Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/jR_qWj9PNQ0
Advent 3 B John 1:6-28
What is the theme for this third Sunday of Advent? Advent 1 Jesus told us to ‘stay awake’, and Advent 2 John the Baptist told us to ‘get ready’, but what are we to make of this passage from the Gospel of John? Last week I told you that John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel was most definitely Elijah, whose coming was prophesied in Malachi and who was coming to call us to repentance. This week as we look at the figure of John in the Gospel of John, we are confronted by his clear negation of that notion. John the Baptiser is asked, “Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you THE prophet?” to which he replies in the negative. John, in John’s gospel is none of those. He is, as he tells them, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord”. And this, as we know from last week’s reading, comes directly from Isaiah 40. John is claiming to be the one, a prophet if not the prophet, who is coming to bear witness to the light, which is coming into the world. So this is our theme for today, we are to “bear witness”. This morning we read to verse 28, but if we had read the next verse we would have heard that John, the next day, saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. John bears witness to Jesus. And that is, at least, part of the reason that John doesn’t want to claim any of the titles he is offered. John the baptizer wants to focus attention on the one who is greater than he, for whom he is not even worthy to act as slave.
So who is this one that is coming? He is the light that will shine in the darkness. This world is a dark place, and Jesus has come to change that, he has come, according to John, to take away the sin of the world. When the light comes then we can see, the things hidden in darkness are revealed and can be dealt with. Jesus himself quotes this passage from Isaiah, it is in fact Jesus’ “mission statement” as we read it in Luke. So let’s have a look at what the prophet says.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me” so God has set him apart for a very specific purpose, which is to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,… to comfort those who mourn and to provide for [them]” this is quite a list, and it is a big claim that Jesus is making. This is what being the light shining in the darkness looks like. I made a comment earlier in the week to a colleague that I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach these passages, this week, as I thought you were probably getting sick of hearing about issues of social justice. My colleague is one the people who was arrested this week, praying at Senator Sezelja’s office. She said to me, “but it is what Jesus is all about, how can you not talk about it?” The Rev’d Wendy Bloomfield is not the only one who thinks that this is what Jesus is all about. Have a look at what Mary, Jesus’ mother, says when the Holy Spirit comes upon her and Elizabeth. Mary rejoices from the depths of her soul because the Lord is showing mercy and strength to address the power imbalance and feed the hungry and bless the lowly. And the Lord is doing this through the baby she is carrying, Jesus.
In the Isaiah passage we can see why God is coming with transforming power and that is because God loves justice and righteousness, which is more than personal piety, it is about the nation being righteous in its dealings. God wants recompense and acknowledgement and blessing for the oppressed, the poor and the needy. And Isaiah’s own response to this proclamation is to rejoice and exult with his whole being. Mary, too, rejoices and so should we. Bringing in this kingdom of justice and mercy should not be a chore, we should not be working grudgingly for God’s values to be affirmed in our world, we should be filled with joy- our whole bodies exulting, when we think of the coming of the “Prince of peace” to whom we bear witness. Mary says that God alone can “right the wrong”, but she herself, of course, had a part to play and so do we.
We are called, with John the Baptiser, to be witnesses to the light. We are called to tell our world to “Behold! Open your eyes and see that the light has come into the world”. In fact, if you can see the light yourself you must testify to it, because so many people are walking in the darkness. The darkness of despair which comes from thinking that what we experience here is all there is; the darkness of greed, thinking that possessions and experiences are the important things, which of course is idolatry; the darkness of fear that permeates our society and sets us against our neighbour- this is SIN, this is what the Lamb of God has come to take away, according to John the Baptiser.
And it is never easier to do than at Christmas. Christmas is a time when traditionally people think of others less well off than themselves, when people think about reconciliation with others, be they family or erst-while friends. Christmas is a time when we think of the poor in other countries and the friendless in our own, when we give generously, when we are moved and behave according to our best selves, made in the image of God. And these things are all manifestations of God in our world, God immanent, God Emmanuel. As we celebrate this Christmas we should be like John, pointing to the light. We know what is on Jesus’ agenda, because it is set out for us in this passage from Isaiah, which Jesus claims for himself. We know what is on Jesus’ agenda because he sets it out for us in the Sermon on the Mount. We know what is on Jesus’ agenda because in that passage from Matthew 25 that we read on the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus tells us how he will judge us. It’s very easy, however to get caught up in other aspects of Christmas, the commercialism, the busyness, even the stress of trying to get ready, but these things are all opportunities to bear witness to Jesus. As we rush around the shops we can give to charities, we can buy gifts for the Christmas hampers, we can smile at people and brighten their day. As we think about catering, we can think about food for the hungry, and some of us might even be able to work giving a Christmas dinner to the homeless and the lonely. As we put up the Christmas decorations we can be reminded of the garlands that deck the bridegroom of Isaiah, and as we organize our special clothes we can put on the garments of righteousness and salvation. We can be like the shoots bursting forth, budding, blooming and bearing fruit for God. We can testify to the presence of God in our world and in each other.
We are called on this third Sunday of Advent to bear witness to the light coming into the world, it is not just John’s job, or Isaiah’s or Mary’s. We are called to participate in God’s great plan of salvation, that is setting the world free from its bondage to sin, bringing the light into the darkness and allowing justice and righteousness and mercy to flourish. We all have opportunities at a global, national, local and personal level to contribute to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the one who begins this process, he is the light that blazed in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. Jesus calls us to be light in the world, he has handed the torch over to us. He calls us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and to rejoice greatly in the Lord.
In this third week of Advent the call goes out to you, “Keep awake”, “get ready” and “bear witness” to the light.