Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sermon for Advent 3: Testifying to the Light

Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sermon: John 1:5-8, 19-28
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
December 11, 2011

Testifying to the Light

John 1:5-8, 19-28

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 Testimony of John the Baptist

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.

This has been an awful week for news. Last Friday, the story broke regarding 7 year old Jorelys Rivera’s disappearance from her apartment in Canton, and the news that followed only grew more gruesome and horrible. It is the worst story I have ever heard, a nightmare. It is the kind of thing that makes me lose faith in humanity, and question God’s goodness. In this situation, evil has triumphed, and hope has been vanquished. To stand in this pulpit today seems absurd. How am I to preach of the good news that God is coming into the world, in the form of a tiny baby, when the fate that befalls the most innocent among us is so grim.
In the week that this story broke, there were other stories, as well. From this most tragic event to the sadness that my community of Decatur has felt in the sudden loss of two recent high school graduates, who were killed in separate incidents on the same day. The families of Drew Charter school are also mourning the loss of a girl who lived for 13 years with congestive heart failure, and died just three months after starting high school – her life’s goal. A family nearby is preparing to walk their 9 year old son through the last few weeks of his life after a battle with cancer. And this is just the headline news, the awful, heartbreaking news about the death of those who have gone too soon and for reasons too ridiculous for us to understand. The rest of us have been affected by the sadness of life-altering news that comes too regularly: a diagnosis of a disease that will change our lives, the loss of a job that we have had for decades, the absence of a loved one. All of it collectively tells a pretty convincing story that death and loss is more powerful than life and love.
And, here we are on the third Sunday of Advent. If you read my newsletter article this week, you’ll know that this is the Sunday that we are to be rejoicing, because we are halfway through the liturgical season to Christmas day. It is Gaudete Sunday, the day in which we proclaim, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!” I don’t know about you, but I am finding it very hard to do that today. To rejoice in the face of this heaviness is preposterous to me. How are we to do that when we live in a world where some have all they need and others go hungry? Where some children find love and acceptance and others are brutalized and rejected. How on earth are we to think that this season’s conclusion will be enough to eliminate the suffering of the world?
Our Gospel – our desperately needed Good News text – comes from John. It is the testimony of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who was given the role to prepare the people for the coming of their Messiah. His work included baptizing and testifying to the one who was to come. This was troubling to the Jews, because it was unclear where his authority came from to do such things. So, they sent priests and Levites to Jerusalem to ask him who he was, what gave John this authority – to preach and baptize. Was he the messiah? Was he Eiljah? Was he a prophet? His answer to each question was no. So, they pressed him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
His answer is language borrowed from the prophet Isaiah. He responds, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). John Wesley points out that this is John the Baptist’s way of saying, “I am that forerunner of Christ of whom Isaiah speaks. I am the voice - As if he had said, Far from being Christ, or even Elijah, I am nothing but a voice: a sound that so soon as it has expressed the thought of which it is the sign, dies into air, and is known no more.”[1] It takes humility to be this sort of messenger. John’s message is not about him, but about what is coming. His life was spent living out this prophecy. His death was suffered because of it. John’s life is a testimony to something larger than him, and larger than us.
So, if we listen carefully to him, we hear that we have a job. “Make straight the way of the Lord,” John says. But, what does it mean to do this? How is this our responsibility? What does God expect of us as we prepare for the light of Christ to enter into the world?
As we reflect on the events of this week, this month, this year, or the course of human history, the story we share is one of a desperate need for a savior. The season of presidential campaigning is enough to demonstrate this. The OCCUPY movement has arisen to give voice to the imbalance of wealth in our country, but it falls short because it makes no claim on the imbalance of wealth worldwide. The 99% of the United States are truly the 1% of the world. We have watched this year as the Arab Spring gave hope and rejoicing to countries who had lived under inhumane dictatorships, and we celebrated as they reclaimed their freedom and rights, but watched in horror at the bloodshed that it took to make it possible. The world is crying out, and we are told that it is our duty to make straight the way of the Lord, that the crooked might be evened.
So, how are we to do that? If it is God’s responsibility to bring light into the world, how do we make the crooked places straight? We can look to John the Baptist as a model for this work. As Tom Long points out, “The meaning of my life is not in what you think about me, but how you respond to the one to whom my life points.”[2] This requires some adjustment for us. We are encouraged to think that it’s all about us. That how we work, act, play, live, love and do business is a reflection on us. But, what if we were to consider that it’s truly about the person to whom our life points. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must re-orient ourselves that the center point is no longer our life’s worth, but Christ’s.
This re-orientation is our greatest challenge as people of faith. It requires us to trust that God, in Christ, has a plan, not just for us, but for the world. It means that we can become courageous to stand up against the injustice of the world, because we have nothing to lose. Any judgment or condemnation that comes to us for doing the right thing, and speaking out for those who need advocacy and protection is not a reflection on who we want to be, but the person God has called us to be. We are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. In these acts, we are challenged to correct a society where unspeakable evil can befall a young girl. Where innocent people are gunned down. Where Troy Davis can be executed for a crime it was not clear he committed.
John the Baptist’s words remain a prophetic voice to us today. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we learn that “he himself is not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” As we sit in the pews today, we are waiting for the light to come into the world. And, we need it to be big, dazzling, overwhelming light. We need it to kick the darkness in the tail, that it runs screaming in the opposite direction. In the cartoon version of “the light coming into the world,” the light becomes a fantastic superhero with tremendous blinding power that forces the darkness into oblivion. But, the first verse we heard today from the Gospel of John was something more straightforward: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Many years ago, I read a sermon entitled “Luminarias,” on this passage by Scott Black Johnston, who used to serve at Trinity Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta. He tells a story about a former colleague of his at Austin Seminary who had asked her students to prepare a lesson plan on Isaiah 9, which reads, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.”

As part of her research into this passage, a student decided to try and find the darkest place on campus. After hunting around, she discovered a little-used racket ball court in the basement of the McMillan classroom building. It was accessed only by going down two flights of steps and through a few heavy doors. A good portion of the court was probably underground. This enterprising student discovered that when you got inside and closed the door and turned out the lights, it was really dark in there. There wasn't a single stray photon bouncing around that could make an impression on a human retina. It was, she said, totally dark. Scary dark.

When it came time for this student to lead her class through the lesson, she brought them down the stairs, through the doors, and sat them down around the edges of the court. Then she said, "You are people who live in a land of deep darkness." And she turned out the light. A few students gasped. Then it got pretty quiet. She waited. In the hush and in the dark, they sat. They sat and waited. After five minutes, five surprisingly long, silent, and absolutely dark minutes, she read the words, "Those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined." With those words she struck a match and lit a small candle. Now, as I understand it, by no means did that small candle fill the vast room with light, but all the same it changed things. It changed them radically. With the flickering of the light, people saw themselves, and they saw each other. They saw faces-surprised faces, puzzled faces, and even a couple of faces streaked with tears. For those in deep darkness, a little light made all the difference, all the difference in the world.[3]

“The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the only way I am able to stand in the pulpit today, and make any claim about the goodness of God and the power of Christ’s life. If God had elected to become incarnate in any way other than a tiny, helpless newborn, we would have been blinded and overwhelmed. We could not have seen or perceived God’s good intentions and gracious offer to come and live in this world as we live: prone to suffering, conflict, persecution and death. In God’s great wisdom, a child was born: a child that learned, as we have to learn, how to walk and talk; a child that had to run from death from the moment of his birth. Do you see the gift of God’s goodness here? That the light that is coming into the world is not a blinding flash, but a soft light that is not overcome even by the deepest darkness.
In this, Sisters and Brothers, we may put our Advent hope. The darkness is present and powerful. It shouts loudly at us, reminding us of its presence here. But, the light is more powerful in its gentleness than the darkness is in all its fury. Hold on to this truth. Testify to it. Even when the darkness rages, remind yourself that what the darkness brings has no power against God’s love. Death and sadness will not define who we are. The darkness is present in this world to be defeated. Let us proclaim, as Advent people, who are hopeful and waiting, that the light – the true light, which enlightens everyone – is coming into the world. And, because of this: We may bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; We may proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”[4]

Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen and Amen.

[1] John Wesley’s notes on the Bible: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.v.ii.html

[2] http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-john-1-6-8

[3] http://day1.org/1022-luminarias

[4] Isaiah 61: 1-3, 11b