The Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, St. David’s Church, Nashville, December 17, 2023

“Among you stands one whom you do not know…” (Jo. 1:26).

Jesus is at the center of every Gospel story, the “reason for the season” as people say; but in our reading today we encounter him on the sidelines, as a bystander. Did you even notice him, lurking in the crowd? “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’” (Jo. 1:26-27). John is baptizing in Bethany across the Jordan, and he’s the one in the spotlight.

Still, there’s the nod in Jesus’ direction, the gesture to the one who is there in the crowd. This is John the Baptist’s characteristic stance: to be pointing to the one who will come after, to the true messiah who is yet to come. Each of the Gospels show us John the Baptist offering testimony to the one who is more powerful than he (Mk. 1:7; Matt. 3:11; Lk. 3:16), yet none of them actually depict Jesus in the gathered crowd like our reading today. The testimony to Jesus is the same in all four Gospels, but our reading puts Jesus immediately on the scene, without occupying center stage.

“Among you stands one whom you do not know…” (Jo. 1:26). Jesus’ bystander role in our reading underscores John’s point: the one who is to come is unknown, not yet an identifiable actor. Like an extra in a film or play, he’s hiding in plain sight along with all the others sent up by central casting. The cry goes out, “We need a hundred people for the Jordan river scene!” At this point in the Gospel, Jesus is still a “background actor;” he hasn’t yet stepped out from the crowd and been given a speaking role.

Of course, we and everyone else who has ever heard this story knows that Jesus is no “extra.” John the Baptist’s point is not that Jesus is standing in the crowd about to be discovered, but instead the far more important point that human beings have a hard time coming to grips with him. Jesus is unknown because he’s not fully comprehended. Again, a common thread of all four Gospels is that people do not understand what he says, nor who he is. This is the case because the truth about him is hard to grasp, and because human hearts are hard. “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (Jo. 1:26).

The Gospel writer John has a firm grasp on our human failure to understand. He means for us to understand John’s words about the one we do not know as applying to us, those who hear him today. We are the ones who do not know him, or at least do not know him as he truly is. He’s still standing in our midst unacknowledged in his fulness, even by those who love him.

Yet there’s reason to hope. Jesus prays to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jo. 17:3). We can come to know the one who we do not know. As the writer says at the end of his Gospel, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jo. 20:31).

In other words, Jesus’ agenda in John’s Gospel is to make plain, even to folk like us, who he is and why it’s important. It’s John’s Gospel in which Jesus makes repeated definitive statements about who he is. The Gospel begins with Jesus claiming, “I am the bread of life” (Jo. 6:35). A little later we hear, “I am the light of the world” (Jo. 8:12). Then again, “I am the good shepherd” (Jo. 10:11). As the Gospel unfolds, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (Jo. 15:1). All of this comes to a climax in the eleventh chapter when Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jo. 11:25), and raises her brother Lazarus from the dead.

In this season of Advent, we are drawing near to Bethlehem. Let us also draw near to the one who is true bread that feeds us and true light that shows us the way. He is the one who guides us as a shepherd and who connects us to God and each other like a vine. Finally, he is the one who conquers death and gives us the possibility of new life. This is the one we are meant to come to know; the one who still stands among us in our midst.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee