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“To Witness” on John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Joe Ellis, December 17, 2023

Last week we reflected on how our God is a God of perpetual, emerging arrival. We looked at several passages in Scripture, all of which point to instances of God’s powerful arrival into the fabric of history. Today, we’ve been invited to look at an aspect of our role in that arrival: Witness. John the Baptist is clear eyed about his vocation, his calling, his purpose in life. He is to be a witness — a witness to the arrival of God in Jesus Christ. A witness, of course, is one who gives testimony to what they’ve seen, testimony to their lived experience. John had an experience with God that convinced John that God would soon be arriving. John learned that his role in that arrival was to tell others what he would soon happen.

So John gave witness to His experience of God in two ways. He told others what he had witnessed (i.e. later he talks about seeing the dove coming down on Jesus during Jesus’ baptism), but in the passage we heard this morning John is witnessing to the fact that God had told him He would soon arrive in Israel in the way that had been promised by the prophets long, long ago. The way in which John is telling people about what he’s seen and heard from God is by inviting people to be baptized (meaning immersed here) in the River Jordan. That was the way John was giving witness that God would soon be arriving.

Why did he choose this immersion into the River Jordan as his way of giving witness to the fact that God would soon arrive? The nation of Israel, at that time was occupied by Rome. The people were living in the land that God had given to them, but they were under enemy rule by Rome. So when John heard from God that God was going to fulfill the promises He made to the prophets — John’s most natural interpretation would have been that God was going to lead the people into political freedom. The way John describes himself is this: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness,” a line taken from Isaiah 40. There, God is announcing His Arrival in which it seems like He shall restore the land to the people. That passage in Isaiah 40 acknowledges that the reason why they had lost the land in the first place was on account of the sins of the people. That’s why Isaiah 40 starts out in verse 1 saying, “Comfort, comfort my people, tell her that her hard service has been completed and her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  The people of Israel are in this predicament with Rome because of their sins. The next line in Isaiah 40 is where John comes in. “A voice of one calling: prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” That’s John’s job, to prepare the way for the Lord by announcing His arrival. Then Isaiah 40 goes on to say that the Lord will lead the people back to dwell in the land with them. This is what John is getting the people ready for. He’s having them enter into the Jordan River, an act intended to remind people of the time, centuries earlier, when God miraculously caused the River Jordan to stop flowing and the people crossed the dry riverbed into the Promised Land. John’s baptism invited people again into the River Jordan (probably as a way of preparing to take back the land), but this time God did not stop the river from flowing. Stepping into the water was a symbolic action saying, ‘Here we are again, Lord. This time we don’t expect you to stop the water for us. We have sinned. But we are ready for whatever comes next. We are ready to go to battle for you and take back our land from Rome.’ You can imagine the sort of energy surrounding John as people entered into this baptism. It's the energy of a revolution. John had witnessed something, and he was getting people ready for God’s Arrival in their midst. Who knew what would happen next!

Understandably, this activity in the desert truly worried some religious leaders in Jerusalem. They sent a few priests to figure out what was going on. The priests came up to John and pressed him with questions. In light of what I said the immersion in the Jordan River symbolized, their first question to John makes perfect sense: “Are you the Messiah?” There were a lot of different expectations around what God’s Messiah would do when he finally shows up — but perhaps the most common expectation was that the Messiah would lead the people of Israel into battle. The Messiah was thought to be God’s Warrior King who would finally free His people from the oppressive yoke of Rome. It was probably a big surprise when John said, “No, I am not the Messiah.”  ‘What?! Then why on earth are you doing what your doing?’ The priests and the Levites earnestly beg John to give them a better answer to take back to their reports, “What do you say about yourself!”

So, John says, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, make straight the way for the Lord.”  John is the forerunner, the one who will prepare the people for God’s Arrival. He’s the one who will prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. His only role is to get the people ready for this Arrival. The people are ready to be ready. They’re coming out to see John in droves. The people have had their fill of this foreign army occupying their homeland, this homeland that was supposed to be a gift from God. Foreign officials were using their people as pawns to collect taxes. The people were subjected to judgment by foreign judges, forced to obey foreign laws, forced to do obeisance to foreign rulers. Those who protested this situation were humiliated, tortured and crucified.

Earlier we read a chapter from Isaiah 61, another passage that promises the arrival of God, telling us that good news will come to the poor, the broken-hearted, the captive and to prisoners. No doubt those around the river would have heard those words as an embodiment of their nation. “We are broken-hearted, captive, prisoners — in our own land! It's us who need a witness, we are the people who are dwelling in great darkness.” How does Isaiah 9 put it? “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness.”  John is a witness to these people: ‘Hold fast, God is coming. Repent, the Messiah is coming. Get ready, God is coming. Be comforted, God is coming.’ This was John’s witness to his brothers and sisters who were living in a particular type of darkness.

The world needs followers of Christ who are willing to plunge themselves into the darkness, and there give witness to God’s Arrival. In her book Pastrix, Nadia Boz-Weber reflects on learning this lesson. She had just enrolled in a course called Clinical Pastoral Education in which she is doing an internship at a hospital, serving essentially as a chaplain. Early in the program she was called to the Emergency Room, told it was trauma 1: an urgency consumed the ER as all staff were doing their intensely-focused best to keep the patient on the table from ending up in the morgue. And there, this young pastor experienced an utter sense of helplessness as she stood back and watched. Eventually she found a nurse standing next to her. Nadia commented, “Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?” Can you hear the note of utter helplessness, in this place of darkness, of urgency, of crisis? “What am I doing here?” The nurse paused, looked at her badge which said “pastor-in-training” , and the nurse said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.” Nadia said, “For the rest of those two-and-a-half months I often found myself in the ER trauma room watching life going in and out of the patients on the table—the doctors and nurses violently attempting to resuscitate them. And in that messy chaos, my job was to just stand there and be aware of God’s presence in the room. Kind of a weird job description, but there it was, and in those moments, I felt strangely qualified.” Her job description was to witness, to be aware of God’s presence.. Not yet to be a witness, but simply to witness. Nadia was to watch and listen for the presence of God in a place that seemed utterly void of His presence.

Each of us have those ER scenarios in our lives — things are not always as intense — but still, things are not as they should be. Scenarios where we feel helpless, things seem beyond our control, like a people in darkness: we are the poor, broken-hearted, captive, the prisoners yearning for the arrival of God. Like Nadia, our calling as Christians is to plunge into those difficult places and wait, that is, to watch and witness the presence of God.

Now, as we talk about being a witness in those dark places of human experience — I want you to notice something that John the Baptist knew resolutely, it's something that we know as well, but sometimes we are prone to forget.

John the Baptist knew he was not God. When the priests and Levites asked John “Who are you?” he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, “I am not the Messiah.” His job was not to do the Messiah’s job, but simply to prepare the way for the Messiah. Later they asked John why He was baptizing if he was not the Messiah, and John said, “I baptize with water; but there stands among you—unknown to you—the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” Undoing the sandal strap was of course the job reserved for the lowliest of servants. John deeply knew that he was not the Messiah. And I am not the Messiah. And you are not the Messiah. And later, John said those words that sum up so perfectly the job description of any witness to the arrival of Jesus: “He must become greater, I must become less.”

Why am I underscoring this so much? Because when we are in those places of darkness, we will wish we were God. We may even try to be God, and do everything in our prayers and actions and words to make the darkness go away. That’s not our job. Of course, there are some things we are called to do to help, we are called to pray, we may be called to speak and act— but in everything we do, we need to be aware of what is our responsibility, and what is God’s. John only baptized people. He knew where his responsibility stopped and where God and His Messiah would take over.

As God’s witnesses we need to grow comfortable with watching and waiting. The calling of God’s witness is not to make things better, the calling of witnessing is not to force God’s hand or to make Him show up. The calling of a witness is not to do God’s work for Him. The calling of a witness is to watch and listen for the in-breaking of His Kingdom in the present darkness. And you can’t witness something if you’re not watching and not listening. It's kind of funny, isn’t it, that when we often talk about being a witness to Christ we mostly think about saying stuff to other people with little thought of watching and listening. As a Christian witness, our first job is to watch and listen with others in those dark and hopeless places. After all, those are the kinds of places into which God tends to arrive. Resurrection happens in a grave.

At times watching and listening will feel truly helpless. God often does not arrive in the moment and form we expect or hope for most. Sometimes being a witness feels more like a call to witness the darkness and not the light. This feels so helpless, especially when God doesn’t arrive the way we think He should.

John likely expected that Jesus would lead the people into battle against Rome and was likely bitterly disillusioned when he found himself chained up in Herod’s fortress. John kept watching, waiting for what He expected to witness - liberation. It didn’t come, so he sent one of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was right about his witness? “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?”  The Messiah sent word to John, but not the word John hoped for. Jesus said, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”  

But Jesus did not say to John, “and the captives will be set free”. And John was beheaded, without witnessing the arrival of the Kingdom for which he longed for so deeply. And if he had been able to keep watching, he would have been aghast at what he would have witnessed. The Messiah was betrayed by one of his followers. The Messiah was handed over to a gentile ruler, judged and condemned to death. The Messiah was beaten and humiliated. He was stripped naked, whipped with shards, crowned with thorns, crucified between two criminals. A sign was nailed to the cross, mercilessly mocking him — “The king of the Jews”, it said. Surely after witnessing this, John would have never even bothered asking: “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?” To John, He clearly was not what he expected.

This is initiation into true Christian witness, when we witness what should never happen. This is the inglorious calling of the Christian witness. To cling in those darkest of places to what we know to be most true: resurrection happens in a grave. It's in the grave that we wait for God’s light to come. In the grave we learn to pray in a way we hadn’t thought possible. A groaning desire to witness life instead of death, light instead of darkness. We cling to our trust that in Christ, light shall always overtake the darkness.

This is no better captured than in this prayer by Elvira Petrozzi, a woman who was deeply familiar with human suffering and the power of Christ’s inbreaking light. Please pray with me:

“It is your light, Lord, whose brightness can illuminate even the darkest night. It is the light of many courageous men and women who, because of their meeting with you, have decided to consume themselves announcing your reign and your salvation to every creature. It is the light of new families in which life is welcomed, protected, desired, and loved. It is that light that many of us have found again and rediscovered after many years of darkness, sadness, loneliness, and death inside. It is your light, Lord, the light of that little child born in Bethlehem, who broke open the story of humanity and who still today desires to cross our paths, too often full of darkness, to dye them with the colour of hope. Thank you, Lord, because our darkness does not frighten you. Thank you, because you came with your light to those of us who have walked in the darkness for a long time.” Amen.


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