Yesterday the Edwards family gathered outside the Chapel to baptize eight-month-old Bryson. When Bryson’s family asked me if Bryson could be baptized this weekend in a small family gathering, I had to think for a moment. Advent is not one of the normal seasons for baptisms. But then I remembered two things. One, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday in Advent marked for joy, and often marked by shades of pink and rose. What could be more joyful than a baptism? Two, I glanced at our lessons and saw John the Baptist was in our Gospel lessons. Who better to feature in our lessons on a baptism weekend than John the Baptist?!?
Of course, I only needed a few minutes of sermon preparation this past week to realize I had missed something critical about our lessons this Sunday. Last week, we had John the Baptizer featured in Mark’s gospel. But this Sunday, when John appears in John’s Gospel, he is not labeled as John the Baptizer, but John the Witness.[i] John’s role in the Gospel of John does not rest as centrally in his role of baptizer, but more centrally in testifying to the identity of Jesus Christ. As Lamar Williamson says, “John’s role is to recognize the true light when [the light] appears, and to call attention to [the light] so that others may recognize [the light] and believe – that is, recognize, trust in, and commit themselves to the light.”[ii] There went my perfectly arranged baptism weekend! “John the Witness” does not really have quite the same je ne sais quoi as “John the Baptist.”
So, I started thinking about what we are doing when we baptize people into the community of faith. Baptism certainly is a rite of initiation into the body of Christ. Upon baptism, one may receive communion and participate fully in the body. We make promises on behalf of the baptized, we renew our most fundamental promises on our own lives through the Baptismal Covenant, and we open up a life’s journey of faith, hope, and joy in Jesus.
But at the end of the day, the thing we are really doing in baptism is witnessing. We are witnessing to the baptized, and their family, what are the things of ultimate importance to us as Christians. We are witnessing a commitment to our community – the full responsibility we are willing to take on in the faith journey of the baptized, from infancy to adulthood. And we are witnessing to the broader community: that even in the midst of a pandemic (in which Bryson has spent his entire life), even in the midst of divisiveness and unrest, even in the midst of economic uncertainty, we are witnesses to new life, new hope, new joy.
Like John the Witness today, in baptism, we point the way to Jesus. When Bryson, or our friends, ask the big questions, we will point them toward Jesus. When Bryson, or our families, question faith and express doubt, we will witness to them about our own faith and doubt stories. When Bryson, or our community, cannot claim joy or are simply numb to the overwhelming suffering of these days, we will share with them as Steve Garnaas-Holmes says, that “Christ does not come to make us happy, but to stand with us in the pain of life until joy like a seed rises. All is swallowed up in joy.”[iii] That is what Gaudete Sunday, a baptism weekend, and John the Witness invite us to do this week: to be witnesses of joy, not looking at ourselves to be the light, but looking toward the one who is light – the only one who can solidify joy in the darkness of Advent. Amen.
[i] Karoline M. Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 27
[ii] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 4, as cited by Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.
[iii] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Rejoice Always,” December 10, 2020, as found at https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/b4fws8bsnsjklfkw3ws8823kke9a7t on December 10, 202.