Witness to the Light

John 1:6-8, 19-28 / Advent 3B / 11 December 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Last week we heard the preaching. Today we consider the preacher. “There was a man sent from God, who name was John.” Who was he, this strange man of the wilderness, dressed like an Old Testament prophet, subsisting on wilderness food? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is a prophet, sent in the spirit of Elijah. In fact, he is Elijah, says Jesus, if you believe that Jesus is the Christ. He is Elijah come to prepare the way of the Lord.

But it’s different in the Gospel according to St. John. John puts the question right up front in the opening verses. Why? Many think that it’s because John was written at a time when disciples of John the Baptist were still around, even claiming that he was the messiah, or at least one of the messiahs, a prophetic one. That would kind of make sense. But John sets the record straight. The word that tags with John in the Gospel according to St. John is not prophet but witness. John was sent from God as a witness, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.

John was a witness. The Greek word is martus, from which we get the word “martyr.” A martyr bears witness with his life and death. And that’s what John did. John the evangelist is very clear about John the Baptizer. He was not the light. He had no light of his own. He came to bear witness to the light that was coming into the world. He came to point to Christ and get out of the way. He came to say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and then recede once again into the background.

Jesus called John “the greatest ever to be born of woman.” He said that he was no less than Elijah for those who believe. But John would never claim any of that for himself. When the delegation from Jerusalem came to inquire as to who John was, he could only put it in the negative. “Who are you,” they asked. “I am not the Christ.” “What then, are you Elijah?” No. “Are you the Prophet foretold by Moses?” No. “So then who are you John? We have reports to filled out, we have people at headquarters waiting for an answer. Tell us what you have to say about yourself.” And John said only this, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.”

A voice. Nothing more. Just a voice calling out in the wilderness, whether people listened or not. A God-sent voice in the wilderness with a single, focused message “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

John was a witness. A witness, by definition, does not draw attention to himself, but to the person or event to which he is testifying. When we think of the word “witness” we usually think of the person on the witness stand in court, swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And that’s really the idea behind this word. A witness is one who tells the truth about what he has seen and heard. This isn’t some “personal testimony” about what God has done for me lately and will do for you if you follow these steps or jump through these religious hoops. It’s about telling the truth.

This is a far cry from the religious celebrity and expectation that we tend to have. We tend to make things personal. We have to like a person in order to trust his word. I recall my episode of jury duty, serving as a foreman for a civil trial. We heard from a lot of witnesses, some of them paid professionals, some of them eyewitnesses. We listened to a lot of testimony and took a lot of notes, at least some of us did. What was surprising in our deliberations was how many people based their conclusion on whether they liked the person on the witness stand. You’d hear that over and over again. “I didn’t like that person, therefore I have a hard time believing him.” Some even made a big deal over how a witness was dressed or how he combed his hair or his tone of voice. It had little or nothing to do with the facts of the case. It just had to do with the person and the impression he or she made.

Imagine John in his camel’s hair and leather belt, hands sticky with wild honey, munching on a grasshopper. Unkempt, unbathed, uncouth, uncivilized. Jesus calls this wild man of the wilderness “the greatest man ever born of a woman.” He had no family, he had been raised as an orphan in a wilderness community, what little following he had were all running after his cousin Jesus. He eventually got into trouble with King Herod for criticizing Herod’s personal life and his illicit relationship with his sister-in-law. For that he lost his head. And Jesus calls this “greatness.”

“Are you the Christ,” they asked him. Many people were looking for a messiah. Their idea of a messiah was a strong man, a rebel, one who would come with power to establish Israel again and reestablish the throne of King David. Some thought John fit the bill. He could have started a movement, he could have made headlines, he could have made a name for himself.

“Are you Elijah,” they asked. The prophet Malachi had said that the prophet Elijah would reappear before the coming day of the Lord. Maybe this was Elijah in camel’s hair and leather. He kind of looked like Elijah. He even preached and baptized at the place where Elijah was taken up to heaven. Jesus even said that John was Elijah for those who believed. John could have said yes and made a profound theological point about OT typology and his role in the coming kingdom. But instead, when asked to talk about himself, he confined himself to simple sentences: I am not.

“Are you the Prophet,” they asked. Moses had prophesied that a great Prophet would one day arise from Israel, one greater even than he. People were waiting and watching for such a prophet. And surely John was a prophet, come in the spirit of Elijah and the words of Isaiah. He actually was a prophet sent by God to prepare Israel for the coming of her messiah. But John’s answer again is a simple and direct “No.”

He was nothing more than a herald voice crying out in the wilderness. All he brings is the Word of God and a baptism of repentance. Water and word. What can you accomplish with that? Water and word. Are you kidding? Is this any way to start a revolution, a religious movement? Well, when the word is the Word of God and the water is a baptism with God’s command and promise, it most certainly is.

John challenges us deeply. We want to be somebody. We want to leave a legacy behind. We want recognition, fame, celebrity, our fifteen minutes. We crave the standing ovation, the engraved plaque, the prize, our name on the marquee. We live in a culture of celebrity, where people will do outrageous things simply to be noticed. The celebrities complain about the paparazzi and the pesky crowds of fans and admirers, but when the crowds disappear, they’ll do almost anything to gain attention again.

The old Adam in us, that inner sinner of ours inherited from Father Adam, wants to be noticed, craves the spotlight. Each of us in our own way wants to be the center of our world, even in a small way. And here comes John, the greatest man ever born, who says of himself that he is nothing but a voice calling in the wilderness.

John spoke two memorable sentences. One we say in the liturgy every Sunday. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The sentence came by way of John pointing to Jesus. And in one simple sentence, he summarized Jesus’ entire mission: to be the sacrificial Lamb, the substitute Sacrifice, the vicarious Victim, whose blood atones for the sin of the world. That sentence is John’s legacy. It’s not about John, but about Jesus. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John the witness would have every eye and ear focused on Jesus.

The other memorable sentence from John was spoken when John’s disciples were all leaving him to follow after Jesus. The world perceives this as a failure, but John the witness saw it as what must happen. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John meant that his fame and celebrity had to decrease. He was not the center of attention. He was to Jesus what Ed McMahon was to Johnny Carson, if you remember that. He was the warm-up act but not the main event. He was the moon to the sun. The moon reflects the light, the sun is the source of that light. That was John to Jesus. “He must increase and I must decrease.”

But in saying that, John also wittingly or unwittingly articulated the Christian life. You must decrease, Jesus must increase. The old Adam, the old you, must daily drown and die in Baptism. You must become smaller and smaller. And every day the new man in Christ must daily rise up. Christ must increase, you must decrease. That’s the way of the kingdom of God. And that’s the way of God’s Word with you. Dying and rising is where the action is. Every day we must die to our selves and rise in Christ. That is the way of the Lord prepared for us. That’s John’s way.

Traditionally, this Sunday is the “pink candle Sunday” of Advent. I’m told by those who have a better eye for color than I do that it’s actually rose colored, but to me rose is a flower not a color, so I call it “pink candle Sunday.” It’s supposed to be a Sunday of rejoicing in Advent, a little break from the Advent somberness. You catch a bit of that in the epistle reading: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
When we decrease and become nothing and when Jesus increases and becomes everything, we will find that we have not lost ourselves but we’ve found ourselves anew in Jesus. John’s greatness was Jesus. And He is our greatness too. We too are not worthy to stoop down and untie His sandals, and yet He bends down to save us. He stoops down into our death and rescues us.

When we become nothing and Christ becomes everything, there is cause for rejoicing, not just occasionally, not just for the holidays, not just for one pink Sunday in Advent, but “always,” as the apostle Paul says. Always. Even in the midst of sorrow, there is cause for rejoicing in Jesus.

When we become nothing and Christ becomes everything, there is prayer without ceasing, not because we’ve become some sort of Mel Gibson Braveheart “prayer warriors,” but because the Spirit is interceding for us with His own sighs and groanings that go far beyond our words.

When we become nothing and Christ becomes everything, there is thanksgiving in all circumstances. All circumstances! Not only when we feel thankful and count our blessings, but especially when we don’t feel so thankful and have few blessings to count. Whether in plenty or in want, in good times or in bad, as Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

The cause for rejoicing today is that like John, we are nothing and Jesus is everything 0 our Light, our Life, our Salvation, our Hope, our Joy.

In the name of Jesus,