You can tell it is getting closer to Christmas when Rudolph and Frosty are on TV and the number of super sale, discount, 4 hour only, free shipping emails increases to one every ten minutes. In the church, we know that Christmas is almost here when John the Baptist comes on the scene to begin telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. He plays a significant role in the Advent story leading up to the birth of Jesus.
In our Gospel lesson for today we hear about John the Baptist, however we might 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.
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 and we light extra candles for worship during this time of year. Probably everyone associates lights with the time just before Christmas. We can see tons of sparkling 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 Dillsboro, there have been luminaries lighting the way.
Light is one of those things we really 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 predatory animals. Darkness has no edges, is bottomless, feels like chaos and hides all manner of dangers.
Occasionally, I have to come to the church after dark, after everyone else has left, for something I have forgotten or I need for the next day. All the way, I dread the dark church. Our parking lot can be pitch black at night. I drive up, looking at the dark windows of our building, turn into the parking lot and… BAM!…the motion detector lights come on! Instant relief from anxiety! There is light to dispel the darkness; so I can find my way into the church.
The truth is, light is very important to us in more than just a practical sense. 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 begins with the words, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. The light no darkness can overcome.” At the close of the day as the world around us grows dark, we sing about God’s light.
So, it seems pretty important 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.
In spite of monsters both real and imagined, ancient and present day predators, and edgeless, bottomless chaos, light is shinning. 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 less than 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, too, are called to be a witness to the light of God by our words and actions. We are called to be witnesses to the light by the way we live the whole of our lives. We are called to point to Jesus 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.
The Bishop of the NC Synod, Bishop Bolick, said yesterday, “Sunday, December the 14th, has been designated as “Black Lives Matter Sunday” by numerous historically black denominations. I hope N C Synod Congregations will pray for and with our brothers and sisters in the African American Community. I hope we will pray for peace, equality and justice. Recent events have shown us the need for prayer and for doing justice.”
So, let us do this. Let us pray for justice and peace. Let us pray for God to show us how to be just, how to be loving, with our brothers and sisters in all times and in all places. All lives matter, not just those of a particular group, but God does call us to pay special attention to and give intentional work to binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty and setting people free.
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, by listening with the intention to understand those who have a different life experience from us, and by actively seeking out the ways we are unknowingly biased against others and changing those ways for the better.
We can look for every bit of hopeful light to share with those who are lost, lonely, broken and afraid and for those who sit in darkness and deep despair. We can join our voices to that of John the Witness to the light: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path!
As we continue through the last week and a half of Advent, we can adjust our eyes to the light and find ways to shine God’s light in the world now. Look to the Light of the World, coming wrapped in human flesh, who will shine in the darkness and shall never be overcome