I have been thinking a lot this week about the faith witnesses in my life. There have been dozens of them: some who were in my life for a short while, and some who still serve as a witness to me today; some who flipped my world upside down by a single observation; and some whose entire life journey has served as a witness. One who stands out for me was a mentor I met as I came into adulthood. She was not particularly flashy or dramatic, but her entire life became a living witness to me. Her witness started in the context of talking about Jesus. There were things she said that had never occurred to me, and yet made a great deal of sense. She slowly awakened in me a passion for justice: teaching me about our country’s impact on the world’s poor; asking hard questions, such as where my clothes were made and what my clothing said about my concern for the least of these; helping me see how incredibly privileged I was even when I did not feel privileged compared to others. I watched her risk arrest through political protest. I saw her offer up the spare room in her house time and again to those in transition and trying to find their way. She even revealed to me at some point that instead of accepting an engagement ring from her husband, they had agreed a more appropriate sign of their commitment to one another would be exchanging rocking chairs – so that they could grow old together in them.
What was telling about my experience with her witness was I knew she would never have wanted me to say, “I want to be just like her.” In fact, with all my revelatory interactions with her, I was not in awe of her; I was in awe of her attempt to live a life in line with the gospel – to live a life that reflected the light of Jesus. Her words, our conversations, her decisions were ways of pointing me back to a living relationship with Christ. Her witness to me was not unlike John’s witness in our gospel lesson today. Now, if you were here last week, you may be wondering, “Didn’t we just hear this story about John the Baptist last week?” The answer is yes; and no. Last week we read Mark’s account of John the Baptist. Typical of Mark, the text we heard was short, and jam-packed with action. John the Baptist is preaching a baptism of repentance, people are flocking to him, he wears weird clothes, and he tells everyone someone more powerful is coming. But that is pretty much all Mark gives us.
This week, we read the gospel of John’s account of John. We know right away John’s gospel is different because he does not call John, “John the Baptist.” In fact, some scholars say John’s version of John the Baptist would be called, “John the Witness,” or “John the Voice.” John’s gospel tells us that John the Witness is just that: a living witness to the light of Christ. John’s gospel slows us down so we can talk about who this John the Witness really is. Temple leaders come to John asking him all sorts of questions: who he is, whether he is a prophet, under what authority he is baptizing people. John’s gospel slows us down because the gospeller wants to be very clear who John the Witness is and who he is not. In these thirteen verses, John the Witness uses ten negatives to distinguish himself from Jesus; ten “nots,” “neithers,” and “noes.”[i] You see, the religious leaders come to John the Witness because he is showing himself to be a compelling leader.[ii] But what the religious leaders have missed is John is not trying to attract people to himself; hence all the “not me” language. John is simply preparing the way – pointing people toward someone even more compelling.
I do not know about you, but there is some small part of me that has always been a tad annoyed that the majority of Advent is spent talking about John. Even though I am on board with not singing Christmas carols or hearing the birth narratives until Christmas Eve, I have often secretly wanted more of a preview in the weeks preceding Christmas than we get. I have wondered why we cannot spend all four weeks on the more dramatic pregnancy stories: Mary’s annunciation, Joseph’s interaction with the angel, the Elizabeth and Mary encounter, and the Magnificat. Spending two weeks on the crazy cousin who eats locusts and wild honey feels tangential to what is coming, and hardly gets me in the mood for singing Away in a Manger.
But this year, something shifted for me. John the Baptist, or the Witness, or the Voice, or whatever we are going to call him became more compelling for me this Advent. If you remember, John had a miracle beginning too. His mother had been long barren, and when the news came to his father that his wife would bear a son, his disbelief meant that he was struck with the inability to speak for nine months until the baby came. Then, while John was still in the womb, he leapt inside Elizabeth’s womb when Elizabeth came near Jesus in Mary’s womb. He clearly had the gift of discernment from before birth. But what strikes me most is his clarity in identity and purpose. Despite his miraculous and impressive beginnings, he always understands his giftedness is not about him. His giftedness is in pointing people to God. He is not lured in by fame or followers; he is not caught up in the hype; he is not even tempted to claim the authority of someone like Elijah. He is single-minded in his purpose and vocation, and longs to help people find their way to God. His delight is in helping people find their delight in Christ.
That is one of our invitations today: to recall someone who has helped you find your delight in Jesus. Maybe you will adopt someone new like John the witness today. Maybe his story and his single-mindedness about purpose and vocation is an inspiration. But maybe you are recalling someone else in your life who did that for you. Maybe the person was a relative, a mentor, a friend, or a historical figure. Recall how that person pointed you to Jesus time and again; how he or she awakened in you a longing for a similar single-mindedness about Jesus. Remember his or her words or actions, giving thanks today for their inspiration and witness in your life. Meditate with the baptizer, witness, or voice in your life as we journey in these last days of Advent.
But do not stop there. John’s witness today is not just for you, meant to help you center your own life.[iii] John’s witness today offers you a second invitation: to be a baptizer, a witness, a voice for others. For some of you, the invitation to be a witness may sound overwhelming. How can we possibly inspire others in the powerful ways others have witnessed to us? The main way we serve as witnesses is to listen. David Gortner talks about evangelism not as being about preaching from a street corner, but as being about meeting people where they are – in the grocery store line, at the coffee shop, at a community event – and listening to their story. The first step in witnessing is not about telling someone how to live their life, but listening to their life stories. The next step is where witnessing happens. After hearing someone’s life story – whether a friend, an acquaintance, or even a stranger – we prayerfully reflect back where we hear the Holy Spirit in their story. We name where we hear and see God in their daily journey. We point to Jesus in the conversation.[iv]
One of my favorite stories of Habitat for Humanity founder Miller Fuller was a story of a retiree who was busy volunteering on a roof. He was the kind of person who liked to work alone, mostly so that he could monitor and maintain quality control. But on this particular day, a kid kept bothering the volunteer. He wanted to help, and the man kept suggesting he find someone else. The kid kept appearing throughout the day, bringing tools, bringing snacks, or just hanging nearby to talk. Despite his efforts to shoo away the boy, he kept finding him underfoot. By the afternoon, the volunteer gave up and allowed the boy to help him – under strictest supervision, of course. Much to his surprise, the boy was quite good. By the end of the day, they were laughing and finishing most of the work. As they were leaving, the volunteer apologized for his brusqueness and asked the boy his name. “My name is Jesus,” said the boy.
Jesus is all around us, all the time. But most of us struggle to see him or name him because we either do not have a witness nearby or we have not honed our witnessing skills. John the witness invites us to reclaim our witness today; to listen for the movement of Jesus in others’ lives and to be the witness who points to Jesus. We are not the light; we are not the Messiah; we are not the prophet. But we do come to testify to the light – to point others toward the goodness, the holy, the Jesus in their life, and invite them to the light. God has given you witnesses to shape your journey. And God enables you to share the gift of witness with others. Our job is to simply listen and point. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.
[ii] David Lose, “Advent 3 B: Sacred Leadership,” December 15, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/12/advent-3-b-sacred-leadership/ on December 15, 2017.
[iii] David L. Bartlett, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68, 70.
[iv] David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York: Church Publishing, 2008).