Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon for Advent 3: John 1:6-9, 19-28

A Witness and a Voice

I’m not sure which school for aspiring politicians John the Baptist went to, but he obviously had a thing or two to learn about how to get attention and grab the limelight. Imagine him participating in a modern election campaign! The journalists and interviewers descend on him and decide to ask him some important questions:
“So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who’s finally going to defend us from foreign terrorists and make our streets safe from crime?”
“I am not”.
“Oh – er – well, are you the one who’s going to solve the problem of poverty and make our society prosperous so that everyone finally has enough? And are you the one who’s going to do away with excessive taxation?”
“I am not”.
“You’re…not? Ah… well, can you promise to bring the nation back to traditional values? Are you the one we’ve been waiting for to remind us that we’re a Christian nation and enforce Christian standards in government?”
“I am not”.
“You’re not? Well then, John, what exactly are you planning to do?”
“I’m planning to point away from myself to the one who’s really worth voting for, whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie”.
“Oh? Then why are you wasting our time? Where’s his press conference?”
Now you might think I’m making a rather far-fetched comparison here, but in fact, as John would say, ‘I am not’! Today we’re so used to hearing the word ‘Messiah’ in a religious context that we strip it of all political connotations, but in fact in the time of John the Baptist it was a very political word. The Messiah really was the one people were waiting for to make their borders safe, to deliver them from injustice and crime, to restore prosperity, and to bring the nation back to its roots in God and God’s commandments! And when people were asked, “Are you the Messiah?” it was very unusual for them to say, “I am not”!

Today we have a long line-up of Messianic candidates, all ready to tell us that they are on a mission from God to save the world, or at least our own nation. Our opposition parties all want us to believe that if they take power it will be ‘a new day’ for Canada, and through their efforts we’ll be saved from the consequences of the current economic downturn. The governing Conservatives, meanwhile, use apocalyptic language to describe what will happen if we dare to put anyone else in their place; we’ll make the separatists the real government of Canada. Meanwhile, in recent years the government to the south of us seems to have believed that it is the Messiah appointed by God to clean up the world, whether the world wants to be cleaned up or not. And of course there’s never a shortage of rock stars and media personalities with the perfect solution to all the ills of the world.

The first thing John wants us to know, then, is that ‘there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him’. And to understand what he’s saying here we need to think a bit more about the concept of the Messiah and what exactly it means. The ‘Messiah’ was not just a religious figure, a sort of Old Testament version of the Pope, or Billy Graham, or Confucius. The Old Testament people were going through times of great suffering, and they looked to the prophets to bring them a word of hope. The prophets foretold a coming great day, the ‘Day of the Lord’, when the nations of the world would finally turn to the one true God. They would stream to Jerusalem to learn God’s law and to submit to his judgements; everyone would beat their swords into ploughshares, and no one would learn war any more. The lion would lie down with the lamb – in other words, natural enemies would be reconciled one with another. On that day the orphans and widows and the poor and marginalised people would be safe under the Lord’s own rule at last.

It would be a ‘year of Jubilee’. This was a powerful idea from the books of Moses. Under the original legislation given to Moses on Mount Sinai, every fiftieth year was supposed to be a year of Jubilee for Israel. In the year of Jubilee all debts were to be cancelled, all slaves were to be set free, and all land was to revert to the family that originally owned it. In this way the unjust accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few rich and powerful people would be prevented; everyone would have enough, and no one would have too much. Interestingly enough, religious conservatives who want us to return to clear biblical standards of sexual morality don’t seem quite so excited by the idea of returning to the equally clear biblical idea of the year of Jubilee! But it’s quite plain in the Messianic passages in the Old Testament; it’s what Isaiah means in today’s reading, for instance, when he says that he has been anointed ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour’ (Isaiah 61:1b-2a).

Another Old Testament idea that describes the future hope of God’s people is the idea of ‘shalom’. This word is usually translated ‘peace’, but in fact it means far more than that. Today when we say ‘peace’ we either mean ‘the absence of war’ or ‘the absence of emotional turmoil inside’. But to the Old Testament people, ‘shalom’ meant wholeness and well-being – not for individuals, but for the whole community, which included the individuals in it. It meant not only the absence of violence and war, but also the achievement of economic justice, care for the vulnerable, healing for the sick, freedom for the slaves. It meant everyone having enough and no one having too much. All of this is what an ancient Israelite meant when he said the word of greeting, ‘Peace be with you’.

In the time of Isaiah many people looked back to the days of their first really great king, David. They saw David as being the closest thing to a godly king they’d ever had, and they came to believe that God would send them another king like him to usher in the new age of shalom. It was their custom to pour olive oil over the head of a new king, symbolising the power of God anointing him for his role. And so they called this coming king ‘the Anointed One’ – in Hebrew, ‘the Messiah’, in Greek, ‘the Christ’.

Now, with all that in mind, listen again to these words from our first reading:
The spirit of the LORD God is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn… (Isaiah 61:1-3)
This is Messianic language; these words are spoken by the one God has anointed to bring the new age of shalom. And when John the Baptist is asked, ‘Are you that one?’ he replies honestly, ‘I am not’.

Many years ago Bruce Cockburn wrote these words in a song called ‘Laughter’:
Let’s hear a laugh for the man of the world
who thinks he can makes things work;
tried to build the new Jerusalem, and ended up with New York.
The problem is that the ‘man of the world’ has always tried to build the Messianic kingdom without the true Messiah; we try to bring in the kingdom of God while ignoring the one God sent to be the King. And so we have to put someone else in his place; we’re always looking for the next great leader who’ll finally get things sorted out around here. I’m guessing it won’t be Barack Obama or Stephen Harper or even Michael Ignatieff! It’s a rare leader who has the courage to say honestly, with John the Baptist, “I am not the one. Let me point you to the one you really ought to be following”.

If we Christians are true to John’s example here, then, we’ll be insisting that there’s only one true Messiah – our Lord Jesus Christ. So what’s our role in the process? Again, we take our lead from John here; he saw himself as a witness and a voice. Let’s look at our passage again.

John says of himself, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). John is quoting here from Isaiah chapter 40. The prophet was preaching to a people in exile and telling them that their time of captivity was almost over; God was going to lead them home through the desert to their own land:
‘A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’ (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Isaiah announced that God would lead his people home from exile. John the Baptist used these words to announce that in Jesus God was bringing his people home from spiritual exile and establishing a new community of justice and love. John said, ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ – meaning the kingdom of shalom, the kingdom of peace and reconciliation.

This is part of our mission as a Christian people today – to announce continually that the kingdom of God is at hand. Isaiah announced it in a time of suffering when God’s people were crying out for deliverance. We have to announce it in a time of rampant materialism and greed, a time when people have been told so often that the one who dies with the most toys wins that they have really come to believe it. They really do believe that happiness means the latest computer and the most powerful SUV and the largest possible house and the little white iPod earphones stuck in your ears. And we Christians are called to be a voice crying in the wilderness, announcing that the kingdom of God is coming and that on the day it arrives all that stuff won’t mean a thing.

So there’s a lot of nay-saying involved in being ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’; false gods and false messiahs have to be identified and exposed. But there’s also a positive role for us, the role of a witness. Look at verses 7-9:
(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
We all know the role of a witness in a courtroom; a witness testifies about what they themselves have experienced. They don’t report hearsay, and they don’t try to argue the case; they simply pass on the truth as they have experienced it. The Christian community is called to be a witness, pointing to Jesus who is the true light of the world. We point to him by the words we speak and also by the way we live our lives, and both of these elements are important. Words without actions lack credibility; actions without words lack clarity.

A few years ago the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania gave a clear witness to the true light. It was a tragic event – a gunman entered their little schoolhouse, and when the smoke cleared several of their daughters were dead, along with the gunman himself. But to the amazement of the world, the Amish not only forgave the killer, but also reached out to his family and made sure that some of the aid money they received was passed on to them. The Amish seemed surprised at people’s amazement at the forgiveness they offered. “It’s in the Lord’s Prayer”, they explained; “we pray it seven times a day!” By their actions the Amish gave a clear witness to the way of Jesus.

But there’s also our spoken witness to Jesus; we can’t avoid this responsibility. He’s the light, and we’re responsible for pointing to that light, especially in places where the darkness is overwhelming. This doesn’t necessarily mean passing out tracts or knocking on doors or beating people over the head with a Bible. It simply means being willing to tell the story of Jesus’ work in our lives in such a way as to recommend him to others.

Ray Taylor was a man who was willing to do that. Ray was the director of the Church Army in Canada for over forty years. Some of us get more sophisticated and self-conscious as we get older, but Ray Taylor didn’t. I watched him over the years sharing the gospel story with sophisticated church members and with down and outs, with young and old alike. He was never ashamed to speak up for Jesus; he loved the Lord passionately and wanted to be a faithful witness more than anything else. He was not the light – in fact, he was far from perfect – but he was a good witness to the light.

There is only one Messiah. There is no political leader or king or philosopher or media personality who is equal to the task of bringing peace and justice to the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who can do it. So we Christians, like John the Baptist, are called to point to him. We’re a voice crying in the wilderness, reminding people of the coming kingdom of God and of the emptiness of the various alternatives to it. We’re witnesses, pointing to Jesus by our lives and by our words. Let us pray that God will give us grace to be faithful witnesses, so that others also may come into the light of Christ.

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