a sermon on another john

Third Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 | John 1:6-8, 19-28 


I was at a family wedding a few weeks ago, which was the first time most of my family had seen me in a clergy shirt. This prompted lots of new conversations, including one in which a relative asked me seemingly all the questions he’s ever had about the Bible, building up for all these years. One of his questions was,

“You know all the people in the Bible, like Mary and Joseph, or John… Why don’t we ever find out any of their last names? Like, how are you supposed to know when they say Mary whether they mean Jesus’s mom or some other person? And what was Jesus’s last name??”

I think about that conversation when I hear today’s gospel reading, from John’s gospel, about “a man sent from God whose name was John.” Wait, so right. Last week we heard from Mark’s gospel about John the Baptist. And now this week we’re hearing about that same guy, John, from the perspective of a different gospel writer, whose name also happens to be John.

The writer we can call John the Evangelist – we clarify which John we mean by pointing to his writing. And the other John, the main character of today’s story, we clarify by pointing to what he does.

In art, John is often portrayed as literally pointing to Christ. The Latin caption reads, “He must increase and I must decrease” (France: Isenheim Altarpiece).

In Mark’s gospel, he is called John the baptizer, because he is baptizing people from all over the region in the Jordan River, preparing the way for Jesus. But today’s gospel tells the story a little differently. In this version of the story, John isn’t actually known first and foremost for baptizing. The John that we meet in this gospel is most importantly John the witness. John the testifier. John, the one who points towards the light.

The scene is set like a courtroom drama. The prosecution approaches the witness demanding answers. “Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself? What gives you the right to baptize?” This interrogation was ordered by the higher ups in the city, they say.

John’s identity – not only his actions but his very existence – is troubling to the religious leaders. John is a threat to the status quo, and that makes him threatening to their authority.

John the witness. John the testifier. And the Greek word here for witness is marturia – a word that is the root of our English word martyr. Martyrs are ones who suffer or die because of the testimony they give.

Attorney questioning a witness while the judge looks on (U.S.: Marilyn Church).

“Who are you? Tell us, so we can categorize you.”

And suddenly my imagination is flooded with the testimonies that have been crying out from the wildernesses places of my world, these days. These are testimonies, like the testimonies we’ve been hearing in worship – true stories about our lives, our experiences, our identities. Testimonies that threaten the status quo because they expose the truth. Testimonies like John’s that the people in power would rather disbelieve, or discredit, or silence so that business can go on as usual. Their words echo in my spirit:

Me too. I was assaulted. And I’m not the only one.”

“It has been months, and we still don’t have electricity, and we will not be forgotten.”

“I am transgender, and I am here, and I exist.”

We know that giving testimony is risky business, because we see it every day. It is risky to tell the truth because our testimony is powerful, and it threatens the system of power as-it-is. And so the risk is that they might not believe us. They can ignore us no matter how outrageous the injustice. They pretend we don’t exist, or put us on the list of things you just can’t talk about.

Who are you?

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (U.S.: Kehinde Wiley, 2013).

John’s testimony is powerful – not only because he is honest about who he is, but also because he is honest about who he is not. I am not the Messiah, John says. I am not Elijah or the prophet. I am a voice that is making ready the path for God.

John’s testimony points away from himself – and towards the bigger picture, the larger conspiracy:

“It’s not just me,” I imagine John whispering slyly, “In fact, there’s one among you already – you don’t even know who it is” (Jn 1:26).

And you can almost feel the hairs of the authorities stand on end.

You think I’m threatening? You’re worried about my baptizing? You don’t even know what’s about to hit you.

You can’t even imagine the movement that is about to shake the foundations of this city. This is a movement like the one that Isaiah describes, that means good news for the oppressed, a blanket of comfort for those broken by this world; this movement will be liberation for the incarcerated, release for those who are trapped in prisons of stone or by the chains of wealth and greed (Is 61:1).

This is a movement like the one that Mary describes in her song, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up; where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty (Lk 1:46-55).

Modern Magnificat written by Joy Cowley, based on Luke 1:46-55. Art and lettering by Robert Henry.

We’ll arrive in uniform, wearing the garments of salvation, garlands of glitter and flowers to replace those built up ashes of grief. And this movement will repair the city, make right the wrongs that have been going on for generations (Is 61).

Our testimony is the evidence for all who come asking, “Who are you?” that we are not alone. We are part of a movement of ones who point to Christ, the Word of God, the one who saves us. We witness so that all might trust that God’s movement is breaking into our reality, and indeed is already here.

Because the one who is coming after me, says John the testifier – the end of this story, the leader of this movement – is none other than the very light of God that is coming into the world.

The true light, which enlightens everyone.

The light that is the life of all people. The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light that means abundant life for the entire cosmos.

“Testify to the Light” (U.S.: Jan Richardson, 2013).

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