There is a strong contrast between Advent and Christmas. It is a little like the contrast between waiting to have a baby, and then actually having that baby. When I was expecting Lilibeth, I had lots of ideas about what he or she would be like: first and foremost, would it be a boy or a girl; what colour eyes would the baby have; would the baby take after me; and most important of all would the child be fit and healthy. So I waited for the baby to come and I tried to get things ready as best as I could with so little knowledge of what to expect. But when Lilibeth arrived, everything changed. It was a little like I thought it would be, but also very different. Lilibeth looked more like her Dad. She was a girl (obviously). She takes more after my Mum than she does me. Her eyes are the same colour as my Dad’s. But the biggest difference is in the way I felt and viewed the world. The moment that I held my beautiful little girl in my arms I knew that my life would never be the same again, and nor would I ever want it to. I had experienced what it is like to feel true unconditional love at first sight, and no amount of preparation and expectation could prepare me for that, knowing that I was now responsible for another human being for whom I would gladly lay down my life if I ever needed to. And because of this I truly grasped how much God loves us; after all He too was prepared to give his life for us.
During Advent we get ready. We get ready to celebrate the birth of another baby and we get ready for his coming again. Once Jesus came into the world, things were never the same again. Never. Now Jesus was not the kind of saviour that everyone had in mind; in fact it was a bit like the difference between the expectation and the reality of Lilibeth’s arrival. Jesus was a different kind of baby. No prince, although we call him the prince of peace. And certainly no king, although we call him the king of kings. He was born to regular working people. Not in Jerusalem. Not to a rabbi. But to Mary and Joseph. The people of Israel had been waiting more than 500 years for him. Prophet after prophet had expected him to come and save them.
The last prophet before Jesus came was John the Baptist. John was just a few years ahead of Jesus, and he warned the people to prepare for Jesus.
Today is the half way point in Advent and it gives us a little break from the solemn nature of the season so that we might evaluate where we are in our preparation for the coming of the light into the world.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing very well. My preparation has fallen behind. You see, I’m strictly an “A type” and I’ve been so busy with day-to-day tasks that I haven’t put aside time for a special Advent devotion. I often try to read an Advent-themed book or take on a spiritual discipline, but not so far… I just can’t seem to slow down long enough to take on another task.
And you know, some things never change, I was once described as someone who is “perpetually running in circles trying to stop.” That’s how I feel this Advent. I can’t stop: there’s so much to do and yet I feel guilty for not doing something, anything to help me focus on what is really taking place right now: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus into the world, into our lives. But the reading from today, has saved me. I now have a game plan.
When I was preparing my sermon, today’s Gospel made me aware of the paradox that exists in Advent, between the expectation to be still, to wait, and the overwhelming urge to take action, to do something to prepare for Jesus’ coming into the world.
I was inspired by the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of John. It differs from the other three Gospels in that he is referred to as John the Baptist in Matt, Mark & Luke, but in John he is called “the forerunner of Jesus”. We read that “he came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
In today’s Gospel, we don’t spend a lot of time reading how neurotic John was, we simply see him as a maverick preacher who made the religious establishment nervous, so nervous that they sent a party out to interrogate him.
“Who are you?” they asked. John replies that he i not the Messiah, or a prophet announcing the Messiah, or one such as Elijah, or the prophet, Moses. John identifies himself as the prophetic voice of one such as the figure of Isaiah whose role in the sixth century before Christ announced the return of God’s people from their years of captivity in Babylon: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (1:22-23, citing Isaiah 40:3).
John’s role is to make straight the way to the one who comes as the Messiah, and he does this through his identity in the role given him by God. He is simply the witness to the one whom God has sent.
The Gospel of John identifies John in a unique way and serves as a marvellous Advent text. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Gospel of John identifies this person only as John, and does not attach his identity as “the baptist” with his person. Only in a very unique way do we hear about the baptism of John in his words: “I baptize with water” (1:26), and in reference to Jesus in later verses, John says, “I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31).
John bears witness to the baptism event: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).
These verses are not included in the assigned text for this Sunday, but they are very important in filling out the portrait of John and his role in this gospel. What we begin to see is that the figure of John in the Gospel of John plays a unique role. John is not identified as the forerunner of the Messiah, which is his role in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Gospel of John, he is portrayed as the primary witness to Jesus as he looks back on his relationship to Jesus. John is the first person in this gospel to bear witness and confess that Jesus is “the Son of God” (1:34). This confession is heard from a human witness not until the very end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear the confession of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus has breathed his last: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).
The role of John continues to unfold in the Gospel of John in 3:22-30; 5:31-35; 10:40-42. In these ongoing texts, it is always clear that John’s role is one of the primary witnesses to Jesus. John is identified as “the friend of the bridegroom” who rejoices in the presence of the bridegroom and announces: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:29-30) and Jesus identifies the role of John: “He was a burning and shining Lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (5:35).
This Gospel then begs the questions: “Who are we? How do we identify ourselves in this world? Do we testify to the light?”
In this season of Advent, this season of waiting and preparing for the light, my game plan in a busy world where I have no time for extra reading or learning, is to prepare for the coming of Jesus by testifying to the light so that others might believe through me.
So, if you are like me, and can’t seem to get yourself in a waiting mode; or if you simply haven’t begun your Advent preparation, I invite you to join me in modelling John’s ministry in our lives.
Now I’m not suggesting that we run out and get camel hair coats. Personally I prefer cashmere. And I’m not suggesting that we eat locusts and honey, although I will probably need to go on some sort of diet after the forthcoming festivities.
I am suggesting that we, as disciples of Christ, be witnesses… that we testify to the light, so that others might believe through us.
“How,” you might ask, “can we do that?”
Well, we could begin by telling others about this wonderful church community and how “we care for one another so that we can care for others.”
We could actually add the word, “God” to our secular vocabularies and use it from time to time to communicate that he is a part of our lives.
We could even talk about the difference faith makes in our lives.
If you’re not quite ready for that … yet, you might consider letting people know who you are by the way you live your lives, the way you treat others, all others. In other words, if you’re not comfortable preaching the Gospel, you can simply live it.
Share the love of Christ and invite friends and neighbours to our Christmas services.
We can all witness to the light and we can do it as we carry out our day-to-day activities.
I know this because it is written in Isaiah (61:1-4):
“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.”
That’s who we are and that is how we can prepare for the arrival of the Messiah in our own lives.