This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:29–34:
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
More than people love a good story, they love the unexpected twist in it, a moment that upends expectations and forces the audience to see it from a completely different perspective. That dramatic kind of plot twist has been even more popular of late in films from The Crying Game to The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense, among many others. In Memento, we get to the dramatic plot twist by going backward through time. There is something fascinating about getting forced to rethink everything we know about a situation after the unexpected suddenly occurs.
We can also see the narrative of salvation history in the same way, and today’s Gospel is the fulcrum of that script-flipping. Before Jesus came forward for His baptism, the plan for salvation appeared to be set. The Lord established Israel as a nation of priests to build the city of God, to which the entire world would come to learn His Law and to pay homage. Israel lost its way in idolatry and worldly matters, preferring to be as other nations and vie for power rather than keep to its mission for salvation.
The assumption at that point would be that salvation would follow the same script. Therefore, the Messiah would come to restore Israel’s worldly kingdom, chase out the Gentile conquerors, and re-establish Jerusalem as the city of God. The path to salvation would then return to what it had been in the past — and the Israelites would return to their former power and glory. This was the only model of salvation that the Israelites knew, and they calculated the characteristics of a Messiah accordingly.
And then the Lord flipped the script. We see in our first reading that earlier prophets had alerted Israel to the true nature of the Messiah and the path to salvation. The Lord tells Isaiah that “it is too little … for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel.” Instead, the Lord tells Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” There will be a greater path than that of Israel, Isaiah prophesies, although the salvation of the world will come through Israel.
Nevertheless, the expectation of a warrior Messiah remained even with Isaiah’s other prophecies about the Suffering Servant, which some interpreted as Israel itself. The only path to salvation would come from a restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Israel and Judea, and the Israelites and Judeans were waiting for a traditional king to emerge to impose it by force.
Instead, Jesus comes to John in the wilderness, His power cloaked in humility, and asks for baptism along with the very people He came to save. John the Baptist immediately recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the one for whom John had been preparing the people to receive. Instead of a conquering hero for the path to salvation, Jesus comes to bring salvation by establishing the temple of people’s hearts to receive the Holy Spirit.
This flips the script again in a much more fundamental way. Rather than fulfill the expectation that the path to salvation would go through Jerusalem, Jesus prepares his disciples to serve a church that would take salvation directly to the people of the world. The Lord allowed Israel the first opportunity of this mission, which began failing almost as soon as it began, to teach us that we cannot save ourselves.
In this Gospel reading, John the Baptist saw what the true path to salvation would be. The Son of God came to establish it not just with Israel but with all His children in the world. It takes His grace, His Word, and our willing cooperation with it to bring us to salvation. It takes Christ come among us and then the Holy Spirit to enter us to bring us to salvation, not a temple in Jerusalem nor a kingdom of gold or cedars. “To those who accepted him,” John writes earlier in his Gospel, “he gave power to become children of God,” whether they ever saw Jerusalem or not.
Salvation has come to us, and all we need to do is accept it. Considering the long narrative of humanity’s search for the Lord, that’s the greatest script-flip of all time.
The front-page image is a detail from “St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Mattia Preti, c. 1665. Currently in a private collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.