December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
My father, whom some of you remember, served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Pursuing General Rommel across North Africa eventually brought him to the Middle East. As kids, we were regaled with stories of his experiences. The stories always began, “When I was in Cairo…”, or “When I was in Petra…” or some other such place. It got to be a standing joke in the family and we still to this day imitate him when we start to talk with other family members about somewhere we’ve been.
So, I feel as though I should begin today’s sermon by saying, “When I was in Italy…”! When Mary DeGrow and I were in Italy this fall, we saw a lot of sculptures and paintings of John the Baptist. We saw John on his own, often at the font of a cathedral or church; we saw John baptizing Jesus; we saw John’s beheading at the hands of Herod; we saw Salome holding John’s head. We saw many paintings of the Virgin and Child with a young John – whether or not that actually happened. We saw John at the foot of the cross, which we know didn’t happen because he was executed while Jesus was still actively carrying out his ministry. Whether those events occurred or not is beside the point; the artist’s imagination, shaped by faith, is telling us something about the relationship between John and Jesus.
John is easy to pick out in these works of art. He’s always dressed in a rough robe of hair or fur, and he’s always pointing to Jesus.
Last week, we heard the account of John’s ministry from Mark’s gospel. Mark tells us that John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey, living off the land. Mark says he “appeared in the wilderness”. I’m struck by that word “appeared”. He didn’t just go to the wilderness or live in the wilderness; he appeared. And his appearance is linked to Isaiah’s words, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” John is clearly someone who is participating in God’s plan of salvation. In common with Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us that John’s baptism is about repentance. And last week’s sermon helped us reflect on the central role of repentance in preparing for the coming of the Son of God, in making his paths straight, in opening our hearts to welcome the Messiah and to accept the Holy Spirit in our lives. I’ve always carried a mental picture of John as kind of a wild man, standing on the banks of the Jordan, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, denouncing the rulers and scribes, calling out hypocrisy and confronting Herod about his unlawful marriage. And I’ve wondered how John would be received if he were to “appear” in the forests of the Whiteshell, or in downtown Winnipeg. Would people flock to him, as the gospels tell us the people of Jerusalem and Judea did? Or would we lock him up?
Today we hear another account from John’s gospel. It’s different in some significant ways. No camel’s hair robe. No shouted denunciations. Remember what I said about John in all those paintings? He is always pointing. In John’s gospel, John the Baptist is not actually called “the Baptist”. In today’s reading, there is only a passing reference to baptism: “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” John’s primary role is to point to Jesus. He is a witness.
What does a witness do? Well, a witness testifies. That’s what happens in court. Through a series of questions, witnesses give their account of what happened. They are cross-examined to make sure their stories are consistent. A witness who lies on the stand commits perjury, which is a very serious offence. Nowadays there is a great deal of weight given to forensic evidence, and rightly so, but the testimony of witnesses can be crucial in determining the outcome of the case.
That’s exactly what is happening in today’s gospel reading. John is introduced. He is a man sent from God – to do what? To testify to the light. He is not the light; he is a witness to testify to the light. And what is his testimony? It is to reveal the one who is coming after him.
We can imagine the scene. John is in Bethany, baptizing. And some priests and Levites are sent to question him. They come to cross-examine him. Who are you? And what does John tell them? He tells them who he is not:
- Not the Messiah
- Not Elijah
- Not the prophet
We can hear the frustration of his questioners. “Look, we need an answer for those who sent us. Who are you?” And John says, “I’m a voice. Just a voice.” He will take no other title for himself. It is Jesus who is the Word, the content of what the voice proclaims.
Well, we can imagine the reaction of the priests and Levites. What kind of answer is that? Ah, but John is not just any voice. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
The priests and Levites still aren’t satisfied. They challenge John. “If you’re not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet, then why are you baptizing?” And John tells them it is to identify the one whom they do not know.
The rest of John’s testimony is not in today’s reading, but we can read it for ourselves and I encourage you to do so. John continues, “I didn’t know him, but the reason I came baptizing was so that he might be revealed to Israel.” Again, he says, “I myself didn’t know him, but the one who sent me to baptize told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” And John tells us, “I saw it. I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. This is the Son of God.” John points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God.” And two of John’s disciples leave him and begin to follow Jesus, and the new community begins to gather and be formed. That is what John does. He points to Jesus. “There he goes, folks. There goes the Lamb of God. That’s the one I was telling you about. That’s the Lamb of God, who will take away the world’s sin.”
John is a witness who testifies to the good news of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for witness, marturia, gives us the English word “martyr”. A martyr is one who gives the ultimate witness by giving up his or her life – as John eventually did.
On the first Sunday of Advent, Bishop Don reflected with us about waiting. Last week, we heard about repentance. Next week, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is in a little bit of danger of getting lost this year, because it falls on the morning of December 24. The gospel reading is the visit of the angel to Mary, and I think the focus is on acceptance. Well, if the other three Sundays of Advent are about waiting, repentance, and acceptance, I think this week is about witness.
There are two aspects of witness that I think are important. One is how we receive the witness of others. How do we receive John’s testimony? Do we believe him? Are our hearts open to receive the coming one? Have we allowed repentance to make the way straight and smooth as God seeks to enter our lives? Can we recognize the one who stands among us?
A second aspect is our role as witnesses. A witness testifies to something he or she believes is true. They swear to tell the truth. In legal proceedings, that testimony is public except in unusual circumstances. We, the church, are sent into the world as witnesses, just as John was.
We can learn from John by reflecting on, not just what he says, but how he says it. He doesn’t draw attention to himself. He avoids the limelight. He is content to be the voice. He is satisfied if he can point others to the one who is greater than he. Like John’s, our witness must be certain; it must be public; and it must be humble. It must be in words and it must be in action. And our words and our actions must match up.
These are values and behaviours that are at odds with the prevailing culture. Certainty is replaced by relativism. How often have you heard the phrase “my truth”. And with the proliferation of actual fake news stories intentionally spread to sow confusion and doubt, who knows what is true any more? Yet we dare to proclaim that the gospel is true, that it is absolutely true. Most people believe and would prefer that faith remain a private, personal matter. Yet we dare to make our proclamation publicly. We dare to call out and name the darkness. Humility is absent in the behaviour of some who aggressively propagate their version of reality in the public square – and, sadly, in the behaviour of some who would seek to proclaim a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. Our witness is far more likely to be received if we approach others in the spirit of humility, drawing attention, not to ourselves, not even to the church, but to the one whom we proclaim by word and deed. And when others ask us, “Why are you doing this?”, we can answer as John did, “We are making straight the way of the Lord. We are preparing the way for God to act.”
Ultimately, that is the true Christian witness. The apostle Paul said, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For the God who said, ‘Out of darkness let light shine,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
John came to testify to the light. And what does the gospel say about the light? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In these darkening days of the year, as we approach the winter solstice, in the darkness of this hurting world, our witness is to bring the light of God’s love which no darkness can overcome. Let our light so shine that God’s glory may be revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together.” Amen.