A witness points to someone other than self. “This is not about me. That is the one,” the witness says. We don’t get this verse, but in verse twenty-nine, John precisely this. “Behold,” John says. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s worth looking at the Isenheim altar piece in particular. But in many old paintings you can tell who John the Baptist is by the fact that he points to Jesus.
It’s not about me. People say that all the time, but how many people actually believe it? John says “I am not…” In John’s gospel, Jesus says over and over, “I am.” This is God’s proper name, as we learned in Exodus. Moses asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The answer is astonishing. “I am what I am,” the LORD replies. “Tell them ‘I am’ sent you.’” Now the great “I am” is the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.
In Mark’s account, John prepares. In John’s account, John points. Both functions are important and necessary, but they are not the same. Once again, John begins where the synoptics end, both literally and figuratively. The purpose of the witness is “in order that all might believe.” John is not calling people to intellectual assent. Believing in John involves joining Jesus in the light.
This is the nature of witnessing. A witness brings information from a particular perspective. But a witness is not a journalist. A witness offers testimony in a process of decision-making. That judicial horizon is always in the background of John’s gospel. After all, we will get to the trial before Pilate where the real question is “What is truth?” What heightens the tension of witnessing is that “witness” in Greek is the same as the word for being martyred. A witness, in John’s gospel, has (no pun intended) “skin in the game.”
“On this Third Sunday of Advent in Year B, we have a unique opportunity to identify the role that all persons of faith are called to by God’” Paul Berge writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Each one of us who has heard the words of this text have seen the importance of John’s witness to Jesus. Like John,” Berge continues, “God commissions us to bear witness to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one who has come in the flesh, the one who is here with us, and the one who will come again in his reign as Lord of all. In this,” he concludes, “there is no greater witness to the truth of God’s work of salvation.”
Whenever possible, the form of a sermon should follow its function. If we’re talking about witnessing, then perhaps this is the opportunity for personal witnessing in the sermon. The preacher might spend some time sharing a bit of one’s faith story as a way to point to Jesus.
It’s going to be a dark winter; the experts have said so for months. They have, unfortunately, been right. We are neck deep in darkness and death as the pandemic rolls on. So, where is the light John is so sure he sees? “John’s testimony of Jesus reverberates across time as we look forward in this Advent season,” Courtney Buggs reminds us in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “We are reminded to thoughtfully consider our testimonies of word and deed—do our lives witness to the light of God within? In the midst of darkness, disappointments, and dreary outlooks, God sent Light into the world. Trying times have the possibility to yield tremendous testimonies,” she notes. “May God’s people ever bear witness that the Light is come and is now here. Thanks be to God.”
Can we do anything more countercultural at this moment than to witness to our joy at the Lord’s coming? (Please see the commentary on the second reading on Wednesday for more on this). Is this just more delusion and denial in this time of depression and disaster? No, there is not light without darkness. The light shines in the midst of the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (verse 5). In this time of raging pandemic, racist policies, and ridiculous rhetoric, perhaps this theme is the one that demands expression in a sermon.
“In this time of anticipation,” Karoline Lewis writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “perhaps we can imagine that our welcome for the Word made flesh might be where and how we can shine the light of God’s presence into the shadows of our human brokenness, bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and releasing those imprisoned to freedom.” The turn toward the first lesson Lewis makes is powerful and helpful.
In some traditions, December 13 is the Feast Day of Saint Lucy or Santa Lucia. Because of various traditions associating her name with light, she came to be thought of as the patron of sight and was depicted by medieval artists carrying a dish containing her eyes. In actuality, Lucy was probably a victim of the wave of persecution of Christians that occurred late in the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. References to her are found in early Roman sacramentaries and, at Syracuse, in an inscription dating from 400 CE. As evidence of her early fame, two churches are known to have been dedicated to her in Britain before the 8th century, at a time when the land was largely pagan.
In traditional Santa Lucia programs, the main character actually goes around “with her hair on fire.” She is crowned with candles and brings light to the house. What if Christians were known as the people go around like their hair is on fire for Jesus?
An illustration: But what kind of light is shining here? It’s not the overwhelming light of prize-winning Christmas displays. In fact, most of the world does not see the true light of the Messiah. This is the kind of light that is illustrated at the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Even though Snoopy has won the decorating contest, that’s not the real light. That’s not where the Merry Christmas comes.
Instead, it is when the kids see Charlie’s pain and respond with love. They take the light from Snoopy’s doghouse and use it to decorate the dead little tree. It is love that makes the tree beautiful, not the wattage. It is when Charlie Brown receives that gift of love that the children can launch into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
An Action: But I’m not opposed to Christmas lights. This year I think is a year to do as much with our lights as we can. We’re not going to be able to have much in the way of family gatherings in Advent and Christmas. That will make it a darker time for us. So, we are doing everything we can to put as much Christmas light into our house as possible “in order that we might bear witness to the light.”
Is this “disrespectful” of the pain and suffering going on among us and around us? No, I don’t think so. We can acknowledge the pain and suffering without surrendering to it. We can do that because we trust in the One who is both the Beginning and the End – the Alpha and Omega who has come in the middle.
Of course, many people decorate their houses with lights. Will we have opportunities to share with our neighbors why we fill our homes with light at this time of year? Will our lights be an opportunity to witness, to point to Jesus? That’s what makes the light holy.
Resources and References
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.