TEXT: John 1:6-8, 19-28
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. (John 1:6-8)
During the years I spent in Kamloops, before I came to Calgary, I got to know a fellow pastor who had spent most of his life in the United States. He told me that, when he was a young man, one of the jobs he had—during election time—was taking care of the “voting machines.” We don’t have those in Canada—at least, not yet. And I’m glad. They sound complicated. And finicky.
Something else he told me also concerned American political life, and I found it quite fascinating. It had to do with the sort of preparations involved when the President of the United States—or even a former President—makes a visit to a local community.
A raft of Secret Service personnel check out every building along the route he will travel and near the place he will be appearing. According to my friend, they sometimes even weld shut the manhole covers in the roadway, so that nobody can pop up out of the sewer with a machine gun!
They go over each building with a fine-tooth comb from roof to basement in their efforts to ensure the President’s safety. They are known as “advance persons.” They work invisibly behind the scenes to make sure that everything is ready for the big event that is going to take place.
In today’s Gospel, we encounter another kind of “advance person.” However, he’s not a member of the Secret Service. He’s not preparing for a visit from a head of state. He’s not checking out parade routes to ensure their safety.
No. This advance person is telling us to get ready for the most important visit in human history. His name is John the Baptist. We were introduced to him last week in Mark’s Gospel, and today we are told that “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”
Now, that statement may not mean as much to us as it did to the people of Judea 2,000 years ago. That’s because we already know the ending to the story—which they didn’t. Our world has already been visited by the Holy One from God. We don’t need an “advance person” to prepare his way, like they did.
Or do we? Perhaps there is something in John’s message that we are taking for granted. That is a problem with the familiar, isn’t it? We can too easily fall into a sense of complacency. As a result, Christmas can become simply a “festival of the familiar” rather than an encounter with the Holy One.
Looking again at today’s gospel passage, I see two words that stand out: “witness” and “light.”
What does it mean to be a “witness” for God? Well, last week we heard John call for repentance and change. Today we hear him calling us to prepare for Christmas by building a straight road in the desert for God to travel on. He’s quoting the prophet Isaiah.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:3-4)
So John is quoting the old prophet, but you’d think he’d seen a modern-day city crew working on a repaving project. “Fill up the low spots. Knock the tops off of the high spots. Level it out. Make it straight and smooth.”
What does Isaiah say is the purpose of all this construction? So that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together …” (Isaiah 40:5a)
Here is John’s message about Christmas, my friends: God wants every person in the entire world to know his power and his glory. Getting ready for Christmas is not about decorated trees, or office parties, or even family gatherings. Which might give us some measure of comfort, given that the worldwide pandemic has taken much of that away, this year.
No. It’s not about parties or presents or bottled cheer. It is about a mission that God has placed upon every Christian: to open up a path to God for others who stand in need of his love and grace. If we truly hear that—if we really take it seriously—it will have a profound effect on our Christmas preparations and celebrations. John is telling us that we are expected to do something as a result of what God did at Christmas.
Now, we’ve all heard that message before, haven’t we? Maybe we’ve heard it so often that we are, frankly, tired of hearing it: “Do something! Do something!”
But maybe it’s a message we need to keep hearing. After all, it’s easy, isn’t it, to settle into a kind of “armchair faith.” You know what I mean, don’t you? I think we’ve all known people like this. To be sure, they come to church. But they seem to want to be spoon-fed, and after they leave the building, that’s the end of it until the next time they come to see the show.
However, our relationship with God is not supposed to be a “consumer faith” in which everything is neatly packaged for us and all we have to do is pick it off the shelf when we need it. Neither is faith supposed to be a “let George do it” affair in which we allow a dedicated few to burn themselves out doing the tasks which, really, belong to all of us.
This morning, John the Baptizer is telling us that Christmas road building requires the active participation of each and every one of us, all year round. He is saying we need to build these roads everywhere—into our jobs, our schools, our online communities, our neighbourhoods—wherever and however we have influence.
O.K. I said the second word that stands out for me in the gospel passage is “light.”
Some time ago, I read a newspaper article about a solar energy system that can be set up in any home to provide for almost all of its electrical needs. I think that’s amazing. It made me realize how far we have come technologically in providing light to see by.
However, in the same newspapers, I read about mass shootings and messy celebrity divorces and people dying of drug overdoses. As I watch the TV news, I behold police violence and then witness more violence in response. I see people protesting against the wearing of face masks even as thousands around them die from COVID-19. And then I realize that technology cannot generate light for our hearts and souls.
If actions do speak louder than words—and they do—then, at Christmas, God has virtually shouted to the world that he cares! God cares enough to enter the place where we live and bring light into the dark corners of our lives that we cannot seem to brighten on our own.
Christmas light is about an end to isolation and despair. It’s about an end to all the evil and suffering and sadness that even our best efforts cannot seem to fix. Christmas is about hope when times are darkest. Christmas is about the future that God has provided—an eternity wherein death no longer has the final word.
This is the message we need to hear again and again. Somehow the passage of time takes a subtle toll on our spirits. And because it happens little by little, even to the most dedicated people, we usually don’t notice it. Then, one day, it suddenly gets dark—and we wonder what happened.
Today, we have heard from the “advance man.” John reminds us that God has turned on the brightest light in the universe—brighter than any sun or star or electric generator. He also reminds us that we are the advance people of this generation. God is calling us to be witnesses to the light. We are to tell everyone who will listen that the light has already come.
The question is: will we do it? Will we allow God to stir things up within us and within our community, so that we might become more like John—one “sent from God”?
That is, in fact, who Christians really are: men and women sent from God as witnesses to testify to the Light, so that all might believe through him. We are called to testify, bear witness to, and proclaim the glory of the Light. We are called to embody the Light—to become the ones who reveal the life of Christ, here and now, in this world—this world that so desperately needs to see him and know him.
May God grant us courage and wisdom to live out our high calling—not just through Advent, but all year long.