John was not the light in the darkness (and neither are we)

Written by Joel on December 15th, 2011

December 11, 2011
Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sadly there is no recording this week – there is an interesting story about that, which may be the subject of another post.

Jeff, the youth minister at my internship in California, looked exactly like Jay Leno. The resemblance was uncanny. The gray swirly hair, same build, same height, dark eyes, and long boxy chin. He’d catch tourist glancing second looks at him, who were convinced that they had their chance encounter with a celebrity. He even told me that a few years before his current job he worked some general labor gigs at NBC and people there even noticed the resemblance. He loved to tell me the story about how he was asked to stand in for Jay Leno one night – not for the tonight show, but so they could adjust the lighting on the set (its apparently a very long process). Of course if anyone were to walk up to Jeff and ask “Are you Jay Leno.” He would be quick to say “No, I am not.” He just looks like him.

Our Gospel reading today offers another look at John the Baptist. Last Sunday we read from Mark’s Gospel about how John was a prophet; how he stood at the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. How John began to proclaim the Good News that God is Near, by first looking back at God’s work in history. This Sunday we are offered a slightly different image of John. This is a John whose job is witnessing, pointing to another – Jesus; and he is quite clear in his own identity. Repeatedly he declares “I am not, I am not, I am not.”

It is made clear for us the reader in the first part of the reading: “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light…he himself was not the light…he came only as a witness.” And in his own words, we hear his various denials – I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. How interesting to hear these phrases in John’s Gospel when all so often Jesus describes himself with the many “I am” statements. “I am the gate; I am the way; I am the good shepherd; I am the way; I am the truth; I am the light.” John is not, while Jesus declares “I am.” This is John’s role, to be the pointer, the be the testifier. To humble himself so that Christ may be known. He came so that through him all might believe; Not so that all might be saved – the salvation part is Jesus’ job; the witnessing about the savior, that is John’s job. And I wonder that it is our job as well.

We are witnesses, testifying to the light in whom we rely for our salvation. Now, I know that those words “testify” & “witness,” they have some negative connotations in the modern day, and in particular our faith tradition. We get uneasy with the idea of going door to door, or holding up signs down town, or passing out tracts at the mall. And I would say – you’re right! I’m pretty uncomfortable with this two, because folks call it witnessing, but it is not witnessing in the true sense of the word. I remember on a rather long bus ride, a stranger handed me one such tract, she didn’t speak a word to me the whole time, just hoping I would read it and not bother her. I didn’t read the tract, and I can’t tell you what it said – that’s how effective it was.

No, I think we have forgotten what it means to be a witness. Take that word literally. Have any of you been a witness – perhaps of a crime, or a joyous occasion like the witness at a wedding. I was a witness once, in a formal way. I was walking down the street one day and saw a car pulling out of the driveway ever so cautiously looking both ways, easing out easing out – and then bang! that unmistakeable sound of metal on metal, he hit someone who was flying way too fast down the road. After stoping to make sure everyone was alright, they exchanged information, and they asked for my name and number as a witness. A few days later I received a phone call from the insurance agent asking about what happened that day, and I retold the story; he asked some clarifying questions, and I tried my best to be accurate. I told the story. That is what it means to be a witness. When we talk about Christian witnessing, we are talking about sharing our faith story. Tell me about a time you experienced the presence of God. Tell me about when you were baptized (if you can remember it), or the first time you witnessed a baptism. Tell me about how you have experienced Christ in your life this week. This is what it means to be a witness – telling the story of Christ, of how he is alive and in our midst.

John the Baptist is our example. He is not in it for the followers, for the fame, or for the fortune. He is in it so that others will one day also testify to the light because they know the light of Christ. I find myself a bit hesitant of the popular saying WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, as if to reduce the savior of the world, the very son of God to some sort of wise sage that we should emulate. We will never be able to do what Jesus did – that is, die for sins; that’s already covered. We are only witnesses to that light. We are not that light. At its best, the church is a place were witnesses to the light gather together to continue to tell the story in worship – song, word, and table. Where we are recharged, where we hear the story afresh so that we can take it with us into the world; into our homes, work, and the various spears of our life to tell our faith stories of how Christ is part of our lives, so that others too may testify to that light.

We are not the light, but let us testify to the light of Christ as we await his coming.


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