John 1:1-8; 19-28
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.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
St. John the Baptist by Titian, 1540. Gallerie dell’Accademia.
Today, more than ever, our world needs witnesses of hope. Our text brings us a messenger of hope in the form of John the Baptist: he is the hairy, unkempt, wild-looking guy wearing camel’s hair. There would be locusts caught in his beard and honey dripped on his shirt. Much like the Scribes and Pharisees, we don’t want to hear what our weird cousin John has to say, but John plays a pivotal role in all four Gospel accounts for the Advent season. We don’t want to listen to this relative who always shows up at the beginning of the holiday celebrations talking too loudly and eating a diet of barley, berries and bugs. He interjects himself into our holiday plans shouting repentance, baptism and salvation.
However, John reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas. When questioned, John leaves little doubt. He is not Elijah, nor is he a prophet, he is not a man with credentials or religious ideology. John tells us he is not the light, but he has come to bear witness to the light. John is clear and straightforward: he is bringing a word of promise and optimism, testifying, pointing to the Savior Jesus Christ, telling us to, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Everything about John points to the light and to the life of the one who both stands among us and the one who is to come. John clearly understood that his primary call was to prepare the way for the One greater than himself. John testifies that he is a herald and proclaims the greatness of the One who would come after him. John tells the Scribes he is not even worthy to perform the act of a slave to “untie the thong of his sandal,” because Jesus comes not to baptize with water but to baptize with the power of the Holy Spirit.
John’s is a voice of hope, but his voice was not the first to witness. Before John, Mary proclaimed the greatness of the Lord. She spoke of the One who shows favor to the lowly, offers mercy, and lends the strength of his arm. He fills the hungry with good things and comes to the help of his people. And before Mary there was Isaiah, anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners. He spoke about God comforting those who mourn and rebuilding the ruins of their lives, clothing them in garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. Isaiah’s is a joyful anticipation. They were witnesses of hope. These witnesses testified to a light, a life and presence beyond their own. Hope that does not change the circumstances of our lives but changes us. The Advent themes of expectancy, repentance, and promise of the Messiah are found in these words of John as he prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus.
Today we can look to John’s example for our own work and our preparation to receive the transforming presence of Christ in our lives. Each one of us is called to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming: even as 2020 comes to a close and hope may appear dim, even as the promised reign of God seems far off, even as we embrace this new normal for our lives. Jesus came over 2,000 years ago as a babe in a manger. He is constantly coming to us, in His love, in His grace, and in His mercy and He will come again to bring all things to fulfillment. Are our hearts ready to receive him?
John calls us out of the wilderness so that we might focus on Christ. He asks us to respond to a message of repentance, to pray about those things that separate us from God and from one another, to pray and to cry out, “Lord, deliver me from this, forgive me for that.” He invites us to follow him on Jesus’ way, the way of the cross; the way of giving our lives away.
John the Baptist may not be featured on our Hallmark Christmas cards, but this compelling figure enters the Christmas narrative to get us ready for the coming of Christ. He calls out to all who will hear: the Lord is on His way. He’s coming in the fullness of His salvation. He’s coming, the Son of God in whom all the promises of God are a resounding, “Yes.” We, too, can be witnesses as we prepare to receive the real gift of Christmas.
This is the Good News of the Gospel, thanks be to God. Amen.
Today we light a special candle in the advent wreath: the candle of Joy. Unlike others in the wreath this candle is pink, for on this day we remember the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each year on the third Sunday of Advent, the gospel lesson is the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song, from the first chapter of Luke. Just after the angel Gabriel visits Mary with the good news of Jesus’ birth, Mary proclaims, “My My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” It is this expectant joy we celebrate today.
The music I chose to share is from an anonymous 15th century English text. Our own chamber choir recorded this beautiful setting in November. The choir sings in the original early english, below you will find a modern English translation. I pray our musical offering will leave you with a sense of Joy on this, the Third Sunday of Advent.
I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.
He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.
He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.
He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.
Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.
During the Christmas season and at other times during the year, we look to those like John the Baptist who may live differently from us, but who have much to teach us about how to give and to live rightly. At Westminster, our relationship with Bdecan Presbyterian Church on Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota helps us to learn more about how those on the reservation live and also the different ways to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.
Westminster has maintained a relationship with Bdecan since 2001. As part of that relationship, we have sent mission teams, conducted Vacation Bible School, and helped support Bdecan’s food pantry and clothing closet. Since 2016, we have supported a scholarship fund for those attending the Candeska Cikana Community College, a tribal college located on the reservation. Our relationship with them has not only helped them with food, clothing, and education, but has also helped us grow as Christians by getting to know others from different backgrounds and learning how their worship can inform and inspire ours.
This summer, Rosie and Bob Helland took over for Joe Obermeyer as the program coordinators at Bdecan. As program coordinators, they have been overseeing the food pantry and clothing closet, conducting Sunday school and other youth events, and have plans to institute additional programs for adults, such as a men’s breakfast and a women’s Bible study. We invite you to send them a card this Christmas to encourage them in their work with those at Bdecan and Spirit Lake and keep them in your prayers this Christmas season. Their address is: PO Box 141 Tokio, ND 58379.