Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) (17 December 2023)

Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) (17 December 2023)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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

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

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

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing (John 1:6-8 and 19-28 – NRSV).

Introductory notes


Our text begins with three verses from the Prologue of John’s Gospel. Those verses are followed by a further nine verses taken from after the Prologue.

Francis Moloney writes of the Prologue: “The first page of the Fourth Gospel is one of the most dense passages in the New Testament, a synthesis of the author’s christology and theology. …. The product of a Christian experience that looks back with respect to its Jewish origins, the Prologue has to be understood in the light of the traditional understanding of the God of Genesis and the God of Sinai. The obvious link between Genesis 1 and the opening of the Prologue sets the stage. Before there was anything, there was God. John 1:1 affirms that there was also the Word. The role of the Word, as with any word, is to be uttered. The Word that was turned toward God makes God known, and this revelation has consequences for creation and the darkness of the human situation. It is now possible to become children of God. It is not as if God has never shown any concern for the ambiguity of the human situation. In former times he made himself known; he revealed his glory (Exod 19:16–25) through the gift of the Law on Sinai, through Moses (Exod 20:1–26). The Prologue affirms that Christians have access to the perfection of this former gift. They can see the revelation of the glory of God in his Son, Jesus Christ. God has gifted us twice. His former gift of the Law through Moses has been perfected in the fullness of his gifts in and through Jesus Christ. Only the Son has ever seen God, and the story of his life will tell the story of God’s loving action within the human story” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 34 & 41).

Our text has a further nine verses after the Prologue.

All four Gospels speak of John the Baptist announcing the Messiah – see Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8 and Luke 3:1–20. All of them refer to Isaiah – see 40:3. The Gospel of John alone does not add the descriptor, “the Baptist”.


sent from God: In 1:33 John the Baptist will speak of ‘the one who sent me to baptize’; in 3:28 he says, ‘I am sent before him’. Then in 3:34 John speaks of “he whom God has sent”. In 4:34 we hear Jesus says to his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work”. A similar statement is found in 5:30: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me”. Again, even more definitely in 5:36-38: “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent”. The Greek word used here is apostellō. Although John does not use the Greek word apostolos to describe John – translated as “apostle” meaning “one who is sent” – there is abundant evidence that just as John the Baptizer is “sent” and Jesus is “sent” so too the disciples of Jesus are “sent”.

“The forerunner’s significance to the story is grounded in the fact that he was sent from God, assigned to this specific task. That he was commissioned by the Almighty places him in the same category as Moses (Ex. 3:10–15) and the prophets (e.g. Is. 6:8; Je. 1:4ff.)—indeed, in this respect, he is like Jesus himself, who was also sent from God (3:17; a frequent theme in the Fourth Gospel). Obedient to his commission, he came as a witness to testify concerning the light. The courtroom language of ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ is common in the New Testament but especially in this Gospel. A fuller description of the Baptist’s witness appears in vv. 19–34; 3:27–30; 5:35, with a marvellous summary in 10:40–42. But other witness to the truth of God’s self-disclosure in the Word abounds: there is the witness of the Samaritan woman (4:39), of the works of Jesus (5:36; 10:25), of the Father (5:32, 37; 8:18), of the Old Testament (5:39–40), of the crowd (12:17), and of the Holy Spirit and the apostles (15:26–27). All these bear witness to Jesus, who himself bears witness to the truth (18:37), in conjunction with the Father (8:13–18).

“The purpose of John the Baptist’s witness, though of course not its result, was so that through him all men might believe. John 1:35–37 provides an instance where John’s witness was not only effective but particularly fruitful in its result. Derivatively, because the Baptist’s witness has been bound up in all four canonical Gospels with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, like Abel ‘he still speaks, even though he is dead’ (Heb. 11:4). All who have ever come to faith are indirectly dependent on his opening proclamation of the identity and saving purpose of Jesus Messiah” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 120-121).

There is some irony in the use of the verb “send” in our text. Whilst the focus is on God as the one who sends and John and Jesus as those who are sent, the reader cannot help notice the contrasting situation with “the Jews” who send people to trap those who have been sent by God: “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us.’”

light: In 5:35 Jesus calls John a lamp. In later passages he refers explicitly to Jesus as the light – see 3:19, 8:12, 9:5. The theme of light is in fact present throughout the Bible. The separation of light and darkness is mentioned at the beginning of the Bible, it was the first act of the Creator – see Genesis 1:3-4. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God is identified with light (21:23). John says our destiny is to pass over into unending light (1 John 1:5). Matthew cites Isaiah to introduce the preaching and teaching of Jesus: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (4:16).

so that all might believe through him: In 1:31 John testifies that he came “to reveal him to Israel”. It seems likely, however, that the Greek word pantes here – translated variously as “everyone” or “all” – does literally refer to the rest of humanity.

believe: The Greek verb pisteuō is used more than 100 times in the Gospel of John. And it is always used as a verb, invariably with Jesus as the object. It is relational rather than informational. In John’s Gospel, believing is a growing relationship with Jesus whom the Father has sent.


In today’s Gospel – John 1:6-8 & 19-28 – we hear the dramatic words: “There was a man sent by God …” In fact, we are all “sent by God”. That’s part of our being creatures made in the image and likeness of God – see Genesis 1:27. Of course, not everyone shares this belief.

The rock group, “The Doors”, have a song that expresses a different view of human existence. Their 1971 hit, “Riders on the Storm”, begins: “Riders on the storm/ Riders on the storm/ Into this house we’re born/ Into this world we’re thrown/ Like a dog without a bone”. The idea is almost certainly taken from the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. A scholar of Heidegger explains: “None of us is the ground of his or her own existence. Instead we are thrown into the world and this thrownness is something that cannot be undone” (Daniel O Dahlstrom, The Heidegger Dictionary (Bloomsbury Philosophy Dictionaries) (p. 266). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition).

Heidegger may merely mean that we did not “choose to be here”. This is a claim that most of us would agree with. It does not contradict our faith. However, “The Doors” remind us that there is another, darker, interpretation possible. “Thrownness” could be read as a claim that human existence is governed by mere randomness and a reasonable response to that randomness is fatalism. Indeed, with or without the help of “The Doors” or Heidegger, that sense of fatalism and randomness – which implies a lack of given meaning and purpose – seems to pervade our times. The word “thrown” has replaced the word “sent”.

As we hear those words from John – “a man sent by God” – we are reminded of the Prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7-8). John’s words are beautiful words. They speak to our hearts about who and what we are. They remind us not only of why we exist but of why anything exists at all.

Individually and together, we are part of a world of meaning and purpose. We exist because Love brought us into being. Love is with us. Love supports us. Love leads us. Love protects us. Love surrounds us. Could there be any greater purpose or meaning than to be the place Love has chosen to enter the world?

But the Good News does not supplant reality. It works within reality to bring it to perfection. There will almost certainly be times when the Good News seems to be absent. Love seems to have abandoned us. Meaning and purpose seem to be replaced by randomness. Fatalism seems more reasonable than hope. Our faith can be mightily tested. This is one good reason why we immerse ourselves in God through personal prayer, liturgy, and loving actions. The experience and memory of the light can sustain us in the dark.

Fr Michael Whelan SM – Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B) 17 December 2023