Listen to the sermon here.
You’re in a movie theater. Everything goes dark. The screen opens pitch black. You are looking at a picture of the vastness of space, the camera zooms slowly onto our planet and focuses closer and closer until all we see is a man.
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is just John. We do not get The Gospel of Mark’s vibrant descriptions of his camel hair clothes or locust and honey diet. He is not called John the Baptizer, as in Mark or John the Baptist as in Matthew and Luke. We just get a man sent from God who testifies to the light. We are left to fill in the details with our imagination.
We are not the only ones puzzled about this John’s identity. The priests and Levites come to question this man. They want to pin him down. They want to see his ID. They want to know why he is saying the radical prophet-like things he is saying. Why is he talking about the coming of the light?
When they ask him, “Who are you?” he tells them he is not the Messiah. They then ask him whether he is Elijah. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet, who legend has it, did not die but was taken up bodily into heaven. While some of the other gospels do make the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist, here in the Gospel of John, John simply says no. Next, they ask him if he is the prophet. Again, he says no.
We are no closer to knowing who John the Baptist is. He is still an enigma. Still a mysterious figure in the wilderness.
When the priests and Levites ask him to give them a little more information, he quotes Isaiah.
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
John does not even identify himself as a person. He sees himself as a voice. He has something to say, something terribly important. He does not need a title or even an identity. He just wants to communicate.
John is a witness. John is a witness to the Messiah, who is coming after him. He baptizes so that people will be ready to meet this Messiah. John’s entire orientation is towards Jesus.
Jesus has that affect on people. Throughout the Gospels you see people giving up their lives and following Jesus. From his first disciples dropping their fishing nets, Jesus inspired thousands of people to stop what they were doing and reorient their lives, often instantly. And even when Jesus tells them not to, people throughout the Gospels can’t help telling other people about him. When the blind man regained his sight, when the woman at the well had her history interpreted so honestly, when the lame were healed, they all were compelled to witness to what they had experienced.
This experience of Christian witness did not stop with the New Testament. Something about the encounter with Christ was so powerful that people were compelled to talk about Christ even at the risk of martyrdom. Christianity spread globally because people kept encountering the risen Christ and telling other people about him.
We are called to be part of that story, to be John’s transparent witnesses. We are called to point the way to Christ when people ask who we are. We are called to let Christ shine through our personalities and professions. We are called to be witnesses of Christ’s work in our hearts and in our world.
Advent is the perfect time to practice being a witness. We have such wonderful examples. Mary witnessed to God’s extraordinary love by bearing him into the world in human form. Joseph witnessed to God’s faithfulness by sticking by Mary, even under such strange circumstances. The three wise men witnessed by defying the Pharoah and undertaking a dangerous journey in order to bring the new Messiah their gifts.
Even Santa Claus is a witness. Don’t believe me? Well Santa Claus, wasn’t always Santa Claus you know? Santa Claus was originally called St. Nicholas. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myrna in the 4th Century. Many legends grew up around St. Nicholas, because he was such a loving and generous man. He loved helping those in poverty, since Jesus loved the poor so much.
One legend has it that there was a man who had three daughters. This man was very poor so no one would marry his daughters, because they came with no dowry. If no one would marry these daughters they would become even poorer and might be forced to make a living on the streets. St. Nicholas heard of this story and wanted to witness to Jesus’ love for these young women. The night before the first daughter came of age, St. Nicholas slipped a bag of gold coins into the father’s window. The father was amazed! He had no idea who had done this, so he thanked God. The night before the second daughter came of age, St. Nicholas did the same thing! The father was even more amazed! Now two of his daughters could get married! The night before the third daughter was to come of age, the father was so curious about who was slipping these coins into his window that he stayed awake all night to catch the generous person. St. Nicholas was clever, though, and snuck up onto the roof and slipped the coins into the chimney. He must have really liked that technique of delivering presents since as Santa Claus he still uses it today! Santa Claus’s generosity began as a response to the amazing love of God. Santa’s gifts are intended to point us towards Jesus, just like John the Baptist’s words.
This Advent we are invited to join John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, and even Santa Claus as witnesses to the amazing good news of the Gospel. Our religion may be thousands of years old, but Christ is just as alive and just as important today as he was in the days of John the Baptist. This Advent, let us join John the Baptist in becoming witnesses to our loving, incarnated, resurrected God. This Advent, let us get out of our own way and let the light of Christ shine through us.