Tons of people have beaten a path to the desert to hear this unlikely character talk about God. Actually, I suspect they come not to see and to hear John at all. Urban sophisticates from Jerusalem and earthy, hardworking folks from the countryside are flocking to the wilderness to encounter God for themselves. John’s teaching and baptizing act as a vehicle for meeting the holy in person.
No wonder the religious authorities have grown suspicious. John the Baptist is cutting into their market share. And in all likelihood he lacks the proper license. God is supposed to be the property of the Temple and the synagogue. John the Baptist has set up a kind of black market God business. In their view, he’s got to be passing off a counterfeit.
When the theological police come knocking, John answers all their questions. He’s not Elijah redux. He’s certainly not the Messiah. And then he says something remarkably important that they completely miss. And that we probably miss as well.
|Filipp Malyavin's "Laughing"|
John says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know.” (John 1:26b)
That short sentence doesn’t sound significant on the face of it. Hearing those words in the narrow context of the religious leaders’ questions and John’s answer to them that day, you might assume that John is simply saying that they haven’t heard of Jesus yet. After all, Jesus hasn’t even begun his public ministry at this point.
Or, taking into account what we already believe about Jesus today and what the religious authorities could not have known at the time of this exchange, you might say that these leaders failed to recognize Jesus as God incarnate.
Given John the Gospel writer’s penchant for multilayered meanings, both of these interpretations open the text for us. But John the Baptist is getting at something deeper as well. His message to the theological experts and moral teachers and worship leaders of his day is this, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
In Jesus God reveals himself as the God of plot twists.