December 14, 2014
- Year B Advent 3
- Lissa Wray Beal
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Well, I can only conclude that Big Brother is watching me! How is it that I have lived in several places across Canada – paid taxes there, had a residential address – and never once was called for Jury Selection? But in my 11 years in Manitoba. . . I’ve been called THREE TIMES for Jury Selection!
When I queried the Sheriff’s office, wondering what I’d done to get on their list – was it that I was a newcomer? Was it that I’d had a speeding ticket? They assured me that my name coming up 3 X in 11 years was PERFECTLY RANDOM.
I just can’t think so.
Now, for scheduling reasons, they’ve never actually required my services for Jury Duty. And as much as that is a huge relief, there is a bit of disappointment there, too.
Because I love courtroom dramas. The problems posed for the jury. Tom Cruise as prosecuting attorney thundering away at Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. The dramatic pointing out of the accused by the star witness: “I saw her pilfer Betty Currie’s brandy-soaked fruitcake!” The careful telling of the truth. And the whole conundrum of how to tell which witnesses are telling the truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth. Which are trustworthy? How do you measure the words of a witness?. . . How to measure a witness?
And that brings us to our gospel reading today. For John the Baptist – that “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is described 4 X in this passage as “a witness.” Our text uses both the word “witness” and the word “testify/testimony” to describe John – but they are all the same Greek word “marturia.” Originally, it is a legal word, meaning “one who testifies or witness to something or someone.” The word actually shows up in John’s gospel 45 times – the gospel is very concerned about witness, and witnessing.
As an aside - It is the word from which our English “martyr” comes – which is, of course the ultimate witness to a truth – that one is willing to die for it. Which, of course, John does.
But to get back to John as a marturias – a witness. We read that he “came as a witness to witness to the light.” He was not the light, but “came to witness to the light.” And later, “This is the witness given by John.”
So we get it. John was a witness to Jesus Christ. His witness is public; open. It is certain – John is not hesitant to proclaim Jesus!
His witness might be outside our realm of experience – after all, he proclaims Jesus before large crowds and in loud voice – not so very Canadian is it (we who like private religion) – and perhaps not so Anglican (loud and confrontational as it is!) – and most of us won’t be martyred for our witness.
But we, like John, are waiting for the Saviour to show up – John for Jesus’ first appearance – which takes place the very next day after this encounter; we for Jesus’ second appearance. In that respect, we might hear something from John’s witness that speaks to our own advent waiting.
First, John witnesses to something, even before Jesus has become publically known.
John witnesses by testifying “to the light” – the true light that coming into the world enlightens every person. He was “making straight the way of the Lord,” preparing room for him. John also said that this one was one whose sandal he was not worthy to untie – someone far above him! And, on the very next day, John will see Jesus coming toward him and declare “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
But this day, John says little beyond referring to Jesus as “the light” and “the Lord.” It is from our Isaiah passage that we learn more about this Lord. Isaiah writes to a people who have lost everything. Because they have disregarded God, they have experienced the disorientation of exile. They have lost their sense of identity: national, religious, familial, personal. Isaiah speaks to a people for whom the world has imploded and all that seemed certain and sure has disintegrated into loss.
It is for these people that God reveals himself. Into the depths of their weariness, he speaks what they could never believe could be true. For them, he says he is:
- Good news for the oppressed
- Binder up of the brokenhearted
- Liberty-bringer for the captives
- The releaser of the prisoners
- Justice-lover, hater of robbery and wrongdoing
- Giver of salvation, clother in righteousness
It is this same one whom John now proclaims. And when Jesus comes to minister salvation to all, it is this very passage from Isaiah that he takes as his purpose statement for his ministry: through the spirit of God, he has come to bring good news, to release captives, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free.
John speaks of Jesus, the one who restores all that has been lost to sin. It is a restoration so astounding that people can only wonder. Only marvel. Only laugh and shout for joy at their great good fortune.
This is the same good news to which we witness today. In a world that tells us we can buy happiness. . . or if not, we can at least glut ourselves against unhappiness. Or that our government can solve our problems of poverty, sickness, and world hunger. In a world that sniffs derisively at the Christian message of God’s power hidden in human flesh, this is the message we proclaim: Jesus has come as the light of the world. God-in-flesh. Good news of salvation.
We witness to something; Jesus, the saviour of the world. And by this, we prepare him room.
But John also witnesses against something. Or to put it another way, he witnesses to something and not to something. This is actually the focus of our gospel reading today. Let me explain this witnessing against something:
John has been ministering for a while before we meet him in our gospel reading. He is well known. It is entirely possible that when the religious leaders came to ask him “Who are you?” that he could have proclaimed himself. “I am the great power,” he could have said. He could have claimed fame and been celebrated by the establishment and held in great esteem by all the people.
But he didn’t. In a gospel in which Jesus repeatedly proclaims “I am” (the bread of life/the way/the light of the world/the good shepherd/the vine/the door), John is intent on proclaiming, “I am not.”
“Who are you” they ask?
- I am not the Messiah (some must have been rumouring this). John disclaims it
- I am not Elijah, the one who comes before God comes in judgment and world-ending power – therefore, I am not a Messiah
- I am not the prophet long promised who will speak to you God’s very words – therefore, I am not a Messiah!
When it would have been very easy to claim he was any or all of the long-anticipated people from Israel’s prophecies, he does not.
When the religious leaders try to make sense of him by asking him why he baptizes – again – he does not provide them with an answer. He instead points to Jesus “One is coming after me. It is his baptism that really matters! Watch for him! Be ready!”
John’s importance is only as a witness – one who testifies to the light. But not the light himself. In the darkness of the world, John stands and says “Light is coming; wait for it! Prepare for it! Let it shine on you!” The Isenheim altarpiece from the 16th century, by Grunewald, portrays Christ on the cross. Besides him, John the Baptist is depicted. He is obviously pointing to Christ. At his feet lies a lamb – the “Lamb of God” to whom John witnesses. All about John in this altarpiece shows him there for the purpose of pointing to Christ.
John had the public platform and the fame to claim something for himself. But he instead pointed beyond himself to God. John is like the hockey captain – say 5-time Olympic medalist Hayley Wickenheiser - interviewed on national TV after she’s made an incredible goal, against all odds. We are used to these interviews, in which the hockey captain says, “I couldn’t have done it without the work of the whole team.” John takes this a step further: he is the captain who says, “It was not me at all. It was the team that did it.” This captain, like John, points away from herself, and to another.
And isn’t that the church’s role, too? To point people away from ourselves, and to Jesus?
We might be God’s hands, feet, and voice in this world, but we are not the Good News. God in Christ is the Good News. We can do lots of good things. Can even become known in our neighbourhood (“O, that church – they have a really good cookie walk”; “I hear they are preparing many hampers to share with people at Christmas!”)
These are all good things. They are even things that can draw people to St. Peter’s. Let’s keep doing such things. But we aren’t in the business of making St. Peter’s famous – perhaps we might even think about it as being in the business of saying (as John later says), “St Peter’s must decrease; Jesus must increase.” In the end, if it is to be the Good News of Jesus Christ, it can’t be about us!
And that is why we ground all that we do—cookie walks and Christmas hampers; the Atrium and creation care; sharing in the work of St. Matthews Maryland and preaching—in the life of God in Christ. He is why we do what we do. And in all we do, we hope to point people to Jesus, showing his love; his compassion; his saving mercy in our world.
We’ve been spending several months, and our parish is now thinking together about who we are as a witness to Jesus Christ. Our draft purpose statement – and if you’ve not yet seen it, talk to me after the service – is one that will constantly remind us that we are about witnessing to Jesus. And doing what we do to prepare him room in the world.
What is our purpose as the parish of St. Peter? We propose it is this: “To be a Christian community, seeking to love God, grow in faith, and serve the world.” This, together with the vision statements and goals, will be about us pointing to Jesus, and inviting others to come to know him too.
Perhaps as we wait for Christ to come again, St. Peter’s can be another Isenheim altarpiece. Another voice, crying in the wilderness at Grant and Elm – and all the neighbourhoods in which we live and work – that God has come amongst us!
We witness to Christ, and against ourselves. And so, we prepare him room.
This witness to Christ so as to “prepare him room” is exactly why John wrote his gospel. Repeatedly throughout his gospel, there are witnesses to Jesus: a Samaritan woman in ch. 4. Healings and signs in ch. 5. Martha’s words in ch. 11. The Holy Spirit in ch. 15.
John concludes his gospel in ch. 20 by saying that so many things were done by Jesus that, if they were all recorded, they would fill more books than the world could hold. John chooses from the many, many stories of Jesus’ interactions with people. Interactions of healing, teaching, challenge, joy. Interactions in which God became known.
But these were written “that you might believe, and have life in his name.” This is the purpose of the gospel’s witness.
The witness of lives changed by Jesus does not end with John’s gospel. He is right: if everything was written down about Jesus’s interactions with people, there would be more books than the world could hold. Throughout history, people have heard the witness of Jesus Christ, and believed it. And their stories in turn witnessed to Jesus Christ.
In this room alone, there are hundreds of stories of encounters. People who have heard – somehow – through a neighbour, a co-worker, an Atrium class, a conversation while preparing Christmas hampers – people have heard of Jesus. That he loves us. That he longs to walk in fellowship with us. That he died so that could happen by his Spirit.
What is your story? What is your witness to Jesus?
Let me tell you a story: imagine that you found a new restaurant in Winnipeg. You are the Free Press restaurant reviewer (sorry, Marion Warhaft!), and so you write about this restaurant. You show you are astounded by it. Best food ever! Dishes exactly what you needed at the moment! Came away satisfied, and couldn’t wait to go back for more. Week after week, and then day after day, you return to that same restaurant. It is always satisfying. Always enjoyable. Sometimes, you are a little puzzled by the dishes, but you mull over them and even find them filling somehow. . . and good.
People begin to wonder why you are just writing about this one restaurant. After all, there are several more in town! But you have done enough restaurant reviews to know the real thing when you see it. There is nothing you would ever want in a restaurant that you don’t find here. This restaurant anticipates your needs, challenges your taste buds, and always feels like home. You just can’t stop talking about it. Your greatest joy is when others discover this great banquet that you now feast at daily. Others do come. And they have the same experience as you. So they go out and house-to-house, and at work, and on the playground – they are now talking about this same restaurant! Invitations are flying around the city of Winnipeg!
Yet strangely, however many people find their way to this restaurant, there is always room for more at the table. It is never full.
We are witnesses to the best food in town – the best in time!
We witness to Christ who has come to set a banquet table for all who will come.
We witness against ourselves, knowing that we are only the banquet’s advertising team.
We witness with our stories, for there is always room for more to believe that the banquet has been set – ready and waiting – for them to come and dine!
Christ has come. He has prepared room for us and others at this table.
Will we prepare room for him?