A Witness to Testify to the Light

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

The Third Sunday of Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28

We continue our journey through the season of Advent, as we watch and wait and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ. In the first Sunday of Advent, we heard from the prophet Isaiah, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God;” a plea for greater closeness with God, a request that God mold our lives just like a potter molds clay.

Last Sunday we heard the very brief origin story of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark, and we considered what it might mean to prepare the way of the Lord, to make the way clear for the coming of the Christ. How do we remove the obstacles from our hearts and from our society, those things that block the coming of God’s Kingdom? 

This Sunday, on the third Sunday of Advent we turn to a different gospel, the Gospel of John, for a very different view of who Jesus is. Remember I told you last week that Mark is the earliest gospel, the roughest, the closest to the ground, and it portrays Jesus as being quite human, suffering everything that other people have to suffer. He is the Son of God, but he is also the Son of Man, recognizable as a prophet of Israel.

Now this morning, we have something altogether different. The Gospel of John is the latest of the four gospels, it is highly sophisticated, and it treats Jesus as barely human at all. The Gospel of John starts with the very famous words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That is how John wants us to think about Jesus, not as a person, but as a philosophical principle. Jesus is the Word, Wisdom, Meaning, Logic, Conversation. And from the very first verse, John tells us that Jesus is divine. He is not just the Son of God; he is God, the Divine Word.

Not only that, for John, Jesus is preexistent. Last week we noticed that Mark doesn’t bother to tell us anything about the birth and childhood of Jesus. For Mark, it is enough to know that Jesus appeared as a full-grown man and started his ministry. Matthew and Luke were unsatisfied with this and included stories about Jesus’s extraordinary virgin birth, in accordance with scripture, and confirmed by extraordinary signs. And they both tell us something about Jesus’s childhood and how he came to become a prophet and Messiah.

But for John it is entirely different. John cannot do what Mark did and have Jesus just show up as an adult out of nowhere. But neither can John do what Matthew and Luke did and tell a story about Jesus’s miraculous birth. For John, even a miraculous, virgin birth is a bit too human, a bit too common. After all, a virgin birth would make Jesus no better than Hercules or Alexander the Great, just one of many heroes who were known to have divine parents. A birth, even a miraculous birth is too much of a reminder that there was a time before Jesus was born.

Listen to the opening several verses of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.” Jesus is a cosmic force, the Word, the source of all wisdom. Jesus, being God, existed before everything else. Jesus was the means by which creation was created. More specifically, Jesus was the means by which life was created. “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.”

John continues, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus is the Word. Jesus is Life. Jesus is Light.

And that’s where we pick up with the verses assigned for today from the Gospel of John. John the Evangelist tells us about another man named John: John the Baptist. “A man named John was sent from God.” That is to say, John the Baptist is God’s apostle, God’s agent, sent into the world to do God’s work.

The next phrase is a bit strange: “He came as a witness to testify to the light.” You can’t quite tell in English, but the same word gets used twice in this short phrase. The word for witness and the word for testify are the same word, once as a noun and once as a verb. We could translate it this way: “He came as a witness to witness to the light.” That’s rather emphatic. You wouldn’t need to use the word twice here to get the point across. Using it twice draws extra attention to it. John is a witness. John witnesses to the light.

What’s even more interesting, this word, the Greek word for witness and testify, is a word that we still have in English, but in English it doesn’t mean witness and it doesn’t mean testify. The Greek word is μαρτυρία: martyr. In ancient Greek, martyr just means witness. But as the early church began to experience persecution, being a witness to Christ might just get you killed. Eventually the meaning of the word changed. Witness became martyr in the modern sense, one who dies for the faith.

It may or may not have started to have this meaning at the time the Gospel of John was written, but it’s interesting that the first witness to Christ, John the Baptist, does end up being a martyr in both senses of the word. He came as a witness to witness concerning the light, and his witness to the light ended up getting him killed.

We are told that John the Baptist was sent by God to witness to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came in order to witness to the light, so that through his witness, everyone might believe in the light.

The gospel keeps shifting its metaphors. First Jesus is the Word. Then Jesus is Life. Now Jesus is the Light. So what does that mean? How does that work as a metaphor? What does it mean to say that Jesus is light? What does light do?

Light illuminates. It reveals things. It makes it possible to see. Light is opposed to darkness.

Now, before we go on, I want to take a moment to clarify what we don’t mean by this. We are not talking about colors. This is not white versus black, this is light versus darkness. Our language around this can be a little tricky. Sometimes we use the words light and dark to talk about differences in color. Is the shirt light blue or dark blue? And this can be applied to people, too. Is someone light-skinned or dark-skinned? And if we also talk about light being good and dark being bad, light being pure and dark being polluted, light being wholesome and dark being nefarious, then we run into some problems pretty quickly. And in fact this language of light and dark has been used over and over again during the past five centuries as part of a program of racism and systemic oppression and violence based on the color of one’s skin. That is something that we need to confess as Christians, that our sacred texts have been used in precisely this way, both consciously and unconsciously, to further an agenda of discrimination and oppression.

But I don’t think color is what John is talking about at all. John isn’t talking about color, John is talking about illumination. It’s not light and dark, it’s light and darkness. There’s a difference. John is talking about light and darkness, light and shadow, day and night.

In the darkness, you can’t see anything. You can’t tell the difference between black and white. You can’t tell the difference between red and green, between blue and yellow. In the shadow, you just can’t see anything. Everything is hidden.

And that’s why darkness is understood as bad. If you want to do something nefarious, when do you choose to do it, in the day or in the night? In the night, of course, because in the night it’s harder to be seen. It’s easier to hide wrongdoing. But in the light, nothing can be hidden. There are no secrets. And because of that, presumably there is better behavior. We’re much more likely to do something wrong, something hurtful, something evil, if we think that we cannot be seen.

Darkness conceals, but light reveals. We cannot see the truth in the darkness. It’s only in the light that we can see the truth. Are there lego pieces on the floor in the hallway? In the darkness I can’t tell before I step on them, only in the light. Do my socks match? In the darkness I can’t tell, only in the light. Is there a pedestrian in the road in front of me? In the darkness I can’t tell, only in the light. Light is what reveals the truth of the situation.

And that’s what John is saying about Jesus. Jesus is what reveals the truth; Jesus is what lights our way. It is through Jesus that we see and understand the way of God. It is through Jesus that we discern the difference between good and evil, the difference between safety and danger, the difference between death and life. And John the Baptist comes as a witness to that light.

Light is also a source of life. Aside from a few deep-ocean creatures, every living thing on earth is dependent for life on the light of the sun. It’s the light of the sun that get’s transformed into the energy of life. Plants use it to grow, and then animals eat those plants, and other animals eat those animals. Without the light of the sun, there would be no life.

And John is saying the same about Jesus. Jesus is the source of all life, the source of all creation. And Christians are just as dependent upon Jesus for life as we are dependent on the light of the sun. Jesus brings life not only to our bodies, but to our souls and spirits as well.

But there’s also something else going on here. It’s not an accident that we celebrate Christmas at this time of year. We don’t actually know what time of year Jesus was born. The bible doesn’t say. We know what time of year Jesus died and was resurrected because it happened at the time of Passover. But no ancient source tells us the time of year that Jesus was born.

And yet we always celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Why? Because Jesus is the light coming into the world. At the time December 25th was set as the day to celebrate Christmas, it was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the longest night. Since then there have been calendar reforms, and the winter solstice is usually on December 21st. Christmas was meant to come at the darkest time of the year. Throughout the fall, the days get shorter and shorter. Darkness seems to be winning the battle against the light. And then just at the bleakest moment, that is when the Christ comes. That is when the light comes into the world. That is when life and joy and hope begin to turn the darkness away. As John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That is what we look forward to during Advent. That is why we light one candle, and then two, and then three, and then four, and finally five. We are living into the hope of the coming of Christ. We are preparing for the light of Christ, to push away the darkness, to light our way on the journey of faith, to reveal the truth, to bring hope and life. A man named John came as a witness to witness to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came so that through his witness all might have faith in the light. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. Hallelujah.

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