When I was around middle school age, I used to volunteer sometimes down at the nursing home in my hometown. I don’t remember now if it was for school or church or Girl Scouts or whatever, but a few other kids and I would go down every so often and play cards and other games with the residents.
There was one woman I played cards with on several occasions – let’s call her Bev (it was so long ago now that I don’t actually remember her real name anymore). Bev was a friendly, chatty woman; she liked to play Kings in the Corner and she had some pretty pronounced dementia. She asked me lots of questions about my life, curious to get to know me better, and I would answer her – I told her all about school, about my art projects and my love for reading, and about playing softball in the summertime. But as we talked, I noticed that she’d ask me a question, and then a few minutes would go by, and then she’d ask the same thing again – sometimes two or three more times. As a kid, that was new to me; I’d never encountered it before.
The day I told her I played softball, I think she asked me probably half a dozen times: “Are you on Richie’s team?” And each time, I kept replying, “No. I have no idea who Richie even is!” Until finally, I just said, “Okay, sure. Yes. I’m on Richie’s team.” “Ah, that’s nice,” she said, “He’s a nice boy, that Richie.” And I said, “Sure, yep. A very nice boy.” And then she finally moved on to a new question! It was kind of like she had already decided in her head the story that she wanted to hear, and she would just keep asking me questions over and over until I gave her the “right” answer.
Once we established that I was on “Richie’s team,” she then started asking me, “Are you a good player?” And I – being an honest child – answered her, “No, ma’am, I am not.” And that was clearly not the answer she was looking for. So she asked again. And again. And each time she asked, my answer got a little bit better – to “No, not really,” and then, “Oh, I do okay,” and then, “Yeah, I’m not too bad” – until once again, I finally just said, “Yes! Yes, I’m a good player!” At that, she looked me in the eyes, smacked her hand down on the table, and loudly exclaimed, “Good for you!!”
It was a funny experience to have as a kid, if a little confusing. Honestly, looking back now as an adult, it’s a story that still makes me laugh. But now, I also look back with a slightly different perspective – with curiosity about Bev and about her family – I wonder what those years were like for her and for them. I personally have never had the experience of watching a loved one deal with dementia. I’ve always been on the outside of that, as a volunteer or as a chaplain. For me, it’s tended to be a bit of a surreal (and sometimes humorous) experience; I have enough distance to be able to meet people wherever they are on a given day – I can step into whatever reality a person wants to live in that day, even if it’s a far-fetched reality in which I am good at sports.
But I know it’s an achingly different story when you have so much shared history and time and love invested in a relationship. I have heard families talk about the pain of gradually becoming a stranger to this person they love, of losing a loved one even while they are still alive. The slow separation of dementia can be absolutely devastating. It seems like we have an easier time wrapping our brains around physical illness; we are better able to deal with that emotionally. But it’s simply unfathomable to us that someone you know and love so well, someone who’s central to your life, could look you in the face and have no idea who you are.
It’s a very odd and intense way to get into this gospel reading for today. But as I was reading this passage this week, I just kept finding my attention drawn back to the two verses where John is talking about Christ and says – twice! – “I myself did not know him.”
That sounds very strange when you stop and think about it. For one thing, we’re coming fresh off an entire year with the Gospel of Luke, and you might remember that in the very first chapter of his gospel account, Luke establishes that Jesus and John are cousins – since their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, are related. So you’d assume that they’d at least have met each other at some point!
But in an even deeper sense, it’s really pretty extraordinary that John has been going around preaching and proclaiming the one who is to come after him when he’s never met this person. He has dilligently been preparing the way for someone he has never even seen – someone who, for all he knows, might not even actually exist. John has deep faith in God’s promises of a coming Messiah, and he is staking a lot on this call he has received to prepare the Messiah’s way – even though John really hasn’t yet received any kind of indication or reassurance that this promise will be kept.
John believes in what he has not yet seen – he believes in one whom he does not yet know. And in fact, his faith is so strong that, in the verses right before this reading, you find him arguing with the religious authorities who have come out to the Jordan to ask him what in the world he’s doing. He tells them, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.”
These religious leaders probably thought John was nuts. But right there, on the riverbank, John’s faith suddenly becomes sight. The time is finally right, and as Jesus appears, and comes walking toward him, the Holy Spirit opens John’s eyes and reveals everything to him. And John immediately proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ This is the guy! I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
John came baptizing with water as he was called to do – he came baptizing with water before that was even a thing people really did – he came faithfully living out his vocation, even before God’s plans had been revealed to him. And after a lifetime of not seeing, not fully knowing what God was up to, this sudden revelation of the Spirit shows John the wondrous things that God is doing, that God is keeping God’s promise – and then some – this promise to bring redemption and salvation and new life to God’s people.
There’s so much that’s deeply hopeful in this story. Not only does John believe without seeing, but we see that John’s faith turns out to be totally justified. God truly is doing a new thing – the Spirit is moving in and among God’s people, long before John or just about anyone else is even aware of it.
And that is incredibly hopeful for those of us who still have to walk by faith instead of by sight! It’s not always clear to us what God is up to, or whether God is doing much of anything at all. We ourselves don’t always recognize Christ when we see him in the world – too often it seems the time just isn’t right for the Spirit’s revelation. And when we’re dealing with all the uncertainties and challenges and pain of this world, it is really hard not to have that concrete reassurance of God’s presence – it’s hard when we’re watching our loved ones with dementia slip away; or when we’re seeing news of violence and unrest around the globe, or contemplating the climate crisis; it’s hard when we’re seeing the same prejudice and hatred and division in our nation that Martin Luther King Jr. fought against over half a century ago, and it hardly feels like the needle has moved at all.
But John’s story offers us powerful reassurance that our faith is justified. Even when we can’t sense it, God is still present and active, working to bring more justice, peace, and love in our world. Christ is still incarnate in our midst, speaking truth and transforming hearts, and pointing our hopes always toward the kingdom of God.
We are called to live by faith, like John – to do the work we have each been called to do and to proclaim to others the hope that we carry. We put our trust in God’s unfailing faithfulness, and we wait with hope for the day when the Spirit will guide us into all truth.
We may not always recognize the messengers when they come. I think of Bev greeting me each time I went down to the nursing home to play cards. She never remembered me – and I never expected she would – but she knew that I was there to be an uplifting presence, as someone wanting to invest time and care into being present with her. And for that time, that was all she needed to know.
And, truthfully, for us, we may never fully have a dramatic revelation like John did of exactly what God is up to in the world. But the Spirit gives us glimpses, foretastes of the feast to come. The Spirit reminds us that, even when we ourselves do not know him, Christ – the one who is to come – is already here among us, to stay.