Sermon - 11th December 2011
Advent 3 - Witness to the Light
Scripture - Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
During Advent many of us have a lot to do. Anyone with family responsibilities is busy getting ready for the social and housekeeping demands of Christmas. Those of us involved in businesses or services are often dealing with the Christmas rush for our products, and our employers usually need us to manage the business side of this very demanding quarter of the year with extra time, additional pressure, and perhaps longer hours.
And amid all this rushing around, preachers in Advent are inclined to ask us to lift our eyes from the day-to-day, to look beyond tomorrow; look beyond next year; look to the end of the age and think about some of the ultimate truths of our faith. In practice, I’m more likely to be looking at the turkey, and at the oven, and wondering if the one will ever fit in the other.
In reality, it’s a bit of a culture clash. With everything that’s going on around us, it’s not easy to find time to stop, and think, and consider what God is really asking of us in what we call a time of waiting, but what is more likely to be a time of hectic doing.
Well, in today’s reading we get an answer which is as simple or as complex as we want to make it. The gospel writer tells us that God is asking us to be the light of Christ, and to achieve this by being witnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus. And to show us what being a witness looks like, the gospel talks about John the Baptist as the first witness to Jesus.
If I were sharing reflections with you about John the Baptist from any of the other gospel accounts, I would be talking about what it means to be a prophet and what it means in a modern setting to speak God’s truth to the centres of power in today’s world. The classic message of the prophet in Jewish religious history was: “For God’s sake, change your ways!” And this is what gets reported about the Baptist in the other gospels as “Repent: the Kingdom is at hand!”
But when we hear what the Gospel of John has to say about the Baptist, we are called to look at him from a different standpoint. The focus of the Baptist’s message is now: “Here, among us, is the chosen One of God”; and the gospel challenges us to understand what it means for the Baptist to be a witness to God’s anointed One.
John the gospel-writer even quotes a conversation between the Baptist and some Jewish officials where they ask the Baptist if he is a prophet, and he says ‘No’. Clearly the writer of the fourth gospel wants us to view the Baptist in a different context, fulfilling a different role from what the earlier gospel accounts defined for him.
Whatever we hear about the Baptist, we can recognise and admire his insight into the failings and injustices of his time, his discernment of who Jesus really was, his willingness to give way to Jesus’s own message and ministry, and his courage to hold fast to his beliefs and principles - even when death was the price for doing so. So, when we reflect on the message of the fourth gospel, we are bound to think about how today’s witnesses to the truth of Jesus measure up to the principles displayed by that first witness, the Baptist. What does it mean to be the Light of Christ - in our own lives, and in today’s world? If that is our role as modern-day witnesses of Jesus, what is God asking of us?
If we recognise in the Baptist an insight into the failings and injustices of his time, perhaps we can give witness to our faith by a willingness to challenge today’s injustices when we encounter them.
If we admire in the Baptist his discernment of who Jesus really was, perhaps we can actively grow in our knowledge and understanding of Jesus’s life and teaching as we seek to discern God’s truth.
And if we acknowledge in the Baptist his courage to hold on to his beliefs and principles, perhaps we can find the courage within ourselves to believe more strongly in who we are, who we love, and how we are blessed in our lives by the God of unconditional love who gives us life.
Jean Vanier, a modern French theologian, in his series of reflections on the Gospel of John (Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John ) says:
“Witnesses tell how Jesus is transforming their lives and bringing them a new inner freedom, peace and joy. People in our world find hope when they find credible witnesses, men and women with a living faith, bearing witness to the presence of God - more by their lives, their growing compassion and their dynamic love than by their ideas or their words.”
It seems to me that the common thread which runs through all who would be witnesses to Christ is that, in a hundred and one different ways, they harness their beliefs in justice, truth and courage to build up the lives of others - because that is where they find Christ.
Self gets sacrificed in an expression of love for other people. And it usually happens quietly, without fuss, perhaps even secretly, and often without thanks. This is why I say it can be as simple or as complex as we want to make it.
To witness the love of Christ to another person may be no more than coming alongside them when they need to share their concerns. It may be no more than sitting quietly and providing companionship. It may be quite impersonal, such as sending a letter of protest against an injustice or signing a petition to bring about change. Or it may be an inspiring act such as marching proudly with thousands of other people through the streets of Manchester at the end of August each year to show pride in who we are and who God made us to be. Whether the scale of our actions is big and dramatic, or barely perceptible, if what we do has the effect of building up the lives of other people, we are showing the light of Christ to the world and witnessing to our faith.
Over the next few weeks our church language will be full of expressions of light. One of the continually recurring themes of our Christian tradition is the idea of light conquering darkness, and the Christmas season in particular is full of references to God’s presence being represented as light coming into the world. Perhaps our challenge as witnesses to the light of Christ is not only to see the light, not only to recognise it as the life of God in the world, but to take it more fully into our lives and share it with others.
So, even with everything that is going on around us at this time; even though waiting probably has to give way to planning, working, travelling, catering, cleaning, persuading, tolerating and - for some - surviving, the gospel which speaks of witnessing asks whether we can find just the briefest moment to think about whoever might be captured in the light we give out as witnesses to Jesus, the light of the world: a moment to think about the light which each one of us shines into our relationships, our communities, and our world - because they are the ones to whom, in simple kindness or in grand gesture, we witness our faith.
If we can do that, I think we will be surprised by how many of our friends, relations and acquaintances do actually see the light of Christ reflected in our lives, because witnessing to our faith can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be.