John 1.6-8, 19-28
Today we’re celebrating something which public health measures have prevented us from celebrating for quite a while, baptisms!
Baptism, the Christian rite of initiation; the ceremony during which new members are admitted into our church family - a joyful occasion and one awaited with great excitement and anticipation by our friends here today. It’s a time when promises are made and candidates commit themselves to Christ.
Today we baptise those candidates with water, just as centuries ago, John the Baptist baptised people with water, imploring them to repent, to turn their backs on sin. In his time Jews were familiar with the concept of baptism and some underwent it on a regular basis as a purification ritual (indeed in one of the desert communities an incredibly complicated system of aqueducts and water tanks was required in order to provide sufficiently large quantities of water for such baptisms). But John’s baptism was different. It wasn’t a rite of purification which was often repeated but something which could happen only once, an initiation signalling the point at which converts to Christianity declared their intention to change course and commit themselves to a new way of life. John baptised as part of the preparations for the arrival of the expected Messiah.
On this third Sunday of Advent, the Church remembers John the Baptist, that figure who we are used to being described as wearing clothes of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey and having baptised Jesus. Yet our gospel reading today is from John’s Gospel, the gospel in which John is never referred to as John the Baptist and in which Jesus’ baptism is implied rather than depicted. Rather John’s gospel, in contrast from the other three gospels, presents John as a witness; a witness to that light of the world which is Jesus Christ.
Our gospel reading tells us of his purpose - “he came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” The language used is language very familiar to lawyers like myself. It is the language of the courtroom. John gives “testimony” as he is interrogated by the priests and Levites who have been sent to question him and who are questioning his authority to baptise. Testimony is a true, first person account of an experience - a public statement about what you have seen, heard and experienced for yourself.
Likewise the words “confess” and “deny” feature. We’re told John “confessed” and “did not deny it” when asked “who are you?” From my lawyer’s perspective I note he evades the direct question and instead of stating his name and identity specifically he prefers to make clear who he is not. Not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet - a marked contrast to the “I am” sayings of Jesus we find elsewhere in the gospels. John distinguishes himself from Jesus, telling his questioners that he is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness as prophesied by Isaiah. John is the one who comes to witness to a greater successor.
The references to John the Baptist in the famous opening verses of this gospel are thought by some to have been added to the Prologue so as to assert the authority of Jesus over John in a church community that may have had a strong Baptist cult. Some people thought of John the Baptist himself as the Messiah. The passage leaves readers in no doubt that John is subordinate to Christ as John announces himself unfit even to undo Jesus’ sandals. The task of untying the thong of the sandal was given to the least and lowest of servants and slaves. John, in his humility, points away from himself and towards Christ. His interest is not in making a name for himself but rather being a witness to something greater.
The term “witness” or some form of it, apparently features over 50 times in John’s gospel. But what does it mean to be a witness?
Credible witnesses are key to the judicial process. Their testimony can have lifelong consequences for those standing trial, as they corroborate or contradict an accused’s account or testify to character. When we can identify with a witness we often find their evidence more compelling. John has been described by some as God’s human witness to a cosmic event. A fellow human, one of us, he points us to Christ’s presence amongst us.
As one commentator puts it: “The story of John the Witness calls attention to a first and fundamental confession of the Incarnation ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it’”.
In the midst of darkness, of trials and challenges, God sent Light into the world. This year, perhaps more than any other, we can perhaps appreciate why, in ancient times, in the dark short days of Winter, festivals of light were essential. It’s surely no coincidence that following such a dark, difficult year, people have rushed to put up their Christmas lights extra early, in an effort to combat the gloom and loneliness.
John was witness to the promise that in the midst of all the darkness of humanity light will shine.
During Advent, in both the literal and metaphorical bleakness of this particular Winter, we all wait in anticipation of the arrival of the light. But the reality is that the light never leaves us. The brightest of stars may be concealed by dense cloud but we know they are still there. We wake in the middle of the night, thinking our world to be black, only for our eyes to adjust by virtue of the residual light that remains. Perhaps, when times seem particularly dark, we simply need to adjust our eyes and look more carefully for the chinks of light that surround us?
As Christians, like John the Baptist, we are called not to make a name for ourselves but to point others to Jesus, to point them even to the smallest glimmers of His light and to urge them to behold the Lamb of God.
How do our lives witness to the light of Christ? How can WE shine the light of God’s presence into the shadows of human despair and brokenness?
For me one line which stood out in today’s gospel reading was that in which John tells his questioners “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” So many failed to recognise the Messiah in their mist. How many more continue to miss His presence amongst us today? And how often do even we, believers, fail to recognise it?
How can WE help make known that presence to others?
Advent and Christmas provide us with the opportunity to re-tell the Gospel story of hope and love and to share our own stories about the way we have experienced the presence of God in our lives. If there’s anything the past nine months has taught us it’s the extent to which trying times have the potential to yield tremendous testimonies!
I pray that those baptised here today will share their testimonies and will continue to bear witness to the light, to that glorious light we remember coming into the world each Christmas.
Richard Young (Rector)