The third Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2014 – Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent 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.” It is curious to note that in the fourth gospel John the Baptist is not actually John the Baptist. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John the Evangelist never calls John “the Baptist” nor do we see in this gospel the actual baptism of Jesus—we simply have John’s recollection of that baptism (1:32-34). Rather, we might say that what we have here is John the Witness: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is a very famous piece of religious artwork. In the centre we have a tortured and gruesome portrayal of Jesus on the cross, suffering and in agony. Off to the side we see John the Baptist, holding open a copy of the scriptures and pointing to the figure on the cross. John’s finger is peculiar though, seemingly disproportionately large. It serves to draw our eyes toward it only to then direct our gaze to that figure to which it points—Christ crucified.
And what is John’s testimony? The Word who was with God in the beginning, the Word who was God, through whom all things came into being, this Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. That the eternal and glorious light of God has come into the world, has shone in the darkness. And it was this God, him who made heaven and earth, who sent John, the forerunner, into the world to testify to the Light. What I want to say this morning is that the “being sent” and the “bearing witness” that is so characteristic of John’s ministry and life in the fourth gospel is characteristic of the church’s own ministry and life.
Moreover, it is essential always at every time and in every place for the church to remember this, and it is essential for us now, for the church in the 21st century western world to recapture these distinctives of the church—we are a people sent to bear witness to the truth of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our primary task, what makes the church the church.
That the church, like John, is “sent from God,” indicates the origin of our mission and thus points to the authority that we have. Yet, the authority of the church—in preaching and teaching, in baptizing and in breaking bread, in bringing together men and women before God in marriage, in absolving the repentant of their sin—is not strictly speaking the authority of the church. The church has no authority in-and-of herself, but only that which is given her by Christ. Our words have no weight apart from being taken up by Christ who is the Word. So too our common life has no authority in-and-of itself, but only insofar as our life is joined to Christ who is the Life.
Just so, it is precisely because Christ has bound himself to us and us to him in his flesh that we are his and therefore do have the authority which he has graced us with through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And so, when the church administers the sacrament of baptism, for example, it is effective in accomplishing all that the Bible says it accomplishes—the washing away of our sins (1 Peter 3:21), our death with Christ and thus our new life with Christ (Rom. 6:4-6), our rebirth (Titus 3:5)—precisely because it is Christ alone who does this work in and through us. The power of the Holy Spirit enables the church to participate in the ministry of Christ (John 1:33). Yet we are nothing else than the hand of Christ, and so John Calvin warns that this shows, “not what man can of himself accomplish, but what Christ performs by man, and by the sign, as his instruments.” And so in order to restrain our pride, in order that we not take from God the honour due him alone and appropriate it to ourselves (always a temptation for the church), we ought always to make John’s confession our own: “I am not the Messiah.”
The boldness and certainty of our proclamation and witness ought always be tempered by this confession which distinguishes us from Christ, in order to call to memory the fact that we can do nothing apart from him. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
That we are sent refers not only to the power and authority of him who sent us but also to the public nature of our witness—a quality in tension with the spirit of our age. Most people today, and I speak also of Christians, regard religion as a private matter and do not want to hear about someone else’s particular beliefs. Especially if those beliefs are held with any measure of conviction—we are all victims of our own limited perspectives, so the story goes. Indeed, that religion ought to remain a private matter and not worry itself about the affairs of citizens, or neighbourhoods, or nations is one of the most dearly held religious convictions of the secular state. But the gospel cannot ever be relegated to the realm of the private, not only because you and I have no “private lives”, but because the witness which the gospel demands we bear requires more than words or inner piety. The truth to which we bear witness—that the Light has shone in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, or to put it more concretely, that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus God was reconciling the whole wide world to himself, forgiving sin, granting eternal life, and trampling down sin and death—this reality is borne out in the world in and through a community which not only proclaims but embodies this truth, or rather, is embodied by the truth that is Jesus. That is, our language cannot be divorced from our life. To speak Christianly means that our lives must correspond with what we say. The very grammar of Christian speech presumes that those who use the language have a character that is consistent with it (Hauerwas).
As such, “witness” names the reality that we cannot speak the truth without it having worked truthfully in us. We cannot bear witness to the risen and living Jesus if that very Jesus is not working in us, transforming us into his likeness.
To borrow the words of Isaiah from this mornings’ reading: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God,” (61:10). Consider also the Apostle Paul’s prayer for his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely,” (1 Thess. 5:23). My whole being. Sanctify you entirely. Is this not the witness we are called to bear? To open the darkness of our own hearts to his most glorious light? To allow the risen and reigning and returning Lord Jesus to work truthfully in us that our whole life, individually but especially communally, might be transformed into his likeness?
And so in bearing witness to Jesus we also, at the same time, bear witness to the reality that something can happen to people in this life which causes them to become new people, people who “believe in his name” (12). “The great drama of God and the world, of Jesus and Israel, of the Word who reveals the glory of the unseen God,” writes Tom Wright, “this great drama is a play in search of actors, and there are parts for everyone, you and I included,” (John for Everyone, 6). What say you, my brothers and sisters? Are we willing to be such a people? Dare we be a community of the cross? Because we have been so called.
This is what it means for the church to wait, as we do liturgically during Advent. To wait is to be a community that has been and is being formed into the likeness of Jesus. Thus, the witness of Jesus’ followers has a definite shape—we ourselves are to be the exemplification of what we have to say. Not so we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done, with a little pat on the back, but so that when the world asks, “Who are you?” we might testify to the Light that all may trust in him. Furthermore, none of this is really our own doing, for to whatever degree our lives do bear faithful witness, this is the result of the Holy Spirit at work within us. We are after all, like John, the voice and not the Word, the lamp and not the Light.
And so, the public and certain witness of the church is also one marked by humility. This is not only due to the grace of the matter which I’ve already mentioned but also because, to be sure, our life together so often bears inadequate witness to Jesus. We need look no further than our own hearts, and the darkness therein. Yet, just here, the inadequacy of our witness is itself also a kind of witness. We have been called to live lives that point to Jesus—lives that are unintelligible if the one we follow is not the Son of God. Sometimes our pointing is off direction, but this is revealed precisely as Christ is unveiled and our inadequacies are marked in relation to him (I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas’ Brazos commentary on Matthew for this last paragraph). For John humility meant directing people away from himself and towards Jesus. For us it can mean no less. Notice, though, how his questioners tried to resist this: “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” (22). Not too much has changed—talk about Jesus and people will usually want to change the subject. Often they want us to talk about ourselves, and frequently that may be what we would prefer to talk about as well. Like John, we must resist this.
St. Augustine prayed, “May that Sun shine upon us, from which that lamp (John) derived its flame.” Sent by the One in whom we have our being, may our life together testify to the beautiful and glorious Light of the one who has come into the world to make all things new, but who stands unknown by the world, hidden in the flesh of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.