Testify to the Light – Sunday, December 13, 2020
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24, John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Friends, this morning we have heard John’s telling of the story of John the Baptist, and how, as God’s faithful and joyful messenger of the light of the world, he was not understood by those who came looking for the prophets they knew.
The Good News this morning is that even though some did not understand John’s message or his call as the one crying out in the wilderness for the Lord, that he was nevertheless witnessing to the true life and light of God now coming into the world.
John’s joyful task was simple: to tell all that the light of the world, that has existed since the beginning is still shining, and that it remains to shine and to be shared and witnessed to by all who believe that this light bears the name Jesus Christ.
This is the story that we ourselves are called to live into this day: not a story merely about a wild figure in the wilderness, or the way that he was misunderstood, but a story about how God calls not just prophets, and not just priests to witness to his coming, but all people who faithfully believe in his Son.
In the interaction we have read this morning, between John the Baptist and the Priests and Levites sent to him by the Pharisees, these religious authorities have traveled out to John in order to speak with him.
John is in his usual place, doing his usual thing. He is out in the wilderness, by the Jordan river, baptizing people in the name of Jesus Christ. He is, as always, a wild character, dressed in camel hair, eating his locusts and wild honey, speaking with great passion about the coming of the Son of Man: “Make Straight the Way of the Lord.”
John is baptizing, and preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins, he is testifying to the light coming into the world, he is witnessing to the great and joyful thing that is about to happen when Jesus comes into the world, and he is making so much noise that even those in the Temple in Jerusalem cannot ignore him!
He’s making so much noise for the Lord that not only cannot they not ignore him, but they have to walk out into the wilderness in order to find out just who he thinks he is!
And that is exactly what they do. These learned men, these men of authority walk out in their robes and find the wild man in the wilderness, and they ask him:
“Who are you?”
[John the Baptist] confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
As John ends the initial exchange of words between himself and the Priests and Levites in words iconic to us but lost on these authorities, one can feel the gulf in understanding which existed between John and these learned men of the Law.
Who are you? The Messiah? Elijah? One of the Prophets?
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
And even though these words themselves were familiar, the Priests and Levites did not understand their meaning.
To a people who lived their lives in the Old Testament Scriptures, to a people who saw a wild man in the wilderness and concluded “ah, he must think he’s somebody important” John leaves these people speechless by saying simply who he is and who he is not.
I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not one of the Prophets either.
I am (simply) the one crying out in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord”
John’s self-awareness, his confidence in his place as one called by God to witness to the light coming into the world, this understanding of his life and its purpose is so dramatically at odds with the preconceptions of the Priests and Levites that one almost begins to feel badly for them as people on the outside of what is happening right before them.
As people on the inside of this story ourselves. As people who know the life and light of God, as people who know Jesus Christ, and who know the lengths that God went to in order to come into our lives to cast out the darkness, we know what these Priests and Levites did not.
Namely, that while they were not missing any knowledge or literacy or skill in the Law and the Prophets, they were still missing the key to understanding the things they knew.
These learned men of the Law and Prophets knew the stories, they knew the history, they knew the covenant promises and the people whom God equipped to lead this people back to righteousness, but they did not know the joyful Good News.
The joyful Good News that God did not see it fit to stop at Elijah or one of the other prophets in His mission of reconciliation, but that God had Himself entered into human flesh itself in order to do what we could not.
To these experts, these authorities, it made sense that a man was yelling out in the wilderness, performing the duty of the one crying out in Isaiah only if this person mistakenly thought they were one of the prophets of old.
That this man could in fact be announcing the way of God Himself in human flesh was a possibility that they simply could not conceive.
In trying once more to understand this figure before them, the Priests asked another way:
“Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Once again, these Priests and Levites could not make heads or tails out of John, and even though he told them again that his call was to witness for the one to come, they would not hear the truth of his testimony, and they went away in disappointment.
And yet, while even those tasked with knowing God and keeping his Laws could not hear John’s witness and testimony, the joyful Good News this morning is that God has made us able to.
The joyful Good News is that God, the same God of the Law and the Prophets, the same God who raised up Israel, the same God who called Elijah and all of the other prophets to instruct his people in righteousness, this God was (and is) right now His way into the world in human flesh!
Not as another prophet
Not as a herald or a messenger
But as the very life and light of the world in human form
This joyful reality: of God’s coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ is what made John so clear in His own purpose.
Indeed, if you knew that God was coming to save you from sin and to cover you in His own righteousness, why would you settle for anything less than this joyful Good News for yourself?
Why, in fact, would you stop there? When you could be not only a receiver of this Good News but a witness to it as well?
That if God Himself were coming in human flesh (as He is about to do once again at Christmas) how could you do anything less than joyfully participate in this Good News for the world?
Friends, the Good News this morning is just this: that as people who believe in the coming of God’s light into the world, as people who are called to witness to this Light and this Word made flesh, why should any of us be content not to witness to this joyful reality in our own lives?
John, in his wildness, in his loud wilderness crying, was God’s appointed witness to Christ’s coming into the world, but he would not be the last.
From the disciples, to those who received healing, to the apostles, to all who would eventually confess faith in Jesus Christ, the light of the world, unknown millions have been called to witness to the Good News of His arrival.
And though it is tempting to believe that this work of witnessing to the light and to the name of that light has finished, that is not the truth.
No, the work of witnessing to God’s light and to Jesus Christ is not complete so long as people are still sleeping in the cold.
The work of witnessing to the light of the world is not complete so long as people are still struggling to believe that their lives have value.
This work is not complete so long as there is injustice, so long as there is war and famine, disease and neglect, this work is not complete so long as people (all over the world and here at home) do not know that God became flesh for them.
We, in this church, in this appendage of Christ’s body, may not believe that God has called us for this work, when there seem to be others better equipped for it, but God calls all Christians to do the work that John started.
The work begun in the wilderness by a strange man secure in his call to “make straight the path of the Lord,” this work is still joyful, crucial, and ongoing.
It is accomplished in large and small ways. From those who work to feed the hungry, to those who simply love their neighbour in Christ’s name. This joyful work of witnessing to Christ’s arrival is one that we all must take up. Not out of duty or obligation, but out of the joyful reality that the same God in flesh who came to save us and rescue us from our sins, has come also to save and to rescue all people who are desperate to hear the Good News.
Our joy today, on this Advent of Joy, is that we have been called not only to hear John’s witness and testimony, but to give our own.
We have been called to know the life and light of God and to call Him Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
We have been called to know the salvation and freedom of what it means to receive this witness, as well as the joyful blessing of what it means to witness to it ourselves.
This day, on this Advent of Joy, let us hesitate no longer, but let us witness boldly to the coming of God’s own Son in human flesh, that the world would know and make straight his paths.