This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.

Words have power.

For better or for worse, our words have the ability to build up tear down, make whole or divide, give life or destroy, celebrate or denigrate. With just a few words we can let someone know that we love and value them, or we can communicate our hatred and animosity.

In communications theory, there exists the concept of power-words. A power-word is “a word that often evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the target audience, leading to a desired outcome.”[1] That is, leaders or communicators will use certain words in their speeches to incite hope or hatred, excitement or aversion, repentance or riot.

We must agree that after the last four years in this country, and the last four days specifically that words have power. Political slogans and campaigns, rhetoric on Twitter, Facebook, and social media, uncivil discourse and dialogue. As a nation, our words have become too loaded, too volatile, too charged. On Wednesday, we witnessed the unprecedented and evil actions which were the natural and obvious manifestation of words from the last 4 years.

Friends, we need to examine our own words and actions to see if they are in alignment with the God and his kingdom.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.[2]

The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism, borrowing from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The church has decided together that God’s words spoken to, about, and over Jesus are significant.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3]

These words are full of power. They were not just important for Jesus nor for the first century Christians: they carry significant weight and power for us.

We begin our Gospel lesson four verses into Mark’s opening chapter. If you think that this looks familiar…it does! This is our 4th time looking at this passage in the last 6 weeks!

The lesson opens with John the baptizer. John has come proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A better translation of this verse would be “proclaiming a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.”

Why baptism? Prior to New Testament, Israel had no functional equivalent for our Christian understanding of baptism. John’s baptism was an altogether new phenomenon; many believe that the closest Jewish precedent for this was “the ritual cleansing by immersion of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte.” That is, if someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to convert to Judaism, they would have to undergo a ritual cleansing. “But John’s baptism was for Jews; to ask them to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…to be born a Jew was not enough.”[4]

John’s baptism is all about repentance. The Greek word here is metanoia, and it means to turn around, an about face. It would be as though you were walking south down A1A and then you had a moment of metanoia in which you turned 180* and went north. It is more than a feeling or an expression, it is always accompanied by action.

Repentance is always turning away from something and turning toward something else. This is why repentance is a verb and not a theory. Saying sorry is one thing, but an amendment of life is the fullness of an apology. Here is what repentance actually looks like…

As part of the turning away it is…

Renouncing Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
Renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.[5]

This means decrying the acts of hatred and violence this past Wednesday as evil and wicked.
This means confessing all acts of violence as evil.
We must also announce corruption, systemic injustice, racism, agism, sexism, classism, and poverty as evil.
This means putting to death all forms of idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, prejudice, judgmentalism, hatred, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering, and other forms of sinful behavior.

This is both corporate and individual.

If we renounce these things, if we actively turn away from them, then toward what or whom do we turn instead?

We need to read further before we answer that question.

People from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem come and join John in the wilderness. They are baptized by him in the Jordan as they confess their sins. One commentator suggests that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” is the most significant event in Israel’s history for 300 years.[6] The people come to him from all over because he was preaching something different than the rest of the religious leaders of the day. Whether it was categorically different or simply on account of his zeal, the people recognize in him the prophetic tradition.

This is why we are told that John “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” These depictions should bring to mind images of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah who came preaching repentance to all of Israel. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as “the hairy man with the leather belt.” There is even thought that John was baptizing at the precise location where Elijah was taken up into heaven…

John isn’t here to simply immerse people in water…he’s here as a herald of the eschaton; he baptizes in the Jordan as a proclamation that YHWH is on the move once more.

In verse 7, John makes his pronouncement about the superiority of the one who is coming after him. For week, I have used the analogy of the sports fan who would wear a large “foam finger” to games when talking about John. John was wearing a figurative foam finger at all times, constantly pointing up to the Father and then directly to Jesus.[7] We have already discussed this verse at length, but I’d like to recall two main points. First, John differentiates his baptism with Jesus on account of the Holy Spirit. Second, John places himself below the role of a servant in relationship to Jesus. It was a servant’s job to untie the thongs of a sandal and John says he isn’t even fit for that role…the suspense is building toward the emergence of this “Greater One.”

A quick note on water. John is not denigrating the role of water in baptism but is rather elevating the presence and immersion of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. You may have noticed that water was present in all of our lessons this morning. The Spirit hovered over the deep waters in creation, God’s voice was spoken over the waters in the Psalm, and the waters of baptism wash over those who receive this sacrament. Water has always been a symbol of life and birth. We are born in water, our bodies are made up of 60% water, the earth is 71% water, and we are re-born in the waters of baptism.

The baptismal liturgy includes this prayer over water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[8]

Water was a core symbol and image for Israel. John is not doing away with the water, but is rather pointing to the Spirit who was hovering over the waters because it is the Spirit who will cause rebirth, not the water itself.

We finally arrive at the scene with Jesus. Verse 9 is nonchalant and casual, almost dull. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” This is significant because we were previously told that those from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John for baptism, that is, the remnant of Israel, but now we have “a stranger from the North.” Remember, Jesus’ birth pedigree is royal but now he lives in backwater Nazareth…

John is expertly setting up this dynamic encounter, though. Verse 10 is teeming with activity compared to the limited mobility of the previous verse.

“And just as he was coming up out of the waters.” This is the first time in Greek that Mark uses his favorite phrase, “immediately.” He will use this 41 times in his Gospel…it is only used 51 in the whole of the New Testament. Mark is trying to grab our attention with this.

It says that the heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word here is the counterpart to the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 63 when it says, “Lord rend the heavens and come down.” This is also the verb used to describe the veil of the temple being torn in two. This is no accident or coincidence; Mark is saying something significant! Jesus’ baptism is essential because

This is what it looks like when God rends open the heavens.
God rending the heavens and coming down looks like the Son of God receiving the baptism of repentance in the Jordan

Or, to borrow from Mary Healy, “The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humility. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed.”[9]

If we turn away from Satan, sin, and evil in our repentance, to whom do we turn toward?

You turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.
You put your whole trust in his grace and love.
You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.[10]

Jesus did not need this baptism. Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. Jesus has nothing of which he needed to repent…and yet, he receives this baptism all the same. Why? It was an act of body language; it was God’s self-identifying with the suffering of his people under the weight of sin; it was Jesus standing in solidarity with humanity; the King of the Jews was in essence saying that it was not enough to be born a Jew.

Jesus turns toward the Father in his baptism and he invites us to turn toward the Father with him. We must follow Jesus as Lord as he follows the Father. In Jesus we are given the image of the invisible God; Jesus is the light to lighten our path. Jesus is the light of the world and his light shines forth in creation three days before the sun, moon, and stars are created. The light of Jesus reveals the glory of the Father!

The Spirit descends on Jesus. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. Just as John promised that the Powerful One would baptize with the Spirit. The holy trinity is present in this baptism; the Father speaks his loving words to the Son, the Son of God and the Son of David, the one who is fully God and fully man, stands in the Jordan fully identifying with Israel and all of humanity, and the Spirit descends.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?[11]

The statement from the Father here is definitive. He does not call Jesus a son of God but rather the Son, the beloved.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t quite answer why the baptism of the Spirit is greater than John’s baptism of water, but our lesson from Acts does. Paul goes to Ephesus as asks if the believers have heard of the Spirit and sadly they have not. Mary Healy says it this way: baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a coming alive of the graces received in sacramental baptism.”[12]

Friends, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. What does it look like to live as a baptized disciple of Jesus? It means that you…

Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to God.
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[13]

To close this sermon, I will pray over each and every one of you. This prayer is a compilation of prayers and statements from the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the prayer book. The intention here is for you to reaffirm your baptismal covenant. (If you have not yet been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, please write me an email so we can talk about baptism. If you have not yet been confirmed in the faith by an Episcopal bishop or received from another diocese or body, please write me so we can talk about fixing this.)

May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Open their hearts to your grace and truth. Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit. Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church. Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit. Send them into the world in witness to your love. Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.[14]


[1] https://www.yourdictionary.com/power-word
[2] Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
[5] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
[6] R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
[7] I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
[8] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
[9] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[10] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
[11] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[13] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
[14] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. I selected the lessons for Christmas I to be used on Christmas Eve.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Since 2010, Google has released a video every December chronicling the “Year in Search.” These dramatic videos highlight the ups and downs of the year: achievements, tragedies, crises, highs, and lows. In short, the moments which have affected the whole world. As you can imagine, the year 2020 deserved a video just as powerful as it has been devastating, and Google delivered.

The video starts with a nighttime view of the globe from outer space. The narrator begins, “The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’

“And in a year that tested everyone around the world, why was searched more than ever…and while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching.”

The video then rolls through pictures and clips of the havoc that 2020 has wreaked on humanity: the start of Covid, home videos from the first round of quarantine, Space X, Kobe Bryant, the wildfires of Australia and California, Beirut, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Black Lives Matter, Chadwick Bosman, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Coronavirus vaccines, and the rising death tolls.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Google’s video is an uplifting homage to humanity’s resilience and fortitude, but the makers of the video leave the message very open-ended. The video opened with the claim that “while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching” and it closes with one line:

Until we get to every answer…we’re still searching.

We’re still searching.

The video is not devoted to humanity’s resilience, but rather to humanity’s innate ability to ask questions and a deep need for answers…

And it’s not just Google. YouTube recently released a much shorter video stating that the most searched for topic in 2020 was “how.” How do I do this? How does this work?

How, how, how?

Why, why, why?

Beloved, the world is asking questions…

…but do we have answers?

Today/tonight we begin our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus. Advent has been a long walk through darkness, ever lighting one more candle, ever taking one step closer to the birth of our Savior. Isaiah heralds an immediate and dramatic end to the darkness:

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Israel had been walking in darkness for centuries. After the Exodus, Israel grumbled and complained and wandered in the desert for 40 years; after Joshua came the Judges with their on-again-off-again, we-love-him-we-love-him-not relationship with God; after the Judges, Israel had the gumption to request a king “like the rest of the nations.” This isn’t all bad because we get David who becomes the archetype for the one who will sit and reign on the throne forever…but soon after David and Solomon the whole thing begins to fall apart as king after king abandons YHWH, choosing spiritual darkness by worshipping false gods. Israel is eventually conquered by a succession of empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Rome.

In short, the darkness mentioned at the beginning of Isaiah 9 wasn’t short lived; it went on for generations. Isaiah’s passage could be taken to reflect his-present-day circumstances as though there might be relief from oppression and exile, but it is clear that this is the descriptive depiction of a future event.

There will be a time when darkness is replaced by light, when death is replaced by joy, when oppression is replaced by deliverance.

There will be a day when peace will reign over the throne of David and his kingdom.

There will be a day when the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar across their shoulders are broken.

Who will accomplish all of this? YHWH will. God will make good on his promises; God will fulfill the covenant; God will redeem, rescue, reconcile, and restore his people.

Forgive the pun, but after the poignant prose of Isaiah 9, Psalm 96, and Titus 2, we are left asking ourselves, what child is this?

At the opening of Luke’s gospel, Israel was under the occupation and authority of Rome, one of the most brutal and ruthless empires the world had ever seen. The beauty of the gospel is that the narrative is the inverse of what you would expect in a great story. Certainly, it is the exact opposite of what Israel expected. Israel was looking for the one who would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” But the emergence of the light of life, the light of the world is precisely not the bursting forth of military might, political power, or socio-economic superiority.

It is actually against this very backdrop that our story takes place in Luke’s gospel…

…and that’s the whole point!

We are told that Caesar Augustus called for a census of the whole world. Caesar’s intentions are utterly irrelevant to the story because God uses the history and circumstances of the world for his own purposes. Why then does Luke tell us of the census? Easy: because it is this very census which brings Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David. The decree was clear that all “went to their towns to be registered” and David was “descended from the house and family of David.”

This is not a throwaway line, my friends. Luke is playing it cool, but this detail is of great significance: the prophesies of the Old Testament were certain that God would send one faithful Israelite from the line of David to sit on David’s throne forever. Despite being born in poverty and disrepute, Jesus has royal blood coursing through his veins.

The actual birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is rather brief and anticlimactic. The focus of Luke’s gospel has thus far been on the annunciation to Mary, the shared joy of Mary and Elizabeth, and the songs that Mary and Elizabeth each sing in response to the good news they received from on high. We read Mary’s Magnificat this last Sunday. It is filled with political overtones. She sang about the world being turned upside down, about the radical reversal of reality, about God hearing the cries of his people and exalting the lowly. Today we are simply told that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register, she was pregnant, she gave birth and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn.

And that’s it.

Royal children are born in regal, palatial, elegant settings and yet the Savior, the Messiah, God incarnate comes to us in the form of a helpless babe, to an unwed mother in the backyard of the Roman Empire where Caesar is known as the son of god.

But our story is not yet over. The scene shifts and Luke tells us of shepherds who were watching their flock at night. Shepherds were at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to class and significance. Being a shepherd was not an appropriate or aspirational career path for an individual. And despite the lowly nature of shepherds, Israel has a long history of shepherd-leaders: Moses and David.

Is it no surprise, then, that the angel of the Lord would appear before shepherds announcing the birth of the King of kings?

The good news of Jesus’ birth is that the lowly are being lifted up,

the high and mighty will tumble,

the world will be put to rights.

Salvation has come.

The good news is for all people.

It isn’t just for the people who read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal nor is it only for those who read Guns and Ammo.

It isn’t just good news for those in the top 1% nor it is only good news for the poorest of the poor.

It isn’t just good news for the Jews nor the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Gentiles.

It is good news for all people.

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Friends, the light of the gospel, the light of the world was born in the humblest of ways and yet his birth has had, is having, and will have ramifications far beyond the joy experienced by his parents or even the excitement of the lowly shepherds. This is the beginning of a history-altering-event which has forever shaped and changed the world.

This Advent, I have repeatedly claimed that we cannot separate Jesus’ first coming from his second coming, and today we need to take this a step further: you cannot separate the incarnation, when God put on flesh, from the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

The very, very good news of Christmas is that Jesus’ birth is the beginning of all he accomplished through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.

The significance of Christ’s birth cannot be overstated: it is the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. It is the birth of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. It is the birth of the faithful Israel who assumed our humanity and who would destroy sin, suffering, and death.

Like Google and YouTube, we might be left asking questions: How did the incarnation work? Why did Jesus come? How does his birth have meaning for us? Why didn’t he vanquish Rome?

We are asking the wrong questions. Just as Google and YouTube have suggested, we have questions and we want answers, but we need to start asking the right question. It is not a matter of how or why but of who.

Who is it that we worship?

Who is this Christ?

The darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. Jesus was born that he might break the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar on their shoulders, the bars of sin, suffering, and death on our shoulders. He came to rescue, redeem, restore, and reconcile all people to the Father, a mission which far exceeded Rome or empires or Caesars.

This wasn’t about Rome, it was about sin and our separation from God, it was about our inability to keep the covenant, it was about the grace of God for all people, it was about Christ assuming our humanity that he might redeem us completely.

There is no shortage of good news tonight. The good news is that light has burst forth into the world; that love has come down from heaven, put on flesh, and dwells among us.

The opportunity in front of us is to carry this good news to the ends of the earth that all nations might be blessed, just as God intended Israel to do all the way back in Genesis 12. As you sit in the church today, or at home via the livestream, and as you consider the good news of Christ’s first coming, I implore you to consider how this might be good news for all people. As humanity continues to search for truth, purpose, and answers to all of the hard questions of life, we have a unique and urgent opportunity to show them that they aren’t looking in the right place. YouTube and Google are telling us that the world is asking how and why, but we need to show the world that the answer is actually who.

Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. He is the author of salvation and perfector of faith. He is the one who put on flesh in the form of a helpless babe; he is the one from the line and house of David who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever in glory and majesty, ushering in his peace. He is the one who brings light, love, hope, peace, joy, and mercy as he ushers in his kingdom. Jesus is the one who has come to radically reverse reality, to turn the world upside down, to show that the lowly will be exalted, to put the world to rights. He is the one who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, to bring sight to the blind, to free the captive, to crush the stranglehold that sin has over each of us.

What child is this? The King of kings and Lord of lords…glory to God in the highest!

Beloved, the world is asking questions. The world is searching for meaning and understanding.

What kind of answer are you prepared to give?

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.