St. Philip Lutheran Church
13 December 2020 + Advent 3B
John 1.6-8, 19-28
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
I admit it: I’m one of those people who puts up their Christmas decorations as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves my front door. Christmas lights especially may be one of the things I love most about this time of year. I was especially delighted when I saw a new feature on the Nextdoor app for the “2020 Holiday Cheer Map” – where neighbors can share that their homes are decorated so others can enjoy their lights and other festive holiday trimmings.
It’s not an uncommon holiday occurrence to have my darkened apartment lit up by nothing more than the glow of the lights on my Christmas tree and around my windows. I love the way each bulb is made even brighter by the dark that envelops it. To a point, I can’t even see the bulb or the wire anymore – only the light. In a way, the dark helps me see the light better.
In this week’s gospel reading, we continue the story of the peculiar figure of John the Baptist. Though unlike Mark’s version of John from last week, clothed in camel’s hair and on a strict diet of locusts and wild honey, the John of the Gospel of John (no relation, by the way) is a bit more philosophical.
Set within the gospel writer’s stunning introduction, stretching back to the creation of the cosmos, we get a non-traditional “nativity story,” if we can call it that – the Word that was in the beginning with God and that was God, the Light that is the life of all people, the Light that no darkness can overcome.
And then a shift: There was a man sent from God. His name was John. He wasn’t the Light, but he came to testify to the Light, to bear witness to the Light, to prepare the way for the Light and to help our eyes adjust to it, to make the Light known and visible so that we might experience it for ourselves.
I have to confess – as powerful as the imagery of light breaking through the darkness is, and perhaps an especially welcome metaphor for our 2020 times, I always bristle a little – not at the imagery itself – but at the ways it’s been misused.
Traditionally, Advent is the season where we look forward to the dawn, to the coming of the light that dispels the darkness. Even beyond Advent and Christmas, our liturgical language and traditions are filled with images of light and dark – and, often, we think of darkness as “bad” and light “good.”
Living in a predominantly white community and worshipping in a predominantly white church, I often think about the ways our perceptions of darkness and light spill over into our presumptions about race and color. Those of us who’ve been a part of GLOW Exploration over these past summer and fall months have grappled with this dimension of light and darkness and its often harmful impact on our understanding of race – the ways that the value we place on “light” and “whiteness” is often equated with “holiness” and “purity” … at the expense of our siblings of color.
This week, I think John’s story helps us push back at such a limited, harmful understanding of darkness and light.
Light needs darkness in order to give off light. We might even say that light without darkness is meaningless. A lit candle in a room with overhead fluorescent lights doesn’t do much, but even a single candle in a darkened room…that’s a different image.
I think John’s relationship to Jesus functions in a similar way. John helps us to see Jesus better. John’s testimony shows us Jesus, the living Word of God coming into the world, and John’s message makes Jesus’s presence all the more profound.
The suspense builds in the line of questioning leveled at John:
Who are you? I am not the Messiah.
Are you Elijah, the great prophet? No.
Are you another prophet then? No.
So who are you? The voice crying out in the wilderness, the voice crying out to prepare the way for God’s coming into the world, the voice getting you ready for something and someone so profound that you’re going to have to experience it for yourself.
John’s testimony doesn’t stand for its own sake, but to draw our attention to the one coming after him. Jesus doesn’t make John any less significant, but I think this story helps us understand how both are needed – the one who prepares the way and the one who is coming. Like the season of Advent gets us ready for the celebration of Christmas, and like the way darkness is needed to help us see light, John gets us ready for Jesus’s message and mission.
John helps us to see Jesus better. And John’s testimony also makes it clear that we have a testimony to share, too.
What are we pointing to? What are we bearing witness to? Do we exist to be a building on Pfingsten Road? Or are we the voice crying out, getting others ready for a message so profound and so life-giving that they have to experience it for themselves?
Dear people of God, we do not exist for ourselves but to be a beacon to the one who comes to make all things new.
Earlier this week, during bible study, someone pointed out the beauty of the day – the clear blue sky and the sparkling sun – as a welcome change from the gray of the previous day. A bright, sunny day is something to be grateful for and to marvel at, for sure.
But the gray days have their own kind of beauty, too. The gray days cast long shadows in my apartment and make the Christmas lights around my kitchen window shine all the more brightly and magically.
In these gray days of pandemic, of loneliness and isolation, of grief and despair, what are we testifying and bearing witness to? We have the duty and delight to make God’s Light, coming into the world, known and visible. To bear witness to love in the midst of hatred, hope in the midst of despair, life in the midst of brokenness.
Like John, we are not the Light, but we point to its advent. What will people see us pointing to?