Advent 3 – Series B (December 14, 2014)
“Bearing Witness to the Light” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)
The Lights of Christmas at Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center has become a favorite local tradition. Every year during the month of December the whole camp is illuminated by assorted Christmas light displays along with musical and dramatic offerings, wagon rides, snacks, and the always popular homemade donuts in a paper bag filled with sugar and cinnamon. They’re greasy … but they’re fantastic! The entire event certainly reflects the joy of the season.
Over the last two weeks of Advent you have heard that Advent is a penitential season. But there is also joy in Advent, too. That’s why we light the pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent. It’s brighter than the rest. It reminds us that the Christ for whom we wait is soon to come. He is “the light of the world.” The celebration of his nativity is just around the corner. He has already come for us to be our Savior. And we look forward to his Second Advent with hopeful and joyful expectation.
Bearing Witness to the Light
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that John the Baptist was sent from God “as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” A witness is someone who testifies or declares the truth about someone or something of which they have personal experience. What is this “light” of which he came to bear witness? We know from the verses surrounding our text that it is Christ, the “Word” who “was with God” and who “was God” (Jn. 1:1). He is “The true light, which enlightens everyone, [who] was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9) This Word “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). And then, the evangelist writes, “John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This is he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me”’” (Jn. 1:15).
As a witness, what was John’s personal experience? We know that their mothers knew each other. When Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy, Mary visited her to tell her that she was going to have a baby. Not only that, but when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, John leaped in her womb, as if the forerunner of the Savior was thrilled to be in his divine presence even before the two of them were born. And Elizabeth seemed to know all about Mary’s baby. She said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:42-43). Much greatness was foretold for Elizabeth’s son. Yet even before he was born, she knew that Mary’s Son was even greater. Elizabeth also knew that her son would not be worthy to untie the straps of the sandals of Mary’s Son. Because Mary’s Son is the Lord! He is the incarnate God!
As a witness, how did John “bear witness”? He came to prepare the way for the Savior by calling people to repentance in preparation for the arrival of the Savior. Later, John pointed people to the Savior himself, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). John had personally experienced the revelation of the Son of God when Jesus asked John to baptize him. A few verses later, the evangelist writes, “And John bore witness, ‘I saw the Spirit of God descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (1:32-34).
Bearing Witness to the Darkness
The opponents of John and Jesus bore witness to the darkness in their hearts when they sent representatives to question John. John’s popularity was a threat to their own standing among the people and their position of authority. Their motives were dishonest and two-faced. They really had no intention of following John, no matter what answer he gave them. Although they claimed to know God, they really didn’t. He was in their very midst, yet John said, “Among you stands one you do not know.” John knew that he was not worthy to even serve as the Savior’s slave. Those who questioned John rejected the Savior and had him crucified.
You and I bear witness to the darkness in our hearts when we act like those who questioned John. God’s Word is a threat to our sinful heart that wants to be in charge of our life, not God. Even our best intentions are often mixed with dishonest and self-serving motives. We ask ourselves, “What am I going to get out of this?” rather than simply serving selflessly and humbly. There are times when it can be said of us that we don’t know God even when he stands among us. We read or hear his Word and we don’t recognize that it is for us. We twist his Word in our minds to make it say what we want to justify our own sinful deeds. Or, we treat it as an academic endeavor. We come to the table lackadaisically, not truly thinking about the magnitude of the gifts we receive there. We don’t acknowledge the magnitude of our sins and have no intention of amending our lives even as we kneel at the rail and open our hands and our mouths. Yes, our hearts are indeed full of darkness and our thoughts, words, and deeds bear witness to that darkness.
The Light Shines in the Darkness
The darkness of sin and evil has a certain gravitational pull, like a black hole in outer space from which not even light can escape. It can look attractive and pull you in. At the same time, there is also a certain terror that darkness holds. Imagine yourself walking through a forest on an overcast, moonless night. You have no idea what’s up around the bend. You have no idea what is going to leap out and devour you.
Darkness is oppressive. Yet even the smallest amount of light can illuminate a dark room. Into the darkness of nothingness in the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” Into the darkness of this sinful world, God sent forth his Word to be become flesh. It wasn’t an instantaneous flash as it was on Day One of Creation. It was quiet. Humble. Tiny. Yet even the smallest amount of light coming from a manger in a stable in the tiny town of Bethlehem can illuminate the world with God’s life and love. And like a divine black hole, Jesus suffered in the darkness of Good Friday and swallowed up all the darkness of sin and evil so that light could shine … the light of forgiveness, the light of the resurrection, the light of eternal life. The darkness of death and the tomb could not keep his light from shining.
Born in humility. Born in poverty. Yet look at the effect his birthday still has on the world. There is joy and light all around even for those who don’t know the reason why they celebrate. Give thanks today that through God’s Word and the waters of Baptism the Light has shined in the darkness of your heart. 2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
The Light now also shines in the darkness of your world. Christmas and Easter teach us that Christ entered this world to conquer the darkness of sin and death. Advent reminds us that we are awaiting the day when Christ will return and finally take away the lingering effects of sin that we still deal with in this fallen world … sadness, sickness, suffering, conflict, tragedy, depression, loneliness, anxiety, you name it. But the Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection brings light and life for the poor … mercy for the brokenhearted … freedom for those in bondage in the prison house of addiction … comfort for those who mourn … and encouragement for faint spirits (Is. 61:1-3).
Whatever darkness you are facing, hear the Word of the Lord from St. John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). The love, mercy, compassion, and strength of Jesus will be with you. He is with you today, giving you his Body and Blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and the assurance that he is truly your “Immanuel” … God with us … God with you. Of this we can all bear witness.