Advent 3 Sermon – Year B

This was written and preached for the people of St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church for the Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2020. The lectionary texts were Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

I’d like to begin with a quote from two great 20th century philosophers, Simon and Garfunkel:

Hello darkness, my old friend.

But seriously, let’s talk about darkness.

25 years ago, Fleming Rutledge, lovingly referred to by many as “the patron saint of Advent,” stated that Advent begins in the dark.

Our liturgical celebration of Advent begins in darkness on the first Sunday of Advent. The wreath, candles, and Christ candle are present, but without light. Each Sunday we light a candle, adding one more than before. It takes four weeks to light them all and it isn’t until Christmas Eve that we light the Christ candle and see the light of the world filling the darkness.[1]

In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent quite literally begins in the dark as we drawer ever closer to the Winter Solstice; the day when we have the least amount of light all year. It is no coincidence that we celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the same day that the Sun pours its light back into our days.

This year the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will form a “Christmas Star” on December 21st for the first time in 800 years. The darkness of Winter Solstice will be brighter this year because of the Christmas Star…tell me that won’t preach!

Light and darkness are part of our gospel passage this morning. We read that John came to testify to the light, but we have to back up a few verses to understand who the light was.

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 darkness in the beginning. Genesis 1 tells us, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Before God created the heavens and the earth there was darkness. God’s first words in Genesis were let there be light. And there was. This passage from John 1 references the very same light that we see spoken into world in Genesis: the light of all people. Jesus.

And this light cannot be overcome by darkness.

One final layer of darkness, this passage was written as the opening of John’s gospel wherein Israel had been in a period of “darkness” or “silence” from God. There are over 400 years of silence between the prophets in the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New Testament.

Imagine a play: the prophets enter from stage right during the era of the kings and kingdom of Israel. At first, they come with words of warning: repent and return to God or else you will be exiled. After a succession of bad kings which resulted in exile and captivity, later prophets came with a word of hope: repent and return to God for he is going to rescue you.

The first act of the play ends with the prophets and their words-of-hope. We know from passages like Psalm 126 that the captives were brought back to Zion and they came with great joy. The lights go up, everyone goes to intermission to buy a snack or use the facilities, and then the audience goes back into the theatre, the lights dim, and the curtain is raised.

And there’s nothing.

Nothing on stage.

No light.

Israel is back in her land, but she is under Roman occupation.

The fiercest empire the world had ever seen.

And then you hear a voice.

A voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.

This is Advent.

This is our life.

We live in a perpetual Advent.

We started with John 1:1-5 because the lectionary compilers curiously began in verse 6 with the description of a man named John who was sent to testify to the light. Our first interpretive task this morning is to assess the role that John the baptizer plays in John’s gospel. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), John the baptizer is presented as a religious zealot who ate funny food, wore funny clothes, and who preached repentance and forgiveness. In John’s gospel, however, we are given a different picture of the baptizer: John’s sole role in the gospel is to testify about Jesus, to bear witness to the messiah.

Why?

We aren’t told the purpose of John’s gospel until the very end—unlike Luke who states his purpose at the beginning of his gospel and the book of Acts. The final two verses of John read, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[2]

John’s gospel is about belief.

It is about belief in Jesus.

Belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

We are told in John 1:6 that John-the-baptizer was sent by God. The language suggests John is but a representative or messenger of God. It is the same verb used later in the passage when the Pharisees sent representatives to John, asking who he was.

In verse 7 we read: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” He’s referring to Jesus as the light, the light of life, the word who was with God in the beginning. And John came to testify to that light. Why? So that all might believe.

The gospel writer will go to great lengths to articulate Jesus’ superiority and preeminence to John. Verse 8 tells us that John was not the light. There was a sect of Jews in the earliest centuries after Jesus who broke away from the Jews-turned-Christians. This other sect believed that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah. The author of this gospel is trying to make abundantly clear in his opening, then, that Jesus is superior to John. Jesus is the Messiah.

After these 3 verses we skip ahead to verse 19 where we find John being questioned by the representatives of the Pharisees. We are again told in verse 19 that “this is the testimony given by John” when the Jews sent their priestly representatives to him. John is deep into his ministry at this point. Otherwise, how could he have possibly gotten the attention of the religious elite in Jerusalem? How would they even know he is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness?

The representatives are sent to John and they ask him, “Who are you?” This is a loaded question…

Who are you? is the equivalent of asking Are you the Messiah?

John knows this because he responds with, I am not the Messiah.

Notice how the gospel tells us John’s response; the sentence is clunky, awkward, and repetitive: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” John the baptizer did not deny the existence of the Messiah. Rather in stating that he was not the Messiah he confessed that another (Jesus) was. John will later proclaim, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,”[3] when he sees Jesus approach. John identifies Jesus as the Messiah. His confession of “I am not the Messiah” is not like the confession of sins to a priest, nor like the confession of a crime to a detective. It is a profound confession of faith.

The priestly representatives ask him two follow-up questions: Are you Elijah? and Are you the prophet? John answers these questions the same way, “I am not.” This is interesting since the Synoptic Gospels—remember, Matthew, Mark and, Luke—present John as a prophetic successor to Elijah. Why, then, does he deny it in this gospel?

These two questions are just as loaded as their opening question of Who are you?

First,when they ask if he is Elijah they are really asking if he has come to restore the 12 tribes of Israel. Elijah was taken up to heaven without dying; it was a common belief amongst Jews that he would come back to restore the tribes. John says no because this is Jesus’ role, not his!

Second, when they ask if he’s the prophet they are referring to this concept of a second Moses whom we read about in Deuteronomy 18:15. Moses was the greatest prophet Israel had ever known and yet Moses tells Israel that one was coming after him who would surpass him. Thus, John says no because while he is a prophet, he is not the prophet who will come to fulfill the law…again, that is Jesus.

Do you see now how John is actually pointing to Jesus the entire time? His “nos” are a confession of who Jesus is.

Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is the Elijah figure come to restore the tribes.

Jesus is the prophet, the second Moses, come to fulfill the law.

Jesus is the light who has come into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome him.

John’s three “I am not” statements serve as negative mirrors to Jesus’ seven famous “I am” statements in John’s gospel. The gospel writer is contrasting John and Jesus for us! What’s more, John’s three “I am not” statements are to be compared with Peter’s three denials of Jesus at the end of the book…

We are living in a year when the word darkness hits a little too close to home. Covid-19, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a divided country, increases in suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The list goes on. If we’re honest, it feels like total darkness.

Did you know that true darkness doesn’t actually exist? Sure, we understand the idea of “pitch black” or “total darkness,” but in actuality we cannot find nor achieve total darkness because there is always something, some object which emits a dim-light-emitting-energy.[4] Darkness is the absence of light and the good news is that the light of the world can never be overcome. It’s almost as if the triumph of light has been baked into the cake since the beginning of creation.

Two weeks ago, you heard me echo Karl Barth when I posited that the church is living in a perpetual Advent season. I’d like to flesh that out even further using our light/darkness motif and suggest to you that the Christian life is lived in twilight.

We occupy the between time of already and not yet. Barbara Brown Taylor, a gifted Episcopal priest and writer, describes twilight this way: “that lovely liminal space between dark and light.”[5]

This lovely liminal space between the already but the not yet is the place where we see God’s kingdom being ushered in. We know that the light has come, is coming, and will come. The precise timing of that second coming is unknown, unexpected. The light given from “the already” of Jesus’ first advent gives us the ability to watch and wait for his second coming.

Keeping in mind that today is Joy Sunday, I would like to give you something to rejoice about:

Isaiah’s opening words in Isaiah 61 are meant for you. Christ has come proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor, sight to the blind, good news to the oppressed, release to the prisoners, liberty to the captives. Beloved, please hear me say this: those things which have held you in bondage have been forgiven in Christ. The anger, the hatred, the addiction, the lying, the cheating, the stealing, the infidelity, the abuse, the broken relationships, the malicious and vindictive behavior, the very sins which have held you in bondage have been broken through Jesus Christ. He is proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor to you. Today. That is the good news!

And this good news isn’t for you to hoard or keep secret, but to share with the whole world. John’s sole purpose in this gospel is to bear witness to Jesus, to point to who Jesus is, to testify to Jesus as the light of the world.

And friends…that is your job, too.

Just like John the baptizer, you are not the light…your call is to bear witness to the light! Your job as a Christian and our calling as a church is to tell the whole world about who Jesus is and what he has done. John never intentionally drew attention to himself nor did he allow anyone to think that he was the messiah or light of life.

We need to echo John: you must increase and I must decrease. More of you, Lord Jesus. More of you. This world doesn’t need any more narcissisms, self-help, or self-absorption…this world needs more Jesus. You are called to be a herald, messenger, representative, and witness of the light just like John was.

You are called to rejoice like those brought back to Zion from captivity. They sang and shouted and rejoiced crying out, “The Lord has done great things for us!” Our tears have been turned to joy…and our joy is to become a proclamation that the light has come and the darkness cannot overcome it.


[1] This is why the Christ Candle is used to light all other candles during “Silent Night” at the conclusion of Christmas Eve services.

[2] John 20:30-31.

[3] John 1:29

[4] Black body radiation

[5] Email correspondence from 12/11/20.

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