Sermon; Advent 3B; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Once again we hear the story (or part of the story) of John the Baptist, but this time it comes from the gospel of John (referred to as “the fourth gospel” from here on out to avoid confusion between John and John). In this version there is no camel-hair clothing, no locusts and wild honey, no frantic calls to repent or accusing the Pharisees of being a brood of vipers. There isn't even a reference to “the wilderness,” since all this takes place in Bethany, across the Jordan. So the image of John in the fourth gospel is very different from Mathew, Mark, and Luke. It is, by comparison, rather tame. But although tame, it is still vitally important.
Today's gospel passage is important because it tells what John's role is and how he lives into that role.
John came as a witness to testify. In the fourth gospel that is his main function. He does baptize, but that is secondary to being a witness and testifying to the light. Sometimes we get so caught up in the wild, confrontational, earnest and urgent portrayal of John that we miss this aspect of his life. And if we miss that part, then we miss the implication it has for our own lives as well.
Let me ask a question: What is a witness? A witness is more than just seeing an event. A witness is one who serves as a legal observer, who provides evidence or testimony in court, or who signs a legal document. A person who is a witness is more than a person who watches the action or is a simple bystander. A witness helps create the framework of a story. When I sat on the jury for a medical malpractice case, the witnesses helped us determine the guilt or innocence of the doctor on trial.
A witness, in essence, relays to others what they have seen or known as honestly and truthfully as possible, and with the understanding that they are accountable for that testimony. John is a witness who testifies to the light and truth of the story. And today's passage is John's testimony.
Please state for the record of this court your name. Who are you?
I am John, son of Zechariah, a priest of the order of Abijah, and of Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron. I have come to prepare the way of the Lord. I am not the Messiah.
If you aren't the Messiah but have come to prepare the way, are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the prophet of whom Moses foretold?
Then who are you? Tell us.
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
If you are neither the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, why do you baptize?
I baptize with water to prepare people for the Messiah's coming. One among you whom you do not know is coming after me and I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.
In this exchange we have John as a witness testifying to the light, to Jesus. And not only testifying to Jesus, but removing himself from the spotlight. This is equally important.
In their commentaries on this passage, a variety of Church fathers write that those who came to John were anticipating the coming of the Messiah and that they would have gladly crowned him with that title. The line of questioning indicates they were not only cautious about making such an important assertion, but also that they were doing their due diligence. And Augustine writes that those who questioned John were so impressed by his grace that they would have believed whatever he said.
That is, of course, one man's interpretation. If we assume Augustine was right and that the questioners would have believed whatever John said, then John is our ultimate example of what it means to be a witness for Christ.
The history of Christianity is full of examples of people in positions of authority who use that authority to say, “I am he.” Oh, they may not say that outright, but their behavior and words certainly indicate otherwise. People who claim that they have the only correct interpretation of scripture. People who condemn those who differ from themselves. People who build large followings only to have them fall away when they themselves retire or die.
John does none of these things. As for interpretation, he simply testifies to what he believes is true, and lets others decide for themselves. As for condemnation, John does no such thing here; he only encourages people to look further. As for building up a large following, John points his followers away from himself to Christ.
The John of the fourth gospel has a lot to show us. During this Advent season of preparing for the coming of Christ, let us follow John's example by
remembering that we are witnesses for Christ, always testifying to the light;
offering people the opportunity to explore our claims for themselves; and
remembering it's not about us, but it's always about Jesus.
May we go from here as witnesses for Christ, testifying to the light.