The featured character of the season of Advent, the main guy we always end up spending time discussing and contemplating, is none other than John the Baptist. Not all the gospel narratives tell the story of the shepherds tending their flocks by night. Not all even mention the little town of Bethlehem or the angel’s announcement to Mary. But all of them feature John the Baptist. In John’s Gospel he is introduced to us as a witness, one who “bears witness about the Light… he was not the Light but came to bear witness about the Light” (John 1:7-8). The light he points towards is the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us. John is bearing witness about the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. For as it says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
But the work of this great witness brings with it a certain level of scrutiny and even opposition. In other words, the religious leaders of the day have a few questions about John and the job he is doing. To begin with they want to know who he is. Is he the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah? After all he is doing Messiah sorts of things. He is calling people to repentance, baptizing them, and impacting their hope and trust. But he says, “No,” he is not the Messiah. Well, what about Elijah? After all, at the end of the of the book of Malachi God says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). But John says, “No.” Could he then be the Prophet, the one that Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy where he said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deuteronomy 18:15), But again, John says, “No.”
John is a witness. He is the one who points others to the arrival of the Son of God. He is not here to make a name for himself, to gain in popularity or prestige. No, he is and remains the great witness. Everything about his work is about pointing toward another, toward the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. During this discussion, amid explaining how he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, he is the one preparing the way of the Lord, he drops a huge bombshell on those questioning him. He says, “I baptize you 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” (John 1:26-27). The guy he is bearing witness about, the one he is pointing toward, the long-awaited Messiah is already standing among them, and they do not know it.
Now, the text does not say they quickly started looking around to see if they could find the Christ. In fact, it does not say He was even there in the moment when John said these words, but I do not think it would have mattered. Even if He was there, even if Jesus was standing right next to the head Pharisee who was questioning John, I do not think they would have recognized Him or believed He could possibly be the one they had been waiting for. See, they suffer from the same problems we all suffer from when it comes to the working of God in our midst. We want the glorious, the mighty, the spectacular. We want our God to look like God and do grand, god-like things. We want the God who looks good on TV and lights up the stage, that demands attention and gets it. In other words, we do not want or expect or care for a god no one sees coming. Why does God need a forerunner, a witness to point Him out? He has a big enough budget. He could do it any way He wanted. We all want something more than this locust eating guy in the wilderness pointing out some lowly resident of Nazareth.
Everything about the arrival of the Son of God, the coming of the Messiah is insulting to us. Oh, we like the celebration of Christmas, the trees and the decorations and the hymns and carols we sing. We love the stories of Santa Clause and the hanging of the stocking by the chimney with care. We like watching our favorite Christmas movies over and again. We all have traditions which make this time of the year special to us, something we look forward to, something that holds profound memories for us. Yet, beneath it all, buried deep down under our carefully appointed manger scenes and wrapping paper and tradition lies the truth. This child born of Mary is our Lord, and the angelic host that announced His arrival has long since disappeared from the night sky. What we are left with is a man. As Scripture says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Jesus would stand in their midst and they could not see Him because they would not see Him as the advent of the living Word of God. Where was the power and might, the bolts of lightning and the jedi-like powers that turn any skeptic into a helpless puppet? Well, that was mostly absent. Sure, he did a bunch of miracles, for a while. He healed folks, walked on water, and drove out demons. But all of that was simply so they might believe in Him, so all mankind might see His lowly and shameful work. For His greatest work was not calming a storm with His words but bearing a cross. It was not commanding the dead to come out of the tombs but declaring sinners to be righteous. This lowly and humble man is the advent of God’s great light in the world. He is the Light that shines in the darkness. He is hope and life and salvation for all.
At some point, what our faith does is call for us to find Jesus where He promises to be and not where we want to find Him. Now, that may sound simple and easy, but it is not. We are really attached to how we want our Lord to come to us. We want the power and glory and awe-inspiring moments. We want the light and tinsel and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes along with it. Instead, God comes to you in a radically different way. He comes as a baby in a manger. He comes as a lowly rabbi who upsets the status quo. He comes as one who will be betrayed, who allows mankind to mock Him and beat Him and put Him to the most public and shameful death known to man. It is not what anyone thought God would do. It was not how it was supposed to go. This is madness, it is foolishness, it is weak and lowly.
But it turns out this is exactly how God does it. We can dress it up all we want but under all our decorations it remains a humble and lowly thing: A crib, a cross, and an empty tomb. That, in a nutshell, is the story of your salvation. But the way in which those lowly things are given to you, they way in which you are caught up in the story is equally as humble. Again, we can dress it up all we want, we can build beautiful churches and create elaborate systems of worship. We can sing hymns which inspire and lift the human spirit. But under it all we have a spoken Word. It is a Word that condemns you as a sinner, a Word that washes you and claims you to be a child of God, a Word that forgives and embraces you with hope and promise. It is a Word that uses ordinary bread and wine to give the very body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior to eat and to drink… so you might know, this day, you are forgiven.
Here in these simple things, we continue to find Jesus. We find Him giving what He promised, what John the Baptist was preparing the world to receive. This is the light you now bear witness to. This is the life of men, it has come into the darkness, but the darkness will not overcome it. He is your life, your hope, and your salvation. All glory be to God.