December 13, 2020 Third Sunday of Advent The text is John 1: 6-8, 19-28. Preached by Minister Tom Houston at Grace Ministries when he presided at service there on Sunday, December 13, 2020.
6 God sent a man named John to be his messenger. 7 John came to declare the truth about the light so that everyone would become believers through his message. 8 John was not the light, but he came to declare the truth about the light.
19 This was John’s answer when the [Hebrews] sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 John didn’t refuse to answer. He told them clearly, “I’m not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Well, are you Elijah?” John answered, “No, I’m not.”
Then they asked, “Are you the prophet?” John replied, “No.”
22 So they asked him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can take an answer back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John said, “I’m a voice crying out in the desert, ‘Make the way for the Lord straight,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 Some of those who had been sent were Pharisees. 25 They asked John, “Why do you baptize if you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet?”
26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Someone you don’t know is standing among you. 27 He’s the one who comes after me. I am not worthy to untie his sandal strap.”
28 This happened in Bethany on the east side of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Who remembers the classic comedy routine from Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on First”? It’s truly comedic genius, as Bud Abbott answers Lou Costello’s questions about the names of the players on a baseball team.
And Costello gets increasingly frustrated when he isn’t able to determine who is who. And, if you recall, “Who” just happens to be the name of one of the players; thus, “Who’s on first”. This confusion of names hit home with me this week as I was writing this morning’s sermon. We find ourselves dealing with two different people named “John”; one is the writer of the gospel, the other, is its subject, the Baptizer. Since I’ll be referring to both of them often this morning, and generally in the same sentence, I thought it best to devise a method to differentiate between the two of them. So, for the sake of clarity, one is “Baptist John” and the other, we’ll call “Gospel John”. You may have noted that the Lectionary readings last week and this morning both have the same character as their subject. Last week we were introduced to Baptist John by Mark, and this made it a bit less confusing when preaching on Mark’s telling of John’s mission.
And the change of writers from Mark to Gospel John, and the fact that we’re discussing the very same person two weeks in a row, while it seems repetitive, actually points out a rather stark difference in theme. Mark’s introduction last Sunday of Baptist John centered on his role as prophetic forerunner to Jesus; this morning Gospel John presents the Baptizer more in the role of witness, as the one who speaks to Jesus’ soon-to-be-assumed role as Savior. Less announcer; more testifier. And, as is generally the case Gospel John’s portrayal differs from the one that’s found in all three of the synoptics; Mathew, Mark, and Luke. These three accounts spoke to Baptist John’s living in the wilderness, the camel hair cloak, the locust and wild honey diet, and the fact that he was baptizing repentant Jews. Gospel John, ever the one to get right to the point, didn’t dwell on any of these aspects of the Baptist’s actions; in the spirit of a true witness, he spoke directly to John’s pronouncement. John came to declare the truth about Jesus, as the coming of light into a world blanketed in darkness; the light that “no darkness can overcome”. These were indeed dark times for our ancient forbears, the Israelites who found themselves trampled under the heel of the sandals of Roman occupation.
So, the announcement of John the Baptist as a witness to the identity of the coming of Jesus into his ministry was of great importance to these people living in a land controlled by a foreign power. His role, as explained by this morning’s gospel writer is that of one offering testimony, of witnessing to the people that Jesus was already among them; and that he is the light that has come to set them free.
And, to be fair, we find ourselves, along with the rest of the world, in a pretty dark time these last ten months or so. The virus has caused radical changes in almost every aspect of how we live, work, practice fellowship, and worship. But, in this season of Advent, as we once again await the birth of this same Jesus, we already know the truth about the light that he brings. And we know how the story ends; even as we await Christ’s birth, we have already been blessed with the redemption that his death and resurrection brings. And with this, the knowledge that the light of Christ continues to shine and will expand to an even greater brightness as we are brought through this time of trial. For the infant whose birth we await on Christmas is already present through the Holy Spirit. We’ve spoken before about the Lutheran concept of the Kingdom of God being one of duality; there are two distinct but co-existent facets. There is the “not yet” and the “already here”. The kingdom will come to its fruition when God declares the “Parousia”, the Second Coming of Christ; this is the “not yet”. The “already here” of the reign of God is the expression of the kingdom that we find ourselves living into; and the one where we assume some responsibility for its character.
This is the worldly version of how things ought to be, as we are called to act as followers of the Way of Christ. And all that we do should be geared toward an attitude of thanksgiving for what the sacrifice of the baby, whose birth we await has accomplished for us, in the “already here”. Advent is indeed a time for waiting; this is the basis for the name of the season, itself. It’s the waiting for an event to occur.
But, let’s be honest, we’re always waiting for the “not yet” of God’s kingdom. And until it arrives, our waiting ought to also be a time of preparation and anticipation. And, along with these, Baptist John-like witnessing. Nearly all of the religious groups in Jerusalem confronted John with a similar line of questioning. “Who are you?”, they demanded to know. This was in response to his actions and his testimony about the identity of Jesus, as the light to come. And, not unlike the “Who’s on First” comedy routine, John spends most of the time telling them who he isn’t. “I am NOT the Messiah”, “I am NOT Elijah”, ‘I am NOT the prophet’”, Moses. Then, they ask, “what do you say about yourself?”. To paraphrase, he tells them he is simply one who has come to testify to the coming of the Son of God, the One who will herald the coming of the kingdom of the “not yet”. This response answers both the questions put to John; “who are you” and “what do you say about yourself?”.
And this question seems like an appropriate one for us to ask ourselves; “who are you?”. And “what do we say about ourselves”? How do we respond? We can tell the world all the things we are not, and prove that by doing nothing to foster God’s kingdom. Or, we might emulate Baptist John by giving our own individual testimony, our own witness about the truth of the coming of the light of the world. And, no we don’t need to perform street-corner baptisms, eat locusts, or defy the religious authorities. The darkness that exists today is vastly different from what the people in John’s time had to contend with. The fear, worry, and isolation that people are struggling with today may be alleviated simply by having someone to testify to them, relating the hope that followers of the Way of Christ experience, and live by. And this doesn’t necessarily have to be a big production. We are most effective in our witnessing for Christ when we act toward others in the manner that Jesus acted towards those he encountered; by simply providing them with what they need. Often, this testimony might consist of a phone call to check in with someone living alone who might be missing contact with others. Or, dropping off some essentials to another who may be uncomfortable venturing out to the store.
And, in these times of mainly electronic interaction, you may find that a mailed Christmas card could make a huge difference in someone’s life.
So, let’s not reduce Advent to a season of purely waiting for Jesus to come. John the Baptist was preparing for the start of Christ’s ministry, not by just waiting for it to happen. The greatest impact he made was as a witness, telling the world the truth about the light that Jesus was bringing to the world. And in the dark times that he lived, he risked, and eventually lost his life in doing so. And if we’re to somewhat illuminate the darkness of others, our risk is minimal; all we have to do is what we know Jesus commands of us year-round; to attend to the needs of “the least of these”. And these are those who need to hear our testimony of Christ’s truth. And, if we’re in any way effective in our witness, it may prompt others to ask us, “who are you, and what do you say about yourself?” And we can answer as to who we are; and we can then state why we wait at Advent. We can quote John the Baptist, “someone you don’t know is standing among you. He’s the one who comes after me. I am not worthy to untie his sandal strap.” We are all called to declare the truth abut the light that has come into the world, the light that no darkness can overcome.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, we wait expectantly for Jesus to once again come among us. As we wait, we pray for the will and the strength to enable us to be participants, and not just observers. Help us to witness to others, the glory that is Christ, and to help others to bathe in his light. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose sandals we are unworthy to untie. And the people of God say…Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.