When the Moon Rose in the West

Week of Sunday December 14 - Advent 3
Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28

What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness [A1] to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light….

15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’)....

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,

‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

Some of the old folk needed meat, so we drove 20 miles out of town and then cross-country to one of the great ridges that sail the desert. You can drive right up to the base of many of these. We followed along it in the dark, scouring the green pick at the base with a spotlight, until we spotted kanyala, hill kangaroos.

To get home in the quickest time, we used the tried and true method: Turn right, away from the ridge, placing it at your back. Choose a prominent low star, keep it at the same low leftward place in the night sky, and pick your way across the plains until you hit the main track home.

The track seemed a long time coming. The country became rough and broken. We were picking our way through old fallen mulga scrub, which is bad country for tyres. But the rule is clear: keep heading north until you reach the road. Be patient… except it was becoming a very long night.

The moon came up, rising fast as it does on the desert plains. And in that greater light it became clear what was wrong. The moon was rising in the west. The ridge had turned us around in the night, and no matter what we did we were always going to be lost because we were heading in the wrong direction.

Musgrave Landscape out from Ernabella from Google Maps

In the light we could finally find our way home.

This is a key message of John's Gospel. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5) We need the light.

John the Baptist came as a witness to testify to the light. Nicodemus came by night, without a clue what was happening. (John 3:2) Judas went out into the night, lost. (John 13:30) In the darkness of night "no-one can work…. those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them… you can fish all night without the light and catch nothing. (John 9:4, 11:10, 21:3)

Listen then, says John. ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ (1:32-34)

•••

There is a grim history reflected in the text this week. We should make sure we are aware of it, and repent of any part of it we reflect.

…the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?' (1:10)

They did not know. They were in the dark, unaware that one that they did not know stood among them. Not to know, in John, is to be in the dark. (John, by contrast is sent by God, not by religious authorities.)

…they had been sent from the Pharisees. (1:24)

This is historically wrong. The mostly lay movement of the Pharisees had no authority to order priests and Levites to travel outside the Promised Land to interrogate strange baptisers. Verse 24 reflects the period in which "John" is writing his gospel, probably decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. By then the Pharisees are the key influence among Jewish folk. Petty says they "were the only major Jewish tradition left standing."

So the text reflects the conditions of 90CE rather than the time of Jesus. (circa 30CE) At this time there is a problem. In the post war, post Jerusalem world the relationship between the once Jewish Christian movement and the synagogues has almost completely broken down. It's reflected in John's frequent polemic against "the Jews."

How do we deal with the undoubted hostility between the two groups? What lessons do we draw from it? I have edited Petty's treatment of the issue, which clearly outlines on approach.

Noting that ioudaioi has been translated as "the Jews" in John, Petty says

This has been a costly mistake… When the word is translated as "the Jews," it sounds like the indictment of an entire people…. That is clearly not the author of the fourth gospel's intent… It is absurd to suggest that "the Jews" as a people opposed Jesus.  How, then, would you explain his overwhelming popularity with the people, nearly all of them Jews? 

He asserts that

…the fourth gospel is not an argument between Christians and Jews.  It's an argument between Jews and Jews--specifically, "Judean" Jews and Galilean Jews.  The former opposed the Jesus movement, and the latter supported it.  For the author of the fourth gospel, "Judean" stands for an entire mindset and worldview.  "Judeans" support hierarchy, division between "the chosen" and everyone else, the financial and religious "establishment," and collaboration with Rome.  

John (Petty) seeks to address the terrible history of Christian persecution of Jews based to a large degree in the Gospel of John. This is commendable, necessary, and still urgent. There certainly is what we might call a "Judean" mindset, an establishment view point held by those in power, which the gospel calls us away from, although to think that this is, or ever was, only the province of Jewish people is naïve, to say the least.

But I think John (Petty) is wrong in his translation decision, because the fourth gospel simply is in many ways an argument between Christians and Jews. Inextricably mixed in even with the high mystical poetry of chapter one is a strong polemic against those who oppose the insights of John's gospel. John the Baptist's followers are emphatically overruled. He was not the Messiah. And the Jews of the time of the Gospel of John were simply in the dark. They did not know him even though he stood among them. The gospel of John comes close to hating the synagogues and Pharisees of its time.

We simply need to confess this and get over the need to make the gospel author infallible in his humanity. God does not reside in the words. Like John the Baptist, the human words point us to the Word.

Against Petty's view we can read Ruth Sheridan.

Returning to the Fourth Gospel, it is not sufficient to say that subsequent Christian interpreters of the Gospel of John mistakenly identified the narrative’s “Jews” with real flesh-and-blood Jews living among them — with disastrously violent consequences — and that they misinterpreted John’s sense. It is also not enough to claim, on that basis, that the imperative facing us now is to “restore” the correct meaning (the entho-geographic one) to the text, translating hoi Ioudaioi as “the Judeans.” This avoids the fact that texts do carry within them the potential to become loosed from their authorial moorings and to reach beyond the particularities of their original reception. On John’s use of “the Jews,” Judith Lieu wrote (in 2001) that “we cannot conclude that what the author or recipients might not have perceived is not part of the text.” John chose to use Ioudaioi rather than “rulers” (i.e., authorities) and this “becomes part of the text’s potential to be realized by interpreters at some future stage.” That means we must recognize that how later interpreters cited and made use of John’s Ioudaioi may not have been a misguided “abuse” of the text but an activation of its core direction. (This is here at Marginalia. cf here and here.)

To expose and own how even John's Gospel can lose the centrality of faith and drift into polemics and toward hatred, and how our religious tradition has taken and magnified that into evil pogroms and ethnic cleansing is never time wasted. It is surely part of a repentance that allows the Spirit to bring us into the fullness of life that Jesus promises us in John 10:10.

We Christians have a long tradition of regarding those who do not identify as Christian as less worthy. We have treated Jewish people as barely human. Shylock is a "kind of devil," "the devil himself," and "the very devil incarnate," in the Merchant of Venice (2:2) We are busily doing the same to Muslim people in too many places. It is time to stop, to repent, to simply own that the Faith that gave us our own, Mother Israel, sees the same God differently. We can only honour our Father if we honour our Mother. We should take the lesson of John's gospel and define ourselves by the Light rather than by those who may disagree with us, or even oppose us.

•••

John the Baptist is a witness to the light. (1:6) He points to the light, not to himself. Karoline Lewis notes that Jesus says in a number of places in the Gospel of John, "I am." John says, "I am not." John points to the light so that "all might believe through him," and here I am in full agreement with John Petty.

John bears witness to the light so that "all might faith through him."  In Greek, the word for "faith" is pisteuein, which is a verb.  "Faith" used as a verb sounds funny in English so we usually translate pisteuein as "believe" instead. 

This is unfortunate because the biblical concept of "faith" is not the same thing as "believe."  Faith is "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being.  "Believe" usually means intellectual assent--(like putting a check mark beside every phrase of the Apostles' Creed, then faxing it to heaven so you can be "saved.")  The author of the fourth gospel could care less about "intellectual assent."  He's not into head games.  He's after commitment. 

Indeed, Lewis says

The John of the third Sunday of Advent is the John that points to Jesus and says, "Behold, did you see him? It's the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" For John's Gospel, sin is not our moral laxity or the various transgressions we have committed that we so easily count up on a daily basis. Sin is unbelief [− in Petty's words, unfaith,] which has as its tragic consequence separation from God.

So will we listen to John the Baptist and follow the one to whom he has pointed? Or will we only make doctrinal statements, and assent to creeds, but not faith in him? One way steps into the light. The other choice is a choice to remain in the darkness. The Gospel of John suggests that no matter which way we go in the dark, it will be the wrong way… until we take our bearing from the Light.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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