Dec. 13, 2020
1 These 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
As I mentioned last week, Advent always gives us a double shot of John the Baptist before turning to Mary and Joseph and something that sounds a little more Christmassy on the fourth Sunday of the season. Last week’s “John the Baptist” was Mark’s version and this week’s is from the Gospel of John. Last week Mark gives us this introduction: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In other words, Mark’s proclamation of Jesus begins with John “preparing the way” through baptism and the crowds of people coming out to ready themselves for the new thing that God is doing.
John’s introduction is a bit different. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people…” In other words, for John the Gospel writer, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry begins at the beginning, the very beginning,… of everything.
The Evangelist gives us this beautiful, poetic prologue about a central mystery of our faith and the paradoxical nature of Christ in his famous prologue and then interjects the first part of today’s passage. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light… He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” Suddenly, the poetry is gone. Like with Mark’s gospel we’re back in the flesh and blood world of human striving. There’s a crazy man in the river, his name is John, and he’s causing quite a fuss.
From a literary perspective it is an odd shifting of gears, but from a theological perspective it’s really not all that odd. For John the contrast is intentional because the confession is that the eternal is incarnate; the grace of God and the Good News of John’s message is that the sacred presence of divine abundance and life is made known in the fleshy things of this world and ultimately in a person named Jesus who was born by our birth, lived our life, and died a human death too.
Interestingly, if it weren’t for verse 25 we wouldn’t know that John the Baptist is actually baptizing. His work doesn’t seem to be the Evangelist’s interest. Instead, it’s really about John’s identity. “Who are you?” cry the priests and Levites. “He confessed,” says the Gospel, “and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I’m not the messiah.’” (You see, people were wondering.) I’m not Elijah. I’m not the prophet. “Who are you? Tell us so we can tell the people who sent us.” I’m a voice; I’m a testimony; I’m a witness proclaims John. I’m here to point away from myself to something greater, to the Word made flesh, to the light of all people.
All of this, in part, is to say that if on the second week of Advent our reading of John the Baptist has us preparing the way, softening our hearts, and opening anew to the old truths of the stories we tell, I think the third week of Advent with the same biblical figure asks something different of us. I think it asks us to join the Baptist’s testimony, to point the way and witness to a truth much greater than ourselves.
Our gospel passage is paired with the most ancient of Paul’s letters. His words seem a little easier for me to sentimentalize or take in as a bit more Christmassy. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Those words just sound nice, even if they come off as a bit impractical or idealistic. I have to say, however, they sounded a little less nice and a bit more demanding when my friend at lectionary group read more directly from the Greek: “Always rejoice. Ceaselessly pray. In all things give thanks.” We were reminded that Paul wasn’t writing from his warm office all aglow with candlelight in anticipation of Christmas by the tree. He was writing from the pain of persecution and the promise of more to come, overshadowed nonetheless by a mutual love shared with the members of this church and joy over the movement of Christ who had come alive in the hearts and minds of those who had found new hope and meaning and purpose because of the message Paul brought them. God was changing lives through the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and they were all a part of it, and though it meant certain difficulties with the world around them, it also meant a joy they could claim and a gratitude they could choose because of a truth given to them. They were a new kind of people, a people of grace, a people who had been graced, a people through whom the light of grace would shine. As such, it was God’s will for them that they too, just like John, would be witnesses to something greater.
All of this brings me to my more applicable point for today’s sermon. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a witness. No doubt, we have our associations with that word; we have our thoughts about the particular demands placed upon us when we sign up for that role. I imagine that for many those demands may seem unappealing or unrealistic in some ways. Maybe the obnoxiousness of certain proselytes you’ve met comes to mind, or the thought of having to convince people of truths about which you don’t always feel so clear or confident yourself.
In any case, I was moved by the image that James Finely offered in his “Turning to the Mystics” podcast. It’s the somewhat old fashioned story of a young girl who desperately wants a pony for Christmas. (Seems like maybe young girls don’t want that so much anymore, but we can still go with it.) The girl begs and pleads and makes her case in the days leading up to Christmas, but when they finally gather in the living room to open gifts no pony is to be found. When the gifts are all unwrapped the girl’s mother says, “Why don’t we check one more place; let’s look in the back yard.” And, when they open the door there is it: the pony of this young girl’s dreams. She runs to it and wraps her arms around it. And in that moment her parents have this overwhelming sense of joy. It’s not the joy of being generous parents or of being able to meet their child’s wishes. It’s the joy of seeing their child’s joy, of being drawn into it, or somehow lost in it so that for this moment they’ve ceased to exist apart from their participation in their child’s experience. They are lost in love’s identification with another, and in that sense, Finely says, they are no longer there. “In the moment,” he says, “the child’s face light’s up that the gift too good to hope for is given, we can say this about the parents: that they are not there. They are not there dualistically observing themselves observing the child. Rather, they are lost in the child’s face. That love does it to them. And yet, when they look back on that moment they don’t count it as loss; rather, they count it as pure gain.”
It’s the Gospel experience of dying to self and thereby also finding one’s true self. It is the temporal moment of experiencing what is always true about the love that takes us out of ourselves and gives us something much greater.
What Finely suggests, however, is that this isn’t just the way of human realization; but rather, this is the way of human realization because it is the way of divine being. It is God’s way. Imagine that your life is a gift from God that takes you a lifetime to open. When you die and open that box and you see fully what God has given you, you discover that what God has given you is God. Stunned and amazed by the beauty and grace of this gift, when you look to God’s face to offer your thanks, God is not there. God is lost in your face. Lost in God as given to you in love.
That’s really quite a thought (or at least it is for me.) What it means is that this moment of pony giving joy that the parents experience isn’t the recognition that something more, or extra, or special was given. The fleeting moments of unity and love that give us a sense of transcending ourselves are rather glimpses of the truth of what every moment really is. They are glimpses of life as a mutual self-giving in exchange with a God who is lost from Godself out of a love for us that makes us really “us.” And what that says to me is that the priests and Levites back at the Jordan River with John ask the right question. It’s not, what are you doing? It’s, who are you? That’s the question for us too as the gospel challenges us to be witnesses. Are we those who desire to abide in the grace and truth of what every moment really is? Are we those who will risk losing ourselves in the God who gives us ourselves? Are we those through whom the face of God will shine? Are we those who will witness to God’s love by actually being God’s love?
Here’s how I’ll end all this: You are not you, and God is not God. You are not you apart from the miracle of God within you, and God is not God apart from the miracle of God shining from you because, my friends, that is how God has decided to be. So then, the question for us is: whom shall we decide to be?