3rd Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2011
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
It is said that the famous Reformed theologian Karl Barth kept a copy of the Gruenewald “Crucifixion” painting from the Isenheim altar hanging on the wall over his desk. You may know the picture. It is a particulary gruesome depiction of Christ on the cross, twisted in pain. Mattias Gruenewald was not only a painter, he worked in a hospital and portrayed Jesus as bearing some of the horrible diseases Gruenewald encountered in his hospital life. On the right hand side of the picture is a raggedy looking John with a book of the prophets in one hand. The other hand points to Jesus, suffering on the cross. Barth claimed that John was the model for his own role as a theologian and teacher, and for all of us Christians, pointing to Jesus “in an almost impossible way.”
Out of the grand creation hymn that begins the Fourth Evangelist’s Gospel, emerges the figure of John as a witness to testify to the light that comes. He is not identified as ‘the Baptizer’ as we heard in Mark’s Gospel last week. As a matter of fact who he is not takes up greater space than who he is. He is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet. He is not a rabbi, or a Biblical scholar, he comes without authorization from the Church. He identifies himself as the voice, sent to prepare the way for the One who comes with real power.
John’s role is to witness, to testify that God is at work. He points to God through the presence of God with us – Jesus, the Christ. He speaks about what he knows, God’s presence has come. The Fourth Evangelist, John, is not the same as the one who testifies before us today, but his role is the same. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called signs, because they point to who God is and what God can do. Jesus himself testifies to God’s power and reign, even as he prepares to leave his disciples on their own and bequeaths them the gift of the Spirit, the Comforter, who will continue to be God at work in and among them.
Again in this Advent season, we have an Advent Gospel reading. No Baby Jesus or Angels or shepherds or wise men to romanticize the story. Get ready, listen up, keep your eyes and ears open, something wonderful is about to happen. John gives us the bare minimum of certainty about what God wants of him. It is to tell the story he knows, that God’s power is present in his day in the One who walks among them. He is our model, too.
Our work is to testify to what we know. As John testified in the simplest terms, so we too, are called to speak about the presence that we know is there. Even in the darkest time, or perhaps, especially in the darkest times, we turn to God’s promises and God’s presence to understand where we are and how we will continue. None of us makes it through this life alone. So often I have heard fellow Christians say, “How do people who aren’t Christians manage to live through the desperate times without the knowledge that God is with them?” What is your story? How has God sustained you through grief and loss, through struggle and worry? How has love of God inspired and moved you to care about justice and hunger and those who are left out? That is your witness. Our work is to share the simplicity of the confidence we have that God is with us no matter what.
We have learned that God does not orchestrate a perfect life for any of us. Evil exists in the world and it knocks us down all the time. What is the word of grace that makes it possible for us to continue? It is the love of God poured out on us, freely, without measure. God hears our cries; God walks with us. God forgives our sin and invites into God’s own arms. It is not up to us to try to argue people into faith. It is not up to us to imagine that we could preach the perfect sales pitch. It is up to us to tell what Jesus has done for us. It is up to us to tell about the grace that assures us that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. We just need to talk about our faith and how it sustains us. And then like Jesus, also in John’s Gospel, we invite people to ‘come and see.’ Our real work is not here in this gathering, our real work, like that of John, is out in the world.
This is such a wonderful time to be the church. People are hurting, people are scared, people don’t know where to turn. And we have love of the Creator of the Universe to comfort us, to guide us, to assure us. Could there be any better gift to give than to share the love of God with someone who doesn’t know how it works? That it is there for them, too? We wait in darkness during Advent, but the light of Christ burns bright in our hearts.
John comes to us today to point us to our own witness, our own testimony. He stands right in the middle of God’s promises to God’s people and God’s coming among them. He comes to assure us that the darkest forces in the universe are not as powerful as they appear. He comes to show us that everything that would lure us away from the love and promises of God are swept away by “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” May the light of that truth be the flame in your heart, giving you the courage to speak, to witness, to testify to Christ among us today.
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.