By Jordan Hillebert
Last week, the Church celebrated the baptism of Jesus — that beautiful moment right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry when the curtain is pulled back for us and we’re given a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. Just as Jesus emerges from the water, while the river is still clinging to his hair and running down his face, the Spirit of God descends from heaven like a dove and the voice of God calls out, this is my Son, the one I love, the joy of my heart! (Matt. 3:17).
This morning’s gospel reading (John 1:29-42) alludes to the same event, but the focus here is very much on John the Baptist. We’ve seen a lot of John the Baptist over the past few weeks. Last week, of course, he showed up in the baptism narrative from Matthew’s gospel (he was the one doing the baptizing), but we also devoted a whole Sunday to John in Advent, just before Christmas.
Advent is all about anticipation, about watching and waiting. It points ahead and it urges us to prepare for the coming of Christ. And so in Advent, it makes sense that we look to John the Baptist, someone whose entire life and ministry is all about preparing for the Lord’s arrival.
But today we encounter John, not as one in waiting, but as one who finally receives the thing that he has been longing for. For 30 years, everything in John’s life has been building up to this moment. Among John’s earliest memories as a child must have been his parents telling him over and over again the story of the angel’s visit to his father, Zechariah. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,” the angel promised. “He will be great in the sight of the Lord … [and] he will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:13-16). How deeply John must have internalized those words. He knew in his bones that he was meant for something special, something great.
John was so driven by those words, by that calling, that he chose not to go into the family business. He did not become a priest like his father, which would have been a very privileged and prestigious line of work in those days. Instead, John makes his way out into the desert. He becomes a lone prophet in the wilderness, living on a steady diet of bugs and honey, baptizing in the Jordan River and preparing the people for the coming of Christ.
And then, finally, up walks Jesus. Imagine that moment. All that work. All that waiting. All those bugs and baptisms. All that time out there in the desert preaching and preparing. And then he comes — God’s Son, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. What do you do in a moment like that? What do you say? Surely John must have suspected, or at least hoped, that such a day would come. Surely he must have had some kind of speech prepared just in case.
But John just stands there, blurting out to the crowd that has gathered around him, Look everyone! There’s the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). John’s big moment, the most important sermon of his career, basically ends up sounding like a celebrity sighting: Look everyone! It’s him! There is an urgency in John’s announcement, an attempt to break through the noise, to focus everyone’s attention on the one thing that truly matters. And it’s an urgency that every Christian is called to emulate.
Like John, we have good news to share. Like John, we have something urgent to say. To a world that is being ripped apart by war, violence, and petty divisions: behold the Prince of Peace! To those we know and love who are hungry for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment: behold the Way, the Truth, and the Life! To those living in the darkness of loneliness and depression: behold the Light of the World! To those struggling under the burden of guilt and shame: behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
There’s no question about it, John is a weird man, a wild man. He is not the type of person that most of us feel drawn to emulate. But while you and I may not be called to a life in the wilderness, all of us are called in a unique way to be a signpost pointing to something else. This is the mission entrusted to each of us at our baptism — to share the good news that we have received. To point others to Jesus. But the only way we can hope to do that is by first turning our own attention to Christ.
There was a video that went viral a couple of years ago called the “invisible gorilla.” A group of people are moving around, passing a basketball back and forth, and the viewer is asked to count how many times the basketball changes hands. At the end of the video, the narrator asks the viewer, “How many passes did you count?” Then the narrator asks, “Did you spot the gorilla?” Most people, myself included, were so busy focusing on the basketball that they didn’t notice a man in a gorilla suit walk straight into the group of players, and then stop, beat his chest a bit, and then saunter out of the room. How often do we miss what’s right in front of us, because our attention is fixed somewhere else?
Now, I’m reluctant to compare Jesus Christ to a man in a gorilla suit, but I suspect the same principle applies to the life of faith. How often are we so focused on the noise and the distractions, or the very real cares and concerns in our lives, that we miss out on an encounter with the living Christ? John the Baptist was a busy man. The gospels tell us that the people came to him in massive numbers. The people pressed in on John from all sides, eager to hear what he had to say, lining up to be baptized. He was so busy proclaiming the coming Messiah that he might have easily missed him when he finally walked by.
But John’s attention was ever on the lookout for his Lord. Now, this doesn’t mean that John relinquished all his other responsibilities, that he cleared his diary of everything else in case Jesus suddenly came knocking. But John refused to allow other things to get in the way of seeing Christ. His gaze was fixed by the longing of his heart to behold the Lamb of God. This should be our longing as well: to see Christ and to point others in his direction.
There are some places where Jesus promises to show up. The risen Christ tells his disciples that all of Scripture points to him (Luke 24:27), and so when we read, and listen, and meditate upon the Scriptures, we do so with the hope and confidence of meeting Jesus there. In a few moments, we’ll come to another place where Christ assures us of his presence: the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the gift of Christ’s body and blood.
But the risen Christ is not trapped in a book or in the objects on the altar. The risen Christ is living and active. He comes to us in our grief, he ministers to us through the love of others, just as he ministers through us when we serve those in need. He promises to be with us whenever we gather in his name.
But like John, we must learn to keep our eyes open. We need to be in the habit of really looking for Jesus — not just in our prayers or in a church or in times of peace and tranquillity, but in all aspects of our lives. Because he’s there. In the Gospel of Matthew, the final thing that Jesus tells his disciples is “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hillebert is director of formation at St. Padarn’s Institute (Cardiff, Wales).