John 1:6–8 (NRSV)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
John 1:19–28 (NRSV)
The Testimony of John the Baptist
(Mt 3:1–12; Mk 1:1–8; Lk 3:1–20)
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 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.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
No matter what your current situation is, there is much to look forward too. There is something we can anticipate. This season of Advent is a season to remind us that good things come to those that wait. Which is great because people in the Society of Friends seem to like to wait, so our chances of seeing good things may actually come…eventually.
The season of Advent comes during one of the darkest times of the year. The days get shorter with each rotation of the earth, which leads many individuals into darker emotions. Cycles of light and dark can play on our emotions. They can make us think that things are worse than they actually are, and when you place the materialistic stress of holiday shopping on top of it, the joy of the season can dwindle to the point we can believe that there is nothing to hope for. I sincerely hope that this is not true in your life, because there is much to look forward to.
Throughout Church history, religious people have tried to curb celebrations and holy days because so many have connections to pagan festivals. One of the greatest examples of this is the holiday of Halloween. There are pagan roots to the celebrations, it is the celebration of darkness overcoming the light because it occurs near the time where the cycle of day and night shift dominance. But there is much more to it than that singular pagan observance. All ancient religions used cycles of the moon and sun to mark the year and to organize religious holidays, even the ancient Jewish and Christian faiths. Every holiday has connections to various religions. Advent is one of those seasons. We can get caught up in the pagan aspects or we can allow God to redeem it and use natures cycles to speak the gospel. So, what does this season tell us? There is much to hope for in the future.
Halloween is dark. It marks the time when days begin to get shorter and nights are longer. But coupled with this is the ancient Christian holiday of All Saints and All Souls day. Both of these days celebrate the hope of Christ overcoming the darkness and bringing light. Advent occurs during this winter season when the days continue to get shorter, until that time when night become the longest and cycles again reverse. Light overcomes the darkness. During Advent we celebrate the hope we have in Christ. We celebrate that even though things may look bad, they will not last.
Ancient Israel cycled through periods of light and dark just as our nation cycles. There were times where there were revivals among the people and times when the faithful seemed to be a minority and unrighteousness ruled. Yet even during those dark times there were some that remained faithful, they lived with this holy anticipation that God was going to turn things around. They remained in a state of expectation that God would come to redeem, and restore that God would draw his people back to him so that they could be his people and he would be their God. The interactions between the religious leaders and John the Baptist give us a glimpse into this state of holy expectancy they experienced.
The writer of John’s gospel begins his teaching speaking of light. Light is a profound spiritual illustration. On the first day God said let there be light and there was light and he pronounced that the created light was good. The first words of God, the first revelation of God to creation is light. Because of this light took on the symbolic representation of God’s wisdom and presence. Notice how the apostle John describes the Baptist. There was a man sent from God who came to testify to the light. He was not the light but he came to testify to the light. This has a twofold meaning, it describes john as a light bearer, a man that spoke with authority and wisdom from God. But it also speaks of that holy anticipation where we hope that in the darkness of our current situation that God would bring true wisdom and light, and that hope would come in human form.
The scripture then provides a narrative of John the Baptizer. John, as we considered last week, came out of the wilderness to speak and initiate religious experiences among the people. He cried from the banks of the Jordan to repent because the kingdom of God was near. This caused quite a stir among the people of faith, so much so that the religious establishment sent people out to interview this unusual person clothed in camel’s hair and existing on a diet of bugs and honey. These leaders come asking a very important question, “Who are you?”
Who are you? Many days each week I ask this question or am asked. Who are you, who am I? What defines our represents the most important or foundational aspect of our personalities? We might have several answers to this question, and they may change depending on the circumstances surrounding our lives. Who are you?
John give an interesting answer to this question and the ones to follow. He says, “I am not.” The interviewers or interrogators have ideas about who john might be, are you the Messiah?” John responds by saying, “I am not.” Are you Elijah? Again, John says, “I am not.” Are you the prophet? John says No! Do you sense the expectation in the words, the anticipation and hope for something greater to occur around them?
Who are you? They ask John and he say, “I am not.” Reading these words, I am reminded of the future questions these same people ask Jesus and the responses that Jesus gives that spawned so much trouble among the religious establishment. John says, “I am not,” and Jesus says, “I am.” These words carry weighty meanings. I Am is the response God gave in response to Moses’s question of what is your name. It is difficult to grasp the meaning of that simple phrase, because it encompasses everything. It is action and existence, it is in many ways without definition because it just is. In the studies of origin there is always something that just is. The universe just is in the theory of evolution, the universe is that aspect that is just accepted that is hard to explain or relate because it just is. Faith and science meet in that, there are some things about life we just have to accept because they are constant, and faith calls that constant God.
But John says, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet. He is not the center of existence and he is not God. Who are you? So often people answer that question in a way that places themselves in the center of everything. They become a constant in themselves. I am important they say. I am a teacher, I am a pastor, I am a business owner. Each of those statements defines us in some way, and each also is self-centered. I am. Such simple words that can tell us a great deal about our faith journey. John speaks differently than we do. “Who are you?” They ask, and he responds I am not. There is something profound in those words. But those words actually strike fear in many, because how can you grasp or understand someone who places little importance on one’s self?
They persist, in their question of Who are you? But they change their tactic, describe who you are to us instead. “I am the voice of one in the wilderness crying out make straight the way of the lord.” Let those words sit with you for a moment. I am the voice of one in the wilderness.
The concept of wilderness is one that is consistent with John. The wilderness is that place just outside the bounders of society. It is the end of faith and the beginning of the land of exile. This statement comes from the prophets of ancient days. It comes from Isaiah 40:3 and speaks of the return of the people out of exile to be restored. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
This week I sat with those statements and considered John. For so long I neglected this passage and just allowed it to be what it is with little consideration to the message it might have for me. John says he is the voice of one in the wilderness. In his own words he is says I am in exile. I am a man without a nation, without anything in myself. I am the voice of one in the wilderness. John lives in a world of sin, the wilderness as I said before is where the sins of the nation were carried out to on the back of a goat. We live in the wilderness, in exile longing for redemption and a return to God. We live in the wilderness with John. But Isaiah is saying something about that wild and sinful land, he is giving us wisdom from God about what we should do in that land of exile. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” We are not to escape the wilderness but to live there in exile among the people. In that wilderness we are to prepare the way of the Lord.
I sat many nights thinking about this. While I stocked the shelves with all the goods of the season I considered this. So often I thought John heralded in the messiah, that his only purpose was to announce the coming of the king, but there is more. He was in the wilderness, he was an exile even among his people because the people of faith, the established religious norms spoke of righteousness yet rejected it. They used God for their own selfish motives, making themselves into I am instead of I am not.
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. God is telling us both through the prophet Isaiah and John that we are to be in that wilderness among the people but not of the people. We are to be beacons of light in the darkness revealing the dangers that lay ahead. We are to be in the wilderness people living in exile, roots in the land but aliens and immigrants from a kingdom unlike the kingdoms of mankind. And while we are there in exile we are to prepare the way of the Lord.
Live our faith every day. Express our faith in the very actions we make. In all things preach the Gospel and if necessary use words. Preparing the way of the Lord while in the wilderness is to let the spirit of God saturate every aspect of our lives so that all our neighbors see in us is a reflection of the light of Christ.
We cannot do this if we are living in an I am state of being, because that type of life does not reflect Christ. We are to put on the life of Christ, to live in his lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Or as Paul tells us, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but think of others more highly than ourselves. This means we to prepare the way of the Lord we must keep our eyes focused on Christ and not on our own desires trusting that if we do God will provide for our needs as well.
To live in this advent season, to live with holy anticipation and holy expectancy we must adjust our perspectives, recognizing that we are not in the promised land but we are exiles in the kingdoms of mankind. Yes, even here in this great nation. This is not our homeland but it is the wilderness and the prophets are calling out to us, “In this wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Are we doing this? Are we living the lifestyle that Jesus taught? Are we making highways in the desert so those around us can begin their journey toward God? The world around us may seem to be chaotic but there is still hope, the kingdom of God is all around us and in us, even in this wilderness. Let us look forward to that day of the Lord, where all things will be restored and redeemed but as we wait let us live for him today participating in the joy of all the saint proclaiming that there is hope in the future.