Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
December 13, 2020
John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 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.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Van Benthem tells the story of a man named Marvin, who like his father and grandfather before him was a tailor. When the building where his family’s tailor shop was sold and tore down, Marvin started working for a men’s clothing store on the other side of town. He was such a good tailor that most of his customers followed him. His reputation spread, and people came to him in even greater numbers than before.
When someone came into the store to purchase a new suit, they would more than likely ask for Marvin because they could trust him to help pick out the right fabric and the right color. The store manager would call Marvin from his workspace in the back. Marvin would arrive wearing a suit that was shiny and worn, hair unkempt, shirt tucked halfway in and halfway out, with chalk and pincushion in hand. Unaware of his own appearance, he would begin his work with the customer.
He worked silently, yet a comfortable silence, the kind of silence that seemed to invite the customer to speak. And Marvin listened. He was a good listener. He listened to stories and in hearing those stories it felt to customers as if he were clothing their soul as well as body. In Marvin’s hands, an overcoat was more than a garment to be put on and taken off again. It was as if the wearer was being warmed on the inside and would never be cold in quite the same way again. Where someone else saw only a customer, Marvin saw the opportunity to help others become more of what God created them to be. When others looked at Marvin, they didn’t see anything about which to be impressed. But when Marvin was their tailor, they experienced something important and meaningful. It wasn’t about him but about what he could do for his customer.
I really debated whether or not to put up outdoor Christmas lights this season. I’ve done it every year since moving to Novi in 2007. At first I was the only one on our cul-de-sac but as the years have passed many others have joined in the practice. This year, with pandemic worries and concerns, it seemed as though it just wasn’t in my heart.
But as Thanksgiving approached, something pulled on my heartstrings. I felt a sense of responsibility to put up those lights. I didn’t want to be the only one on the cul-de-sac without them. I needed the lights to be some kind of statement to my soul and I thought perhaps that others needed to see my lights as a witness to my soul. So on a warm November weekend, I decided to put up my outdoor lights. I even added a few extra strings along the deck and the trees behind my house. And while I normally don’t turn on my outdoor lights until Thanksgiving night, I turned them on a full week early. I needed something that would speak to the hope that lies within me, the hope that fuels the Christmas season.
In his book, Christmas: A Candid History, author Bruce David Forbes writes about the importance of light for the early celebrations of Jesus’ birth. In the dead of winter, when the days are the shortest, festivals of light were essential. They bore witness to the hope that was needed and to the importance of light for the human body, and mind, and soul.
On the third Sunday of Advent, the main character once again is John the Baptist. Last week’s story about John was from the gospel of Mark. This time we get to hear about John’s ministry from the perspective of the gospel of John. John is described as a witness, one who came to testify to the light in a time of great darkness. We might think of witnesses only in terms of a judicial function, as ones who have direct knowledge of an event or situation, and give testimony concerning the facts of a case. John saw himself as a witness in his particular time and situation. He was a witness to something that was coming and something that was happening. He had to testify to what God was about to do, in fact what God was already doing. Like Marvin the tailor, his message wasn’t about himself, rather he pointed to the potential presence of God as he saw it in others.
John lived in a time in which the tyrants forced their heavy hand to keep the peace. People lived in fear of authority. Many labored daily with the burden of economic uncertainty. People were worried about their financial obligations and the necessities of life. One’s goodness was measured purely by how well one followed the letter of the law, and that only increased the sense of individual anxiety. Perhaps John’s time is a bit like our own. Uncertainty and darkness abounded. People were searching for answers, for solutions, for a savior. They wondered if John might be the salvation they were waiting and looking for.
John was not the light, nor even the source of the light. He was a witness to the light. He pointed out the importance of light to others. He never claimed greatness for himself. He did not exult himself or try to live in the adulation of his own achievement. Instead of taking advantage of the darkness to make people fearful and garner their support, he wanted them to know that the darkness around them was not of God’s choosing. The author of John writes, “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 the Baptist proclaimed that the time of God’s coming had arrived. Into the darkness a light would shine. Soon, all of the faithful would be able to see the road of life’s journey more clearly and view it from a true and proper perspective.
Defying the darkness seems to satisfy something in our soul. Perhaps that is why we put up Christmas lights. Perhaps it is more important than ever this year. We mourn the loss of lives and the loss of our routine and tradition. We are all just plain worried and tired, worn down or disappointed. Our society struggles with issues of violence and hatred. Many live with brokenness and want. All around the darkness seems to press in upon us. We all need more light. And it is more important than ever to be a witness to the light.
I read this week that John the Baptist was perhaps the most effective non-Jesus in history. That’s quite a statement! He didn’t pass out tracts or tell others that he possessed the secret to their salvation. John’s message was grow less so Jesus might increase. John knew nothing other than to speak about his identity in connection to the identity of the one who was coming. This Advent season, we are asked to claim our identity by witnessing to and reflecting the identity of Jesus ourselves. In a time of falsehoods, we are to witness to truth. In a time of anger, we are to witness to love. In a time of uncertainty, we are to witness to hope. In a time of fear, we are to witness to faith. In those things we become a light which points to the light which guides our lives.
According to the book The Life of Francis d’Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be given such an invitation, the monk readily accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets and alleys, even by the homes outside the city. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people. At the day’s end the two headed back for home. Not once did St. Francis give a sermon or speak directly about a lesson from the gospel. Greatly disappointed, the young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.” Francis responded, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach- unless we preach everywhere we walk.”
Living in our troubled world, in the midst of these most difficult circumstances, surrounded by pandemic illness and isolation and choices, we can bear witness to the light to which John the Baptist witnessed. We may not have answers but we can have hope. God is already acting to bring something redemptive in our lives and in our world. Put up your light. Light your candle. Pray with hope. Point to the promise of God that is here and yet to come, the promise of light that will overcome any darkness. Be a witness to the light. Light will overcome this darkness.