Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Witness and a Voice (a sermon on John 1:6-9, 19-28)

Can you imagine John the Baptist participating in a modern election and being questioned by journalists at a press conference?

      “So, John, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who will defend our nation from terrorists and keep our streets safe from crime?”
      “I am not”.
      “Oh. Well, then, are you the one who who’ll solve the problem of poverty, who will make our society prosperous again, and do away with excessive taxation?”
      “I am not”.
      “Well, John, what exactly are you planning to do if we vote for you?”
      “Voting for me isn’t important. I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. He’s the one you really should be voting for; I’m just here to point you to him”.
      “Ah. So where’s his press conference, then?”

The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, which we used last Sunday, includes this phrase:
‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah…’

‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word; it means ‘anointed one’. It was the custom to anoint kings with olive oil at their coronations as a sign of God’s power coming down on them to equip them for their role. But - like us - the Israelites got tired of crooked politicians who ruled for their own benefit; they looked back to the golden age when David had been their king, and they longed for the day when God would send them another king like him – a king who would rule justly, care for the poor and needy, defend Israel from their enemies, and set up the Kingdom of God on earth. This king would truly be ‘the Messiah’.

They had high expectations for his coming! It would be a day when the nations of the world would turn to God; they would beat their swords into ploughshares and there would be no more studying the arts of war. It would be a day when natural enemies, like Israel and Assyria, would be reconciled and live together in peace. Israel would be free from tyrants, the land would enjoy peace and prosperity, and orphans and widows would be safe under the Lord’s just and loving rule.

It would also be a year of Jubilee. The Law of Moses said that every fiftieth year there was to be a Year of Jubilee in Israel: all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves set free, and – most importantly – all land was to revert to its original owners. The goal of this was to prevent one family accumulating great wealth at the expense of another.

The Jubilee was mentioned in our Old Testament reading for this morning:
‘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 brokenhearted, 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 61:1-2).
‘The year of the Lord’s favour’ means the year of Jubilee, when the captives are to be set free and the oppressed are to be liberated.

It was an attractive and compelling vision; who wouldn’t vote for a politician who promised all that! And the easiest way to get followers in the time of Jesus was to start using this kind of language. It was such a tempting way to gain power; you can be sure that if someone in those days was asked, ‘Are you the Messiah?” it would be rather unusual for them to say, “No”!

But John the Baptist said ‘no’. The first thing he wants people to know is this: “there’s only one Messiah, and I’m not him”. He says, “I am not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet”. The only one who is qualified to be the true Messiah is Jesus.

But the world would prefer to try to build the Messianic Kingdom without the true Messiah. The true Messiah is too challenging for us. We need to find someone else who’ll do the job in his place, someone who won’t demand that we sell our possessions and give to the poor, or love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. But it’s a very rare leader who has the courage to say, “No, I’m not the one. Let me point you to the true Messiah, the one you really need to be following; his way is the only way that’s really going to change the world’.

We Christians are called to follow the example of John the Baptist: to insist that there is only one Messiah, and it’s not us or Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau or any earthly leader; it’s Jesus. John was not the Messiah: he was a witness, and a voice. Look at what he says about himself in today’s gospel reading:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).
Earlier on in the chapter we read,
‘(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’. (John 1:7-9).
John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, and he was a witness to testify to the light of the world, Jesus himself.

So we go back to our collect for last Sunday: ‘Almighty God, who sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare your people to welcome the Messiah’. That’s what we’re being called to do this Advent and every Advent: welcome the true Messiah. We do this in three ways.

First, we refuse to listen to false Messiahs who propose alternative ways to find peace and happiness. In the long run, war and politics can’t solve the problems of the world. Those problems will only be solved by love in action, and that’s not so much a political program as a program of transformation that asks every one of us to change our hearts toward God and our neighbours. That’s what Jesus taught us.

So we refuse to listen to these false Messiahs. Secondly, we give our obedience to the true Messiah, Jesus. By his life and teaching, he has shone a brilliant light into the darkness of the world; our role as his followers is to let that light transform us. You know the kind of thing he’s talking about, because you’ve heard the gospels read many times, and read them for yourselves too. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God. He taught us to forgive those who sin against us and to love our enemies and pray for them. He taught us to live simple lives and give generously to the needy. He taught us to speak the truth, keep our promises, love God with all our hearts and be a neighbour to all in need. This is the program for us disciples of Jesus. Do you think there’s enough there for us to work on? I think there is.

So we refuse to listen to false Messiahs, and we give our obedience to the true Messiah. Lastly, like John the Baptist, we give our witness about Jesus to others.
He 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. (John 1:7-9).

My witness to you today is that the only way I can make sense of life in this crazy world is to follow Jesus. In his words and example I find the light of God. And so I want to share his story with others and encourage them to come to his light as well. That’s my role as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people”. The first part, ‘follow me’, leads inevitably to the second part, fishing for people; it’s an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.


John the Baptist is reminding us today that the true Messiah, the true light of the world, is Jesus. So let’s follow Jesus, live by his light, and spread it to others. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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