old.

We’ve been talking about how different characters function in comic book movies. Who are the heroes, the villains, and the ones you can just tell are going to get axed at some point in the movie? Currently, we’ve been having fun analyzing the characters whose roles are a little more blurry. The characters who’d rather not be in the story, the reluctant heroes, the anti-heroes, the innocents caught in the crossfire — will they live or die? John the Baptist is certainly one of these secondary characters. While he’s first out of the gates in the story, he also describes himself as one “not even worthy to untie the sandals” of the coming main character. Later on Jesus describes him as simultaneously “greater than all born of women” and “least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 11:11).

I can just imagine the religious Pharisees trying to figure out who this John is. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? They just aren’t sure! But in classic literature types he is certainly the herald. The one who gets the story going. He also features as the character that bridges the old and the new — fading from the scene as Jesus literally emerges from the baptismal waters. But it’s always clear that John is never witnessing about himself but always pointing us, the reader, to Jesus — the Light of the World.

Who are the witnesses in your life to Jesus? Those that cut through the endless news cycle and social media noise to bring the unfettered peace of the King of Kings? This year for me it’s the advent poetry of British writer Malcolm Guite. Here is his sonnet meditating on the Emmanuel that helps me to see Christ afresh:

O Emmanuel
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Bruce Benedict is the chaplain of worship and arts for Hope College.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“O Emmanuel” © Malcolm Guite. Used by permission of the author.

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1 Comment

  1. I love these Advent Devotions. I pastor three churches in Wisconsin, but am from Whitehall. Michigan and have many friends who have attended Hope College. I love the thought provoking message and the imagery shared. Thank you for this collection. I share this with those at all my churches who attend my weekly Advent study groups.
    Christmas blessings & JOY!

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