Matthew T. Phillips

Pointing to the Light (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

The Third Sunday of Advent (B)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 NRSV

The Posse

I can imagine John sitting by the side of the road, resting after sharing his message of preparation with a crowd nearby. He’s playing with the rope he wears as a belt, and he looks like he’s waiting. Up comes a determined group of ministers, probably wearing some sign of their office and looking very stern.

“Who are you?” they ask. John knows why they’ve come. People have started to talk about him down in the big city, and the authorities sent this posse to intimidate him—the balance of power in Jerusalem was pretty strained, and the Jews didn’t want anyone talking about some new order of government the way John was. So, when our not-so-merry band of priestly thugs approaches, John cuts to the chase:

“Well, I’m not the messiah.” I love that answer. Next time I go to a new church and someone asks my name, I’m going to say, “Well, I’m not Jesus.” John understood what, or rather who, was coming, and so he was being entirely serious, but he didn’t sound that way to these guys from downtown. As far as they’re concerned, he just some crazy guy in the forest.

“You’re not the messiah? Oh, well then you must be the great prophet Elijah—no, wait—are you Moses?”

And the others join in, “hey, I’ve been wanting to ask you, Moses, what’s the deal with that law about blended fabric? I have this great wool/cotton blend sweater that I want to wear to temple.”

“No, guys, this isn’t Moses—it’s Jonah,” says one who noticed his simple clothes. “See, he looks like he just got out of the water and put on a bathrobe.”

And then finally, “you’re all wrong. He’s Cain. Look at the mark on his forehead,” as a particularly mean-looking member of the group strikes him.

Standing around him as he buckles over, the bullies ask, “so who are you really? Give us something to tell the bosses.”

“I am the one crying out in the wilderness,” John whispers in all the voice he can manage. “‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah said.”

They left him lying there and went back to the city, joking as they went, each of them trying to hide from the others their uneasiness about what had just happened. Some of them had heard about this man teaching and baptizing people and had begun to wonder if perhaps he was the messiah, and as they approached, he had looked at them with piercing eyes and answered the question before they asked: “no, I am not the messiah.”

Eating crickets

John is a pretty strange figure, really, and so we don’t pay him much attention now. After all, his main job was announcing the coming of Jesus, and we already know about Jesus coming. We found out when we went to the mall in October and saw the decorations.

John doesn’t fit very well into the Christmas story because he isn’t cute and sweet like the baby Jesus, and he isn’t quaint like the manger or exotic like the wise men. He’s bizarre. Mark tells us a little about him:

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

Mark 1:6 NRSV

The gospel writer John, not the same person as John the Baptist, looks past his strange appearance and describes the important part for us: John’s duty:

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John 1:6-8 NRSV

It’s all about the light. John’s job was to point forward to the coming of Christ.

Pointing to light

One of the gifts of the advent season is that as we wait and watch for the coming of Christ, we have some time to consider what his coming means, but I believe this scripture—and in different ways all of the scriptures we have read this morning—calls us to consider how we hear the good news about Christ. By my reckoning, John was the first Christian minister. He would also be the first Christian martyr: an unhappy dual designation for all of us who call ourselves ministers.

I’ve been thinking about the ministry quite a lot over the past couple of weeks in part because of news in the country and our community, and I imagine many of you have as well. Heather and I just returned from an anniversary trip to Boston, and everywhere we went, the issue came back to me. The first night we were there, we visited Trinity Church, just across Copley Square from the Boston Public Library, and I learned that it had been the parish served by The Rev. Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church, BostonPhillips Brooks in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps it was in the church’s offices, now nestled among skyscrapers, that Brooks wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The statues of him at the church demonstrate what a dear place he won in the hearts of his parishioners, and the fact that we still sing his hymn as one of our favorite Christmas carols demonstrates just how effectively he served as a herald of Christ. Trinity felt to us like a very dark church: the city soot had darkened the bricks of the building, and those modern office towers were blocking out the sunlight from the stained glass windows, but something of Brooks—or maybe something that he preached—was still in the building to be sure. The light of Christ was there, and it radiated from the place. Brooks and the ministers after him have been experts at pointing people to the light.

When we woke up the next morning, the city was glued to their television sets, learning about the resignation of the embattled Bernard Cardinal Law as Archbishop of Boston. Early that morning the Vatican had announced the Pope’s decision to accept his resignation, and most local stations displaced their regular schedules for continuing coverage until the afternoon. When the Boston Globe was delivered to our room yesterday morning, it included pages of coverage too, including the story of Cardinal Law’s career. It highlighted his work for civil rights, his sometimes unpopular stance for the traditional theology of the church, and his work forging relationships with Protestants and Jews. He pointed to the light in ways only he could, but we’ve all heard of his failings as an administrator when he got too caught up in protecting those who worked for him.

One of the last things we did before we left yesterday was visit the church served by a preacher I’ve heard several times at Duke and grown to respect very much. I’ve come to expect great and prophetic preaching from him, but sitting there in his church home, I was struck by how much others expect of him too. He should be as poetic as Phillips Brooks, as active in social causes as Cardinal Law, as caring and generous as Rich, as witty as yours truly. But no failings. Every minister, whether they serve the Old North Church where the signal lanterns were hung for Paul Revere or King’s Chapel, from which the gospel has been preached since 1688, Phillips Brooks’s Trinity Church or our own Union Grove, is doing his or her best to fulfill the legacy of John the Baptist: to cry out in a world that rarely hears such things, “Make straight the way of the Lord”; to testify to the light.

When torches fail

I’ve invoked some pretty powerful names: some because of their historical value, and some because of what they mean to us. Very few of us have any experience of Cardinal Law as a minister, for example. To us he is just a fallen prince of the Catholic Church, and for some, perhaps, he confirms suspicions that there are deep problems in the Catholic Church. Judging him is easy, because we don’t have any stake in his ministry or his life. When we think about a pastor closer to us who has fallen from his pedestal, we realize just how prone we are to connect the light to which they point with the ministers themselves. The gospel writer certainly understood this, very carefully saying that

[John the Baptist] was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John 1:8 NRSV

Scripture talks about the beauty of the messengers of God, but we lose something vital and ask far too much of preachers when we focus on them rather than their message.

It’s a little scary for me as a young preacher to open up all these questions and then give you the honest truth: I don’t have any good answers to my own questions, and I suppose it’s quite possible that the way I’ve asked them doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone else. I wouldn’t want to ask you to do something I cannot, and I certainly cannot easily forgive ministers who betray the trust placed in them by virtue of their office. We have very little practice—even those of us who are ministers—at considering the role ministers play in the church and in our lives. I know it probably isn’t what you think Advent is all about, but the story of John gives us a chance to do that.

Watching in prayer

We miss something when we skip right past the story of John and straight on to the message he preaches and the coming King whom he announces. Christ will certainly come, but there is work to do so that we might be prepared. Part of that is to make straight the pathway he will take into our world, our lives, our hearts. Part of it is to think about those who carry his message to us. The people who take our hands and point us toward the light.

A minister friend of mine was visiting from Winston-Salem last week and as we had lunch together, he jokingly told me that he’d gotten two clergy perks in one day: the plumber who had come to his house that morning to fix a leaking pipe had reduced his rate, and the mechanic who had finished work on his car had charged him only for parts: no labor. Every now and then, there’s a perk for ministers, but today they’re a lot more likely to encounter a gang on the road that doesn’t think much of what they do and beats them up like I imagined the gang doing to John, maybe not physically, but tragically just the same. This concept is not strange to you, either, because many of you have followed the calling for all Christians to be ministers, and lots of those have been disappointed or confused in the living out of that calling. If not, by the way, you’re not doing it right.

Ministers would do well to look to John for a model of ministry, and in fact many of the ideas built into our system of ministry are true to John’s witness. We all would do well, though, to look to the posse sent after him for a model of how not to be God’s people. I’m pretty sure none of us have ever joined a mob and gone to beat somebody up. But have any of us ever tried to intimidate another? Judged based on the little bit that we know and not given someone time to explain themselves? Assumed a person had nothing to share with us based on their appearance, sex, race, age, or class? The scene our scripture recounts happens in little ways all the time, and we should linger with it, even though it’s disappointing and bizarre in the middle of our precious holiday season, so that it affects us.

As you watch for the coming of Christ, I beg you also to pray that his light might come in ways that will transform this world, and that God will give strength and all those other wonderful characteristics we talked about, to those who struggle to use feeble human lives to point toward the light.