As a witness
Sermon preached at Enmore, 3rd Sunday of Advent, 17th. December 2017
Readings: Isaiah 61. 1–4, 8–11; 1 Thessalonians 5.12–28; John 1.6–8; 19–28
Last week we had a taste of Mark’s Gospel, reading the opening verses and being introduced to John the Baptist. This Sunday the lectionary gives us some of the prologue to John’s Gospel and we read John’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist. The two John’s are rather different. Mark’s John wears camel hair, eats locusts and wild honey and is known as the baptiser. John the Evangelist introduces him simply as a man sent from God who came as a witness to the light. His primary role is not as a baptiser but to be the one who testifies to the light coming into the world.
Witness is a word that John is rather fond of and most often he uses it of the witness or testimony given to the person of Jesus. John uses the noun ‘witness’ 14 times and the verb ‘to witness’ 33 times- far more than any other New Testament writer. In the fourth Gospel, John is the first to bear witness to Jesus. Later in the Gospel there will be other witnesses to Jesus: the Scriptures, God, Jesus’ own works, and his disciples. In chapter 5 in conversation with his critics after healing a man on the Sabbath day Jesus declares: “I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”
In the Christian world in which I grew up people talked a lot about ‘witnessing’. It was the term used for sharing your faith with others and therefore a word which, in my view, had scary connotations. Witnessing was something we were meant to do but most of us found difficult. These days the word is out of fashion but it is a good Biblical word and one that we probably need to reflect on. In Acts 1, Luke gives us Jesus’ farewell speech to his disciples before his ascension which include the words, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
So what does it mean to bear witness? The first thing to note is that the task of a witness is not to draw attention to themselves. When John is first introduced to us in John 1 the Evangelist makes it clear that John was not the light but only a witness to the light. John understood that very clearly. When the religious authorities came to question him about his identity he was unshakeable in his conviction of who he was not. Three times he is asked who he is. In reply he declares “I am not the Christ.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not the prophet.” John denied that he was the anointed one, the Messiah and denied that he was Elijah reborn. There was a widespread belief based on a prophecy in Malachi that Elijah would return before the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Jesus actually said on one occasion (Matt.11.14) that the coming of John the Baptist fulfilled that prophecy but John would not claim that title for himself. Nor would John accept that he was the great prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18 who would be like Moses. In the face of John’s denials, the religious leaders ask in exasperation, “What do you say about yourself?” John claims no title except the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the great ‘I am’. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am good shepherd.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “I am the true vine.” In stark contrast, John is the great, “I am not.”
Yet, even in his resolute statements about who he is not, who John really is and his purpose are inseparable from the Word made flesh, the one who is the true light. John’s identity is bound up with the identity of Jesus. As I mentioned last week John the Baptist is a familiar figure in religious art through the ages and he keeps popping up even when least expected. So a number of great paintings of the crucifixion have John the Baptist at one side pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Can we locate our identity as closely with Jesus? Is the ground of our being that we are loved and known by God? Is our self- regard based on what we have achieved or what we possess or is it grounded in the knowledge that we are loved by the God revealed in Jesus.
The second thing about being a witness is that a witness is committed. Witnessing is a legal concept. In Jewish law the witness of two people was required in order to prove anything. To be a witness is to commit oneself to a statement. Yes, the man I saw robbing the bank was very tall and had dark hair. The car that was speeding through the red lights was a white Camry. A witness is required to tell plainly and clearly what he or she knows. John knew what was required of him and he faithfully performed it. John the Evangelist gives us some other faithful witnesses. In John 9 we have the wonderful story of the man born blind who has his sight restored by Jesus. The man is interrogated by the religious leaders about his healing and especially about the healer, Jesus. When pressed by them as to what he knows about Jesus he responds with the insightful response, “One thing I do know is that once I was blind but now I see.” That is true witnessing. We are not asked to have the answers to all the deep theological questions that life throws at us but we are asked to bear witness to what we know and have experienced.
John’s witness was to declare that Jesus was the light. Verse 9 that our lectionary omits states that ‘the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.’ Christmas is the festival of light. In the 4th Century Christians in Rome chose the 25th December as the day to celebrate Christ’s nativity because there was already a Roman festival on that day in honour of the unconquered sun; which after the winter solstice began again to increase in light. They converted the festival into the celebration of the nativity of the Son of God, the one who was both light and life. John the evangelist tells us that the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world but also says that the light shines in the darkness but that the darkness did not understand it. How do we make sense of that apparent paradox? William Temple, the famous Archbishop of Canterbury of the mid twentieth century explained it in a way I find helpful. He wrote, “From the beginning the divine light has shone. Always it was coming into the world; always it enlightened every person alive in their reason and conscience…….All that is noble in the non- Christian systems of thought, or conduct or worship, is the work of Christ upon them and within them. By the Word of God- that is to say by Jesus Christ – Isaiah and Plato and Buddha and Confucius conceived and uttered such truths as they declared. There is only one divine light and every person in their measure is enlightened by it. Yet, this light is often not recognised for what it is. If it were, its fuller shining would always be welcomed.”
John the witness reminds us of the importance of pointing to even the tiniest point of light and saying, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ To be a follower of Jesus is to be one who believes that even in the darkest hour, somewhere and somehow the light will still be shining. The passage also challenges us to answer the question asked of John the Baptist: “Who are you?” So let me close by reading a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer while in prison shortly before his execution by the S.S. in April 1945.
Who am I?
Who am I? They often tell me/ I stepped from my cell’s confinement/Calmly, cheerfully, firmly/ Like a squire from his country house./ Who am I? They often tell me/ I used to speak to my warders/Freely and friendly and clearly,/As though it were mine to command/ Who am I? They also tell me /I bore the days of misfortune/Equably, smilingly, proudly,/Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?/Or am I only what I myself know of myself?/Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,/Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds/Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,/ Tossing in expectation of great events,/Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,/Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,/ Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?/ Am I one person today and tomorrow another? /Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,/And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine/ Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.