Scripture – John 1:6-8, 19-28 – Third Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017
This morning, along with your bulletins, you were given a blank card. Please take it out now, find a pen or pencil in your pew and write on that card at least three brief statements describing who you are, your core identity, beginning each statement with “I am a____________.” For example, I am a minister. I am an artist, I am a Republican. I am a husband. So not adjectives, like I am handsome or I am talented, but nouns which you may modify, even glorify if you like. No one will see your card but you. Don’t worry, you won’t have to share, discuss, reveal – nothing of the sort. Just write down for yourself who you are at your core: I am a….. We’ll take a moment for you to do that. At least three statements…I am a…
Our passage this morning is from the beginning of the Gospel of John, the “Fourth Gospel” as it is known, different from the other three credited to Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those are known as the synoptic gospels, because they are similar to each other. And, by the way, in case you were wondering and to be clear, the author of the Gospel of John is not the John crying out in the wilderness about whom we read during Advent.
You won’t find the story of the birth of Jesus, otherwise known as an infancy narrative, in the Gospel of John. It begins with the five verses we read on Christmas Eve which I’m happy to preview with you now to give you some context:
“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. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
This beginning of the Gospel of John gives us the eternal, the cosmic, the divine description of Jesus and then verses 6-8 which we just heard serve as a bridge text to his becoming flesh, fully human, dwelling among us.
So, “he/Jesus was in the beginning with God”, always was, and then the human story begins: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” In the other three synoptic Gospels he is described as “John the Baptist” in Matthew, John the baptizer in Mark, and John the son of Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke.
To give you a little more context, John, the son of Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke, was the baby who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary went to visit her cousin with the news she was carrying the Son of the Most High. So, according to the Gospel of Luke, John and Jesus are something like second cousins and John is about six months older.
But in the Fourth Gospel, in the Gospel of John, we have no such orientation, we have only that he was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light – that light in verse 5 which shines in the darkness. And he’s making a lot of noise out there in Bethany across the Jordan, prompting the priests and Levites to come out from Jerusalem to ask him who he is and what he’s doing.
I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor states the situation:
“They want to know who this noisy man is, this man who will not shut up about the light he saw fall to earth, who is baptizing people to help them see the same light, although he has no license to do this, from them or anyone else. They want him to say who he is, but all John will say is who he is not. He is not the Messiah (never mind that no one asked him that). He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet-like-Moses awaited by Israel since Moses’ death.”
So we read that they then say to him, well, then “Who are you?…What do you say about yourself?” to which he replies, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John came as a witness. Sometimes we hear Mary referred to as the “First Disciple”. Similarly, John has been termed the “First Witness”. So although in other gospel accounts, John has a variety of identies – John is the baptizer, the son of Zechariah, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, Jesus’ second cousin – here he is a witness, the first witness, the lead witness. He is testifying, attesting, bearing witness by “recognize[ing] the true light when it appears, and call[ing] attention to it so that others may recognize it and believe” – believe, trust in it, commit themselves to that light.
John was the first witness and Pastor Gary Charles in Atlanta, GA says he “is the signpost and the standard for any subsequent signposts to God’s [Light] and [Word]. When we are baptized we vow to “witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ.” So on your cards in your pews, did any of your statements say, “I am a witness”?
I’m not sure why, but our lectionary-suggested passage this morning does not include verse 9 after verses 6 through 8. Listen again: “There was a man set 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.” Now verse 9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
The true light, which enlightens everyone. My friends, through Jesus’ coming into the world, through his Resurrection, through our baptisms, we embody that light: each one of us a child of God, each one of us a shining light, each one of us called to be a witness. Professor Marcia Riggs reminds us that “in the context of the Advent season, these verses remind us of our identity and our role as witnesses who must testify to Jesus’ birth in the midst of ever-encroaching consumerist claims regarding the meaning of Christmas.” I would add we must testify to the Light of the World in every season in the midst of ever-encroaching claims on Christianity itself which would have us believe that certain groups of people are not welcomed by Him, or that violence is somehow justified, or that the earth was given to us in order to subdue it, or that slavery was in the Bible or women must be subservient. Can I get a witness?
But we must witness, as well, to the hope provided by the Light. Again, Pastor Charles: “[John] came to bear witness to the coming Light of God, reminding all who would listen that the darkest forces in the world are not finally as powerful as they appear.” I don’t know about you, folks, but I need that good news. I need that reminder often these days and, as witnesses, we are bound to remind each other just as we try to “live in such a way as to proclaim the light of Christ [out there] in the world.”
So take out your cards again and pick up your pens or pencils and let’s take the time to add a few “I am’s”. If you have not already, please write: I am a child of God. Then, I am a disciple of Christ. And then, I am a witness.
Who are we? We are not the Messiah, either. But as fully human children of God, disciples of Christ and witnesses to his work, his word and his light, “our identity must be grounded upon the relationship we have to Jesus.” Yes, we are mothers or fathers, teachers or lawyers, spouses, researchers, but we are also children of the Light, the Light the darkness cannot and will not overcome. Thanks be to God! May we reflect it. May we live it. And may we witness to it. Amen.