Any of you who were here last week may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Thinking, “Didn’t we hear about John the Baptist and making a way in the desert last week?”
You’re not wrong. We did hear a very similar reading last week, from the Gospel of Mark. What you heard this morning was from the Gospel of John (often called The Fourth Gospel). The Gospels according to John and Mark are different from the ones you would normally expect in these weeks leading up to Christmas. There is no baby Jesus in either of them, no stories of angels visiting Mary or Joseph, no journey to Bethlehem or visit from the magi. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lands in the story fully grown.
The Fourth Gospel comes at things from a very different direction. It starts with that beautiful ancient hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” We are introduced to a concept of the Christ before we ever see Jesus.
Into the middle of this poem of the cosmic Christ are inserted three little verses, the ones you heard at the beginning of the reading this morning. “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.”
So, big arrow pointing at John and saying, “NOT him.”
Then, a few verses later, in case you didn’t catch it the first time, John is confronted by religious authorities who want to know who he is (and by what authority he is acting). In response “he confessed, and did not deny it, but confessed” that he is NOT the Messiah. (I find the vehemence of that sentence hilarious.)
And the more they push him to clarify who he is, the more he states who he is not. He is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not “the prophet” (whoever that is meant to be). I read that in the Gospel of John, he is not even referred to as “John the Baptist.” He is just the one who comes before. The forerunner. A signpost pointing to someone else. The one who gets things ready for the one who IS.
John is the witness. The point of those few verses that intrude on the cosmic poem is to jolt us out of our reverie, and hear, “this is not just some lovely mythical poem. This happened. John was a witness to it.” John is pulling the whole thing into real time, into history. John is preparing the way for the very real presence of God in their midst.
But in the Fourth Gospel, John prepares the way for someone he does not know. In this Gospel, he and Jesus are not cousins who knew each other from the womb. John is witnessing to a hope, a promise, not a specific person. He doesn’t even know who Jesus is.
It feels a little weird to be this far into Advent, and still be waiting for a little Jesus in our readings.
He is there, if you know where to look. Say for instance in that first reading from the 61st chapter of Isaiah.
I want to be clear, I am not saying that the person who wrote those words down a thousand years before Jesus was born had Jesus in mind. The original context of this passage is in the community that has returned from Exile, and has rebuilt (or is rebuilding) the city and the Temple. The person who wrote these words down was not dreaming of some far-off day when Jesus would come and save us all from ourselves. The person who wrote this was calling for someone to act in the moment to make a difference in the lives of the marginalized and oppressed.
In the Scriptures there is an expectation that every 50 years will be the Year of the Jubilee—a year when all debts would be canceled, lands would be returned to the original owners, slaves would be freed, fields would be allowed to lie fallow…It was a lovely dream; it probably never happened.
The prophet is calling on the community that claims to belong to God to start living by God’s values. To live as though we are in the Jubilee year, the year when wrongs are set right and people are restored to wholeness. To seek to fulfill God’s mission on this earth: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to comfort those who mourn, to build up, to repair that which had become broken. To be people of reconciliation instead of division.
We Christians see Jesus in this passage, because we remember that story from one of the Gospels (Luke, I think), when he has returned from his time of temptation in the wilderness, and he is invited to take the ‘teacher’s seat’ in the Sabbath gathering. He takes the scroll of Isaiah and reads these same verses, and then declares that it has been fulfilled in their hearing. He takes it as his job description, his mission.
Those promises sound great to the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, the people with nothing. They hear in them the promise that things are going to get better for them. But if you are the person who benefits from the status quo, it’s not such great news. It means letting go of things you might prefer to hold onto. It means making room for people you might rather not have around. It means you don’t get to hoard more than you need while there are people in the community who don’t have enough.
We like to think of the cosmic Jesus, the eternal Word, who came to save us from our sins in the sweet bye-and-bye. The average American Christian is much less comfortable with the One who declared—and still declares—the Year of Jubilee. The follower of Jesus is meant to live as though every year was the Jubilee.
For those of you who know that the third Sunday of Advent is also known as “Gaudete” or “Rejoice” Sunday, you may wonder what is the connection between Rejoice and Jubilee.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians calls on us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances.” This is not about avoiding suffering, but engaging it. Looking for the ways that God is present with us at all times. Looking for the opportunities to testify to the light. Sometimes those opportunities will be in very sad, dark, heartbroken places. In fact, most of them will be. To rejoice is not to be blindly happy even in the most inappropriate moments. To rejoice is to cling to the hope, the truth, the promise that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
Each of us is called to be a witness to the light. Each of us is caled to be a voice, crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. Each of us is called to rejoice always, even—perhaps especially—when it’s hardest to do so. Rejoice whether it is, in the words of Leonard Cohen, the holy or the broken hallelujah.
Rejoice. When the light breaks through the darkness, rejoice. When the mourning are comforted, rejoice. When broken hearts are bound up, when the captives are liberated, when the good news silences all the bad. Rejoice.
And testify, witness to the good news: The Lord is near.