Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28 for 3rd Advent Year B, December 17, 2017
John 1:6-8, 19-28
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.
The Light In the Darkness Shines
One of the things that make living here so wonderful is all the sunny days we have. On average, there are 223 sunny days per year in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
That contrasts with 77 sunny days in the city in Ohio where I grew up. Nevertheless, this time of year, even the sunny days are short because of daylight savings time. The sun sets by 5:00 p.m. these days.
We are approaching the winter solstice, the shortest day of sunlight in the year. We depend on the sun, not just for the pleasure it brings, but for our very survival. Humans figured that out millennia ago, so there are a myriad of ancient festivals and religious observances related to the solar cycle. The prehistoric stone formation at Stonehenge, in England, creates a sight line toward the winter solstice sunset.
So, eventually, the church settled on December 25 for the date of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, so that it would correspond to some of these Roman and Iranian solstice celebrations. You could say that the church baptized those holidays and re-purposed them as a way of telling the Christian story.
Light and Darkness: an Ancient Truth
The concept of light coming into the darkness in a new way, like the rebirth of the sun at solstice, has deep biblical roots.
The creation story begins in undifferentiated darkness and chaos until God’s breath, or Spirit, blows over it, and God’s Word produces light. The sun is not created until the fourth day, so that original light is something deeper and more profound than the literal sun in the sky.
Ancient stories were kept and handed down for reasons that were big enough for all the expense and trouble it took to do it. They contain the collected wisdom of generations of thoughtful observers. The creation story is no exception. Who has not experienced life as chaotic and disordered, and felt as though sometimes we were thrown into the darkness? It is our most ancient story, and it is quite true.
So, in our Advent gospel text, we hear of a voice, crying out in the darkness, with a message of hope for a coming light. In the text for today, we hear of John who comes, he says, as:
“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”
The Gospel of John describes his message and his mission this way:
“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.”
So, for us, Jesus comes as a light in our darkness. Regardless of where our customs started, or what they originally meant, it is therefore perfect that at Christmas we celebrate by hanging lights all over the place, on our houses, all over our city streets, and of course on our Christmas trees.
C. S. Lewis wrote a story about a man who had been born blind, but then somehow was made able to see. All his life as a blind person he had heard of light, but of course had no concept of it. He was desperate to see the light that everyone always talked about. So, when the day came that he was able to see, he ran around desperately trying to see light.
The Way We See Everything
But we do not see light itself. Light is the way we see everything. So what does it mean to confess that Jesus is the light that John came to point to? For us, when we confess that Jesus is the light of the world, it means that Jesus is the way we see everything. It is not just that we see Jesus, but that Jesus is the lens through which we see everything. Jesus is our light.
So, the stories of Jesus’ birth start out in darkness. In one story, there are shepherds on the hills, keeping watch over their flocks by night. In another story, there are wise men from the East who follow the light of a star to find Jesus.
There are many levels to the darkness in these stories. In Luke, Mary and Joseph have to travel to Bethlehem because an avaricious empire thinks it needs to take more taxes from the hides of peasants for its palaces and parties. For Mary and Joseph and everyone else like them, they are dark days of poverty, made unbearable by systemic oppression.
In Matthew’s story, the wise men ask the king of the Jews, Herod, where they can find the newborn king of the Jews. A dark plot begins to hatch in Herod’s dark heart that will not stop until he has slaughtered dozens and dozens of babies. To escape, the family must become refugees in Egypt. Dark days, indeed.
What must they have been feeling? We can imagine the mental anguish and hopelessness a new mother and father must have experienced under such circumstances. Where is God when you are running for your life? Where is the light of hope in that kind of darkness?
So, our stories of the first Christmas are set in a many-layered darkness. These are the stories we need when we find ourselves in our own places of darkness when hope cannot be seen.
But the Christmas story is that in the midst of the darkness, a light does shine. Like the sun, that seems to come back to life after the winter solstice, Jesus, the light is born into this darkness. This is the light by which we see everything.
Seeing God in a New Light
The light by which we see everything first comes as a new way of imaging God. The way God is pictured in the Hebrew Bible is complex and variegated; there are plenty of texts in which God is tender, loving, compassionate, even feminine. But these tend to get buried under the volume of texts that present a wrathful, punishing, jealous, smiting God who sends down plagues on people, and helps armies kill men, women and children.
Jesus shows God in the light of compassion.
In the Jesus stories, we understand that God cares for hungry people – so Jesus feeds them. God cares for sick people, so Jesus heals them. God cares for women, for children, for outcasts like lepers and for hated people like Roman soldiers and Canaanite women, so Jesus has time to minister God’s compassion to them all.
There seems to be no one outside the circle of loving compassion that Jesus drew. Maybe he drew no circle at all. That is the light by which we look at the world and the humans in it. In the light of Jesus, we see a God of compassion, and therefore we look at the world the Jesus way: with compassion.
The Darkness Surrounding Us
The more I hear about the world, I have to admit, the darker it looks. Regardless of how much progress we have made in medicine, science and technology, we humans, as a species, are still capable of acting like cave-men. There is so much violence and suffering.
I just heard a story of the way people fleeing horrible conditions in the Middle East and North Africa, just as Mary and Joseph had to do, who find their way to Libya where many are abused and swindled. But thousands still manage to buy passage on a boat which they hope will take them to Europe and a new chance at life. But the boats that do not sink often break down, so the people are “rescued” by human traffickers who bring them back to Libya to sell them as slaves.
And of course that is only one little story of darkness – the world is full of it. It makes you wonder how God could love our species?
But you cannot tell a story of humans by only telling the dark side. We are also capable of amazing things. We can come up with sculptures like the pieta and create churches like the Sistine Chapel. We can make music that brings goosebumps and tears. Some of us can dance like angels and some can bring beauty into rooms and make plates of food into works of art.
And we are capable of enormous acts of kindness and compassion. We humans find ways to get food to the homeless and school uniforms to the poor. We find ways to help children with their school work and we build and staff facilities for orphans.
We have the ability to look at the world not just in the darkness, but in the light of compassion, the way Jesus saw the world. It was not without purpose that Jesus looked at the rough, mostly poor, mostly uneducated peasants surrounding him and said to them, “You are the light of the world.” Now, there is a scary thought. Or a beautiful one. Or a compelling one.
Yes, let it be a compelling one. Jesus, the one who came to be the light by which we see everything, turns to us and says, “you are the light of the world.” Your mission is my mission; spread the light in the darkness.
The Light and Inner Darkness
This is also true of the way the light of Jesus shows us how to look at ourselves. Of course, we all have a dark side. To deny that is to be in unsupportable denial. But in the light of Jesus, we know that our darkness cannot extinguish the light of God’s loving compassion for us. We do not live in fear of God, or of God’s wrath, but with the bright confidence that God loves us more than we can possibly imagine.
So we do not fear the future. We do not fear death. We do not fear that we will be abandoned. In the light of Jesus, we see God’s compassion for ourselves. Even when lost in the darkness, like the lost coin, we know that God, like that woman in the parable, never stops sweeping until we have been nudged back into the light. The celebration party commences immediately. Darkness never has the last word.
In the dark days before the winter solstice, we put up our Christmas lights because darkness cannot have the last word. We believe in a light that has come, and by that light, we see everything. We see ourselves as objects of love, we see our world with great compassion, and we understand our purpose: to carry on Jesus’ mission, to be the light of the world.