If you’ve been hanging around church this December, you couldn’t help but run into John the Baptist. He gets star billing in Advent. He has a lot to say. Jesus spoke about his greatness. That greatness is underscored by the fact that each gospel gives him plenty of air time and that the church calendar tells his story many times throughout the year. So what is it about this guy?
If he came to my church, I’d be more inclined to call security than to invite him into the pulpit. A Dale Carnegie drop out, he opened up sermons calling his congregation a brood of vipers. (Sort of the anti-Joel Osteen.) Flannery O’Connor once said: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd. She might have been thinking of John the Baptist.
Yesterday in church, we read about him, as described in the prologue to John’s Gospel, an overture to the grand themes of that soaring gospel. The fact that John the Baptist finds his way into those opening verses suggests his significance. The prologue is included below–it contains this line: John came to bear witness (or testify) to the light. He was not the light but came to bear witness (or testify) to the light.
I have a feeling that’s the key to his significance, and why he has something to teach us. He knew how to bear witness. In the passage from John’s gospel, John is repeatedly asked “Who are you?” He’s not the Messiah. He’s not Elijah. He’s not a prophet. He’s a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist knew who he was, knew who the Messiah was, and knew they weren’t the same person. Many leaders, religious and otherwise, haven’t gotten that memo. I suspect that many of us, in secret corners of our hearts, conflate the two.
In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr talks about John the Baptist’s brand of wisdom. He writes: Religions should be understood as only the fingers that point to the moon, not the moon itself. Often in western Christian art, John the Baptist is shown with arm extended, index finger pointing beyond himself. He points to Christ on the cross. In the artist’s eye, John is bearing witness. Would we be depicted that way?
Episcopalians often find language of witness to be foreign, something other traditions do, but not for polite company. Episcopalians often rightly and sometimes reactively resist tendencies of religious folks who seek to confirm they are right by pointing out where others are wrong, by compelling agreement or coercing conversion.
But what if bearing witness is simply about sharing what we have seen of God’s grace in our lives, news a grace-starved world is dying to hear? How would you describe that kind of good news in your own life? When and where have you been graced? How would you talk about that gift? Maybe you want to try that over Christmas dinner?
I’m forever indebted to young people I worked with in Chicago who taught me about God-sightings, noting where in the course of the day, they saw God’s activity, talking freely about it. Simply. Authentically.
And what if bearing witness takes place not only with our lips but with our lives. In one of his sermons, John the Baptist talked to soldiers and tax collectors, people in positions of power. He said if you want to bear witness, stay right where you are and do your work with integrity. Do not abuse your power. Practice justice and mercy. Share if you have more than you need. These are all ways of bearing witness.
Prepare for Christmas this week by thinking of a couple ways you could bear witness to Christ coming into the world, full of grace and truth. Point to the light of the moon, so surrounded by darkness.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel
(Note the second paragraph which speaks of John the Baptist)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
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