JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
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.
“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.
I am totally uninspired by this passage today.
I was even thinking that I might find some inspiration if I dragged my husband and kids out into the cold this past Friday night to attend a protest for Leon Ford and all the other victims of police brutality. But I really didn’t find any. We held a sign. We watched. We shouted that “black lives matter” along with the rest of the crowd. And then the kids got really cold. And Jonah had tons of questions. And we needed to stop at the Home Depot. And so we walked back to the car.
And then we woke up the next morning, and the house was still a mess, and the boys were still fussy, and I have no doubt that a bunch of black citizens were harassed by police officers all over this country while we slept.
This passage is like that - it’s that witnessing and testifying and proclaiming and hoping that things will change, but really, as John says, we’re all in the place where “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”
I guess too that this is really uninspiring because it’s just a bridge passage. It’s a bunch of verses cut and pasted to connect the beautiful hymn about Jesus being at the beginning of creation to the actual narrative of Jesus’ earthly life.
The very first verses of John’s Gospel are a hymn, a beautiful poem meant to mimic the first words in Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the song goes on. Jesus was at the beginning of Time, co-creating with God. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Beautiful. Inspiring, even.
But then these verses are interrupted. Like a commercial break we are suddenly returned to the immediate, the now, the current, the action. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” And then lots of backflips and somersaults and pontificating about how John - like the droids in Star Wars - isn’t the one we’ve been looking for. He’s just a guy. A guy with a voice.
But then the commercial break is over, we’re on to Act 2, how “Jesus is the light of the world.” And “he lived among us, full of grace and truth.”
And then, we’re interrupted by real life again. The night comes and John testifies.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
These beautiful verses about Jesus and light and creation and beginnings and hope keep getting interrupted by this testimony about John. By this ordinary guy who probably smells a little wilderness ripe and is wandering around looking a little bit crazy.
But these stitches are the verses we get this week, this third Sunday of Advent. We get the commercial breaks. The verses about the real life that is going on while some poet pontificates about truth and light and the Word and life.
This Sunday, we get the remnants, the castoffs from the editing room floor. Believe me, if the first 28 verses if the Gospel of John were presented in a poetry workshop, our verses for today would be the ones mercilessly x-ed out with bright red marker by the Gospel writer’s fellow grad students.
These verses are simply the ones needed to solve a controversy sometime around 90 AD, when some groups were getting John-the-Baptist confused with Jesus-the-Messiah.
They’re filler verses. Verses meant to simply clarify and make a point. Verses meant to solve a controversy from almost 2000 years ago.
These verses about John and his witness, these verses about the real, everyday, mundane reality, are the stitches. Like if you were to turn a shirt inside out or see the back side of a cross-stitch. These are the messy verses, the ones that show the knots and missteps and seam allowances between two pieces of fabric.
This passage shows the seams, the marionettes’ strings, the man behind the curtain and the gears under the hood.
It’s not really a pretty passage. Not really that inspiring. It feels a little clunky. Like a freshman composition paper that’s trying too hard.
And these verses are like winter. Like the cold dark days of winter in Pittsburgh.
The trees have lost their leaves and we can see the limbs, bare, fragile, creaking in the wind.
The sky is a slate grey, and the air is cold and makes cracks in our ungloved hands.
The frost has covered the windshield and we have to sit in the cold with the defrosters on and wait for our view to clear.
We are very close to the longest night of the year. The Winter Solstice. The darkest night when the sun sets at 4:50 in the afternoon.
It’s an Advent passage.
A waiting time. A darkness time.
Jesus is here. And yet still hasn’t come.
This is an anxious time for me, Advent. And well, being in my mid-thirties, is too if I’m really being honest.
I’m no good at waiting, so I tend to fill my time with stuff to do. Stuff to buy and wrap. Stuff to clean. Stuff to bake and mail and return. Jobs to take and furniture to buy and basements to redo.
I get worried that if I stop and notice, if I take a minute to see those barren trees or hear those geese flying south I’ll get sucked in to all the grey and the cold and the long long darkness that covers this time of year.
I’ll enter in and then I’ll never get out.
I’ll be stuck in the longest night of the year and the dawn will never come.
I’ll be isolated and alone in the cold dark forever.
The seams will swallow me whole.
Our verses for today are those seams, the transitions, the in-between spaces - neither Creation nor Redemption, neither the cross nor the resurrection, neither here nor there. It’s the wilderness. It’s the desert. It’s where there are no easy highways, no straight paths. It’s Pittsburgh roads and switchbacks and hollers. It’s the waiting place.
Our verses today are about a man who is a whole bunch of “nots”, “neithers”, and “nors.”
John is not the light.
He is not the Messiah.
He is not Elijah or the prophet.
He is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal.
When he does respond with who he is, he says that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.” - and these aren’t even his words. They’re Isaiah’s.
He doesn’t even get a body. He doesn’t get a complete identity. He is just a voice. Simply a voice.
John is nothing but a big arrow, a loud shout, pointing away from himself, away from his locusts and honey, away from his camels hair tunic, away from his dread locks and his callused feet and dirt-caked fingernails.
Like the dark black limbs that point straight up into the cold dark sky, John is pointing towards a light on the darkest night of the year.
John is pointing towards a light in the middle of civil unrest and oppression of the poor.
He is coming out of the wilderness of desert and wandering and danger into a wilderness of a few people with a lot of power and a lot of money directing the lives and futures of a whole lot of people who have no hope, people who are barely surviving, people who are living in the dark.
Sounds kinda familiar, eh?
And John isn’t there to fix anything.
He’s just an arrow pointing in the dark.
He is pointing to the one who stands among us whom we do not know.
Because we are so engrossed in our own darkness, in our own cold and grey, in our own waiting for our windshields to clear that we don’t even see the one standing among us.
We are surrounded by so much darkness.
By big companies drilling and wrecking and slugging and dumping.
By innocents murdered.
By corporations that claim they are people, and by people who are treated like animals and machines.
We are surrounded by systems of injustice and we have no idea how to dismantle them.
We are surrounded.
And so we keep our heads down and brace ourselves against the cold.
We rush from one store to the next, from one thing to another, just to stay a little ahead of the feeling that the walls are closing in around us.
We don’t want to notice the darkness, we don’t want to step in, for fear that we’ll get sucked down deep.
This in-between space is so hard. And yet, that’s where I think we are most of the time.
We are living in the seams between Jesus’ coming and his “not-yet-here”ness.
We are a whole bunch of “nots”
We are not the Messiah.
We are not Elijah.
Not the prophet.
The darkness tells us that we are not good enough.
Not rich enough.
Not strong enough.
We are not busy enough.
We are not prepared or ready or smart enough.
We are not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.
And yet, we are called, called by the light, by the one who formed us in the deep darkness, by the one who is true light of true light to testify.
We are called to see.
To point to the one standing among us, here and now.
Could it be that Jesus is among us, standing among us, and we do not even know?
I think part of living in the stitches, in the seams, is to notice, to testify, to witness, to tell the story, even when we’re not sure. Even when we are living in a space of not-knowing.
I guess that’s why I took my kids out to East Liberty in the cold and dark. I wanted to show them the power of witness. That there is power in just watching and waiting in the dark. That they can be an arrow that points to the one whom they do not know.
Maybe if we enter in to the darkness, if we step in to the mess and the seams and the grey and the cold, we’ll really see, we’ll really be able to tell the story, to witness to what has been there all along.
Our passage today shows that John is the voice in the wilderness. John the Voice is a bridge to the incarnation. He is a bridge because it is still hard. It is still hard to see Jesus in the tinsel and the reindeer, in the poverty and the ebola outbreaks. It’s still so hard to see the one whom the world does not know in the drones and the bombings and the beheadings and the state-sponsored torture.
So John is a voice crying out in all that violent, frightening, overwhelming wilderness, to tell the story of the one who is coming and who is already here among us.
John is a man living in the seams. Living in the in-between space of the wilderness - of the winter - where we wait and hope and exhale clouds of breath in the cold.
John is a man living in Advent.
And we are to do what he does.
We watch and we wait.
We will witness and cry out and tell the story. The story of the one among us whom we do not even know is there.
This Advent, let us be arrows that point to the one whom we do not know is among us. Because he is here, with us, among us, and through us and in us, even when we don’t know it, even when we’re not sure, even when all we have is grey skies and the crunch of frozen leaves below our feet. Let us cry out in the wilderness, even when we are afraid that we’ll be stuck in all the darkness. When we do, when we testify and witness and cry out, we’ll tell the story of the light. We’ll see it. We’ll bring it into focus. We’ll be warmed by its light.
I guess that is pretty inspiring.
Thanks be to God.