What we’re not and what we are – 17th December

John 1:6-8, 19-28

He who comes after me stands among you      

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

 

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders[a] in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

 

21 They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

 

He said, ‘I am not.’

 

‘Are you the Prophet?’

 

He answered, ‘No.’

 

22 Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”’[b]

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, ‘Why then do you baptise if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’

26 ‘I baptise with[c] water,’ John replied, ‘but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’

28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

We have bumped into John the Baptist again this Advent but have not really focussed on his pivotal role in getting us here to this point of our life in Christ today.

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, John the Baptist is squarely John the Baptist. He is the camel hair wearing, locust and honey eating man who does a lot of baptising of people in the waters of the Jordan out near Jericho.

But for the other John, John the Apostle of Jesus and author of the gospel that bears his name, John the Baptist is revealed as something larger, deeper, more pivotal for people like us who live in Jesus’ new creation all these centuries later. …

For the Apostle John, John is the Baptist is never called the Baptist. For ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, John the Apostle, John the Baptist is just called, “John’ and his role is rather, ‘John the Witness’.

Yes, John is described as doing some general baptizing here and there. A close look at the account of Jesus’ baptism reveals that John does now baptised Jesus. John’s primary role on that day was to bear witness to what he saw and heard:

‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.’

John’s primary role then is not as one who baptizes people 2000 year ago in a river in Israel, important though that was for them, John is for now. John still bears witness to Jesus for you and me. He is the one who testifies to the light coming into the world, a very human witness to a cosmic event.

God in his awareness of us and his great power and wisdom for living life, takes his bold step to re-order the old creation into this new one in the entering our flesh and blood world chooses a fellow human to point to his move, his presence, his light, his Star of Christmas.

Maybe if there is no John the Witness, we would miss the move? Like God has always done throughout our human history, he puts this pivotal man in the moment, so we don’t miss a moment of his arriving. John is like the horse-riding soldiers in all their plumage parading down the packed city street telling everyone the King is coming along behind them.

It is strange how John describes who John is and what his role is by telling us what John is not. It is very clear. John is not the light, but came as a witness to testify to the light.

Nor is John “Elijah” the prophet re-entering the atmosphere. Many had heard the prophet Malachi say;

‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. (Malachi 3:1)

‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. (Malachi 4:5)

People the wrongly put those together with the account of Elijah’s rather special ending: being taken into the atmosphere by those chariots of fire and therefore, not really ‘dying’ in the normal sense, and so, expected an Elijah to turn up right before the Messiah makes his entrance.

Even Jesus says similar when he speaks in glowing terms of John:

13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11:7-14)

Maybe Jesus is just impressing on his followers that what John did and said was pivotal to all that he himself would go on to say and do to make all things new. And maybe Jesus is trying to impress on all those who would be baptised into his new life who we are and what we are here for, which is to be John in our day:  to simply be witnesses?

For John himself it is very clear who he is not, and therefore who he is and what he is here for:

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

21 They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

He said, ‘I am not.’

‘Are you the Prophet?’

He answered, ‘No.’

No, John identifies himself only in relation to Jesus. Jesus says, “I AM’ and John says, I am not I AM!

Like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, John is not the Messiah. Unlike Brian, John is not just a very naughty boy! He is a witness to this new Boy – the Star of Christmas.

Who he is and why he is, are directly defined by the presence of the Word made flesh in his midst. John knows nothing else than to speak of who he is in connection to Jesus’ identity.

And so, the obvious Advent question comes. Who are you and who are you not? How do you define yourself in your own heart and mind? Among others who do you define yourself as – just a stand-alone person doing it your way with your truth and experience, or servant of the master, student of the teacher, child of the Father, brother or sister of the Saviour, witness to the Star of this Christmas ‘show’, glad and loyal subject of the Prince of Peace, another sinner made clean, once dead, but now alive….?

From John, it is clear. My life is best defined in relation to Jesus, not only on wat I feel, think, know or want. When my life is defined by me I would put myself in direct competition to the King of kings, rather than simply and proudly bear witness to his goodness.

When I dismiss Jesus and leave him out of my life, it would be as if John not only tied those straps of Jesus’ sandals but went a bought a new fancier pair to wear around, announcing himself to everyone, not Jesus.

John bears witness this morning:

You are not the Saviour of your life or any other person’s life, or this troubled world with all of its many problems; problems we all feel.

You are, like John; John the Witness; a living witness to who is the Saviour of you and them and us.

Like John, you simply point to Jesus and say, “Look, do you see him? It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! It is the Star of Christmas! He is the light. He is the One who takes all of our sins and sorrows and silliness on himself and gives faith, hope and love in their place.

So here we are again at Christmas. As God seemed to have wanted a human to announce himself becoming human, so he seems to want us, his born-anew humans, to announce him still – bear living witness to all that this Star of Christmas is for us and for all the humans of the world.

I know, as for John, so it also may be for you and me – we do our witnessing in the wilderness. We seem to be outside the city, on the edges of the main story now, banished from the centre of the show we once proclaimed with great influence and organisation. Now, we are the lesser story telling a much-ignored story. What’s new? For John and for may ore, living witnesses of Jesus light and love have mostly been on the edge of the main game in their culture.

Even those who were part of this first great burst of light in the first Christmas were all the ‘marginal people’ in their towns and cities.

Maybe this is right where we do our best work – gently and respectfully singing those sons with full faith in their words about the Star of the Christmas show, humbly serving with a joy and gladness that we don’t have fancier sandals than Jesus, Not trying to save anyone, but simply speak of who is the Saviour and serve as he serves me…

With Mary, may you sing of the Star of Christmas:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

              Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

              and holy is his name. (Luke 1: 47-49)

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