|GOSPEL||John 1:6–8, 19–28|
John’s gospel describes Jesus as the “light of the world.” John the Baptist is presented as a witness to Jesus, one who directs attention away from himself to Christ, the true light.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Grace to you and peace, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
These last few weeks we’ve talked an awful lot about waiting. Pastor Jeni and I have done our best to make sure that we are all on the same page in regards to waiting, that we understand how important it is, and that we know that waiting is not passive, but active. We aren’t wasting time while we are waiting. But there’s something about this time, now three weeks into Advent, that the waiting begins to feel unbearable. At first, it felt like it may never get here and now we see a glimmer of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel, and things are beginning to get exciting!
Our readings for today made me think of pretty much any family road trip I’ve ever taken, and I’m guessing this scenario isn’t exclusive to me. Imagine, if you will, being a kid in the back seat (which is maybe pretty easy for you if you are, actually, the kid in the back seat of your road trips). You’re riding in the car for what seems like days to get a family Christmas party, family reunion, or vacation. You’ve tried your best to be patient. You’ve played silly little car games to pass the time, and maybe, if you’re young enough, you’ve had the ability to watch a movie on one of those fancy little DVD players. Maybe you’ve sung every Christmas song you know. But you’re running out of patience. You know what awaits you when you step through that door. You will be welcomed by the warm hugs, great food, presents, and the company of people you love dearly. You work through the gift possibilities in your head until it drives you batty. You wonder about whether or not they’ll have your favorite desserts. And you wonder and you wonder and you wonder until, like a lighthouse guiding you safely to shore, you spot that sign. The sign. It’s different for everybody, I suppose. For me, the sign was always the water tower that came into view first. For some of us, it’s the sign that says “Exit 1 Mile”. And for some of us, maybe it’s the old red barn that you always turn at. In whatever form it comes, it fills us with such excitement that we basically plaster ourselves to the car window like one of those suction cup cats, waiting for the house to come into view.
That’s the way I feel about this passage. Maybe you think I’m overreacting a bit, though. I mean, the passage in Mark from last week (Mark 1.1-8) and this passage from John are basically the same story. The same guy saying, pretty much, the same thing. But there’s one difference that jumps out to us almost instantly. After people ask him what he’s doing, John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Essentially, he’s saying, “It’s almost here! Keep your eyes peeled! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel!”
John understood his place. He understood that the best he could do, the best he would ever do, is to point people to Jesus. And it may be worth noting the fact that, when John was saying this, Jesus had already been born. Before people were asking John who he was, Jesus was already here, a holy king in carpenter’s clothing. Even before Jesus’ baptism, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, Jesus was still God with us, Emmanuel. When John says that one stands among us, he means it. It’s not some far off event. It’s not some theoretical situation with a vague date attached to it. He’s saying that, right here, right now, God is dwelling with us. And John, amidst all his baptisms and sermons about repentance, knows if he’s not pointing to Jesus, he’s wasting his time.
I think that’s why, in Mark and John, the first person you really meet is John. He’s the voice calling in the wilderness that we should get ready. The time of waiting is coming to an end. The time spent waiting on the promises of God is finally coming to an end. These people, gathered around him, would get to see the Son of God and watch as he completely turned the world upside down.
But, we all know that the story doesn’t end right then, don’t we? Jesus, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, came down to us, but we’re still here. And we are still waiting. We are still waiting for the promises of God, the promises laid out in our Isaiah text (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11), to be delivered. People are still grieving, people are still looking for someone to break down the shackles that hold them captive, and pain and death are still all around us. But, we wait with eager hope. We wait with expectation and anticipation, because we have seen what that hope looks like.
Yet, despite knowing what that hope looks like, we will still sometimes miss it when it comes into view. I feel like John’s words are still, sometimes, true. We don’t always know or recognize God at work. Sometimes we, like the Jews gathering at the Jordan River, miss the one who stands among us. We can easily get caught up in a whole lot of distractions, even though those distractions sometimes look holy. Churches get awfully busy this time of year, but sometimes we mistake the John for the Jesus. Sometimes, we place so much emphasis on the thing and don’t recognize the person in our own midst. We get caught up in the activities, the garland, the decorations, and fanfare but miss it when Jesus walks into the room.
Before I do any further, and you start thinking I’m a Grinch or a Christmas fun-hater, I want to say this. We put our tree before Thanksgiving. My family loves Christmas and the music and the decorations and the festivities, but without pointing to Jesus, all they are is extra work and distractions. Like John the Baptist, the best they can do is point us and others to Jesus. Because Jesus, not Christmas music, is our hope. Because Jesus, not the Christmas tree, is our light. Because Jesus, not the perfect gift, is our joy. Because Jesus, not mistletoe, is our love. This time of Advent, leading into Christmas, is so rich and full of symbolism. There’s a reason people prepare so much for Christmas. There is a reason that thousands of musicians spend countless hours writing, recording, printing, and performing Christmas music. It’s because this time is supposed to mean something. It’s supposed to point to something greater than themselves. They, like John the Baptist, offer a baptism of water and hand that points to Jesus, the promised one.
This is so difficult to remember in this time. It’s so easy to define ourselves by what we do. We define ourselves by our profession, our family role, our achievements, or anything else that we deem important. We do the same to others, too. We even define John as John the Baptist, because that’s what he did. But we can take a lesson from John, here. Instead of defining himself based on what he did, he immediately began defining himself based on what Jesus will do. He immediately began pointing to Jesus. “Yeah, I baptize with water,” he admits, “But that’s nothing compared to what Jesus is going to do. I’m not even worthy to be his slave.”
That’s what this season of waiting is meant to be. We wait and we wonder and we look out the window of that car for the sign that the promised destination comes closer. And what do we do when we see that sign? We point it out! We make sure that everybody in the car sees what we see. Kids may make that monkey sound (you know the one – “Ooo, ooo! Look over there!”) and adults may act nonchalant, just pointing and saying, “Well, looks like we’re getting close” (but kids, they wish they could make that monkey sound with you, trust me). Either way, the action is pretty clear. We want everybody in the car to know that it’s coming closer.
So the question is this: Who is in the car with you today? Okay, I understand that you could answer this question literally, but let’s move past that. Who is it that, like the people coming to John at the Jordan River, needs to know that there is something greater? Who needs to know that we don’t wait in vain and the promises are coming true? Who needs a helpful hand and a listening ear? Who needs to know that there’s more to this time than decorations and candy canes and gift wrap?
The answer: All of us. We all need reminding that things are not as they appear on the outside and that hope, peace, love, and joy don’t come from those things. We all need to recognize that we don’t always recognize Jesus in the face of the stranger or the oppressed. But praise God that Jesus coming didn’t depend on us doing everything right. Praise God for the people in our lives who point us past what we see to the one who has come to save us. Praise God that Jesus came to dwell among us, in the lowliest places, and we can praise him even when the waiting seems to take forever.
Keep waiting. Keep watching. We’re almost there. Hope is coming. Peace is coming. Jesus is coming. Amen.