Advent 3B Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 John 1:6-8, 19-28
One of the most significant symbols of Advent, among other seasons of the church, is light. We have candles and stars as symbols on our paraments, we light extra candles for worship during this time of year, and see tons of sparkling and glimmering lights all around town on the lampposts, in shop windows, on Christmas trees. There are beautiful lights in downtown Sylva on the courthouse lawn and all along the streets in town.
Light is one of those things we seem to take for granted. Flip a switch, open the car door or refrigerator door, even push a button on our cellphones and there is light. Easy as pie! Until of course, it isn’t. Darkness is one of those things that is symbolic of fear, perhaps even evil, for a reason. Who knows what is in the darkness? Monsters live in the darkness under the bed and in the closet. Darkness makes us vulnerable and we feel that even now as a primal fear left over from a time when we were far more at risk from predator animals. Darkness has no edges, is bottomless, feels like chaos and hides all manner of dangers.
The other evening I accidentally left my cellphone here at church and didn’t realize it until nighttime. I left home to go get it and dreaded the dark church the whole way. Our parking lot can be pitch black at night. I drove up the drive way, looking at the dark windows of our building, turned into the parking lot and… BAM!…the motion detector lights came on! Instant relief from anxiety! I did not have to walk in the dark into a dark building after all.
Truth is, light is very important to us. The evening prayer service that has been used by the church for over a thousand years focuses on light; specifically God’s light. Sometimes it is even called a ‘service of light’. In our hymnal it is called Vespers and Holden Evening Prayer, which we have been using on Wednesday evenings, is one arrangement of this worship setting. It even begins with the words, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world.” At the close of the day as the world around us grows dark, we sing about God’s light.
In our Gospel lesson for today we hear about John the Baptist however we might even be able to call him John the Witness to the Light. In this Gospel, John the Baptist, the witness, is the first one to testify that Jesus is the incarnation; that Jesus is God in the flesh. The verse right before the text we heard says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” Before “the Word became flesh” we hear that light is shinning where light is expected to not exist. In spite of monsters both real and imagined, ancient and present day predators, and edgeless, bottomless chaos, light is shinning.
So, what does it matter that John’s testimony of God becoming human is described as light in the darkness? When we imagine those feelings of dread and fear and perhaps even powerlessness associated with darkness, the words ‘light in the darkness’ can represent the ultimate hope. Add to it that this light is something it seems that darkness ought to be able to over come and yet it does not. Darkness does not prevail, no matter how dark it really seems.
Before the Word of God is wrapped in human flesh and born to a poor woman in stable there is the promise of God that right in the middle of the darkness of the world, the darkness of humanity, light will shine. And NOTHING, not even death itself, can stop it.
And John is the witness—the one who is to testify to this light.
So what does it mean to testify to the light? Are we witnesses to the light of the world?
There is an image of John the Baptist—John the witness to the Light—in a painting of the crucifixion called Isenheim Altarpiece. In the painting, John is pointing to Jesus on the cross and beside John are the words “He must become greater, I must become less.” John’s finger is a full third longer than a normal finger and this out of proportion element emphasizes what John did throughout his ministry: point to Jesus. To testify to the light, to be a witness to the light, is to point to Jesus and say: Look at that! It’s the Lamb of God! It’s the light of the world! It means that while John the Baptist is a powerful figure in the Gospels, a significant and highly influential person in that time and even a person that Jesus himself will say is of great importance, his purpose is not to claim any credit or glory for himself. Instead, his purpose is to point to Jesus, the light of the world. That light which shines in the darkness and will never be overcome. John testifies to the Light of God throughout his ministry by continually turning the attention of everyone around him toward Jesus.
Into the darkening days of winter we will soon celebrate the birth of the light of the world. We anticipate it every day and the Festival of the Incarnation is growing closer all the time. It is only two weeks away. In these days of anticipation of Jesus coming, both then as the baby and again as the king of all things, we are called to be like John and point to the light of the world.
While we look for the coming again of our Lord Jesus who will make all things new, we are not called to simply wait in the darkness. We are called to be a witness to the light of God by our words and actions. By the whole of our lives. We are called to point to Jesus. We do this by our actions and our words. We do this by practicing our faith every day, putting our faith into action and let all of our life be changed by the Word made flesh.
Perhaps we do this by finding ways to shine the light of God into the dark places of the lives of others and to, as Isaiah says in our first lesson today, bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. We can bring the good news of God’s love and grace to those who are oppressed by practicing the intentional acceptance of those who are different from us. We can look for even the tiniest bit of hopeful light to share with those who are lost, lonely, broken and afraid.
As we continue through the second half of Advent, we can adjust our eyes to the light, find ways to shine God’s light in the world now and look to the Light of the World coming wrapped in flesh who will shine in the darkness and never be overcome.