(Please note that this is my last sermon that I will be putting on this site, as this sermon was a part of my farewell service to the Northern Tasmanian Parish).
Sunday the 17th of December 2017
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
In my last few weeks of preaching I have been focusing on the theme of being prepared for Jesus’ return, and looking at what this means for us in our daily lives. But the thing about the season of Advent is that it is more than just thinking about preparation; it is also a time in the church year when we dwell on what it means to bear witness to Jesus. What does it mean for us in our lives to bear witness, or to give testimony of Jesus in our world?
In today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 1 we again hear the account of John the Baptist, but we hear this account from a different perspective than last week when we heard the Mark account. One of the things that stood out to me from this reading was that John confesses the truth of Jesus, but he does it by confessing who John is not.
At first hearing we may think that this reading is all about John the Baptist and his ministry, but listen to how many times Jesus is referred to and what is said of him by John.
Jesus is the true light; John is not worthy to untie his sandals, which means that Jesus is exalted; Jesus is called the Lamb of God; Jesus takes away the sins of the world; the Holy Spirit is upon Jesus and remains with him; Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit; Jesus is God’s Son. This is an impressive witness from John about who Jesus Christ is and what the ministry of the Messiah is.
When it comes to bearing witness to Jesus, let’s be honest, many of us struggle. Talking about him to others is not easy, particularly in our world and society that is becoming more and more anti-Christian and antagonistic towards Jesus’ followers. The very thought of giving witness to Jesus can cause much fear and anxiety for many of us. So as I was pondering the Gospel reading I began to see that we as disciples of our Lord Jesus can learn from John.
For John to witness to others of Jesus, he had to know who he was not, who he was and what he was to do. John was under pressure and a number of the leaders came to him and were grilling him about what he was doing. And the way that he responded is significant. It says, ‘20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”’ To truly recognise Jesus for who he truly is, we have to be certain about who is not the Messiah. John was going out of his way to make it clear to the people that he was not the one who could save them. That he was not the way, the truth or the life. Rather, he continually pointed away from himself to Jesus. John is not the Word made flesh; he is only a voice pointing to Jesus.
For all of us here who are disciples of Jesus, and who belong to him, there is a challenge here for us. You and I are called as Christians to grow, to mature in our faith, to become more Christ-like. And this is often a result of genuine repentance. But this begins with an honest confession from us of who we are not. You and I together as the body of Christ gathered together in this Church today, and we have people from all four congregations in Tasmania present, are not the Saviour of this world. We are not the way. People do not have to become like us in order to receive salvation. Others’ salvation does not depend on us, but the one who we bear witness to is the one who saves.
I have in my life been in places where I have heard very powerful testimonies from people who have had the courage to stand up and to speak about what God is doing in their lives. As Lutherans, people sharing testimonies is not a part of our tradition and there is a reason for this. Mainly, too many people put the emphasis on what is happening in them; what has changed about their lives; or on inspiring people that they too can be different. These can be useful, and they can be encouraging—it is good to share with each other what God is doing in your lives, to speak about it, to encourage one another in faith. However, the danger in testimonies is that they can so easily become about what is happening for the person speaking and not about Jesus Christ and what he is doing.
John in today’s reading is emphatic about this. He confesses, he did not just deny it, or pretend that it was not the case, or try to convince others that it was not the case. No, he confessed openly so there was no hint of a doubt that he was not the Saviour. This is important, because John the Baptist was in a position where there were many coming to him; where he had a rather large following; where people were hanging on his every word. He had a name and a reputation so large that the religious leaders came out to see him and to interview him to find out what was going on. John could have used this power he had for his own ego, but he didn’t. He pointed to Jesus. When God works in our own lives, the temptation to claim it for ourselves is a part of our human nature. We like to take the credit at times. But we must always point to Jesus.
When it comes to pointing to Jesus and bearing witness to him in our lives, this needs those of us who are Christians to speak up. Our society needs those of us who confess Jesus as Lord to, like John, stand up and speak. John the Baptist was not afraid to attract attention to himself, in order that he was heard. He strongly and at times unshakably pointed to Jesus, the one coming after him.
But even in this it is important to hear what John says. 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.” But among you stands One. Jesus is standing right there among them and they do not even recognise him, but he is there. In thinking about this it struck me that many of us may think that we have to help people find Jesus. But where is he? He is here right among them. When we point to Jesus we are not introducing someone new, so to speak, someone who has just appeared on the scene. No, he’s been standing there all the time! Even though the people to whom John the Baptist was speaking did not know Jesus; they did not know who he is. Where was he? He was right there in their midst.
So when John said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”, he was very simply doing what the prophet Isaiah, so long ago, said needed to, and one day would, be done. He was drawing attention to the One among them that they had been ignoring, failing to see, or even avoiding.
The same is true for you and me. We are to bear witness to Jesus, who is already among people. He is already there. He is already present with them even though they do not know it. We draw attention to what Jesus is doing in the lives of people who are no different to those listening to John the Baptist, to those who don’t know, ignore, fail to see, or avoid him. But even when they do all these things, the fact is that he is still there in their midst. We just point him out and leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit.
And if Jesus is there, right in the midst of people, how much more is he in the midst of us? This means that Jesus is standing right next to each and every one of you, even when you don’t know he is. Jesus, the one who is the Saviour, the one who died on that cross and all of your sins are forgiven because of this, is standing among you. Jesus, the one who sends us the Holy Spirit through our baptisms, and because of him includes us in the family of our Triune God, is right here among you. Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, is not just among those who don’t know him, but also right here present with us. And this is what the Christian faith is about.
So in this season of Advent, as we think about Jesus’ return, we are also challenged to think about what it means to bear witness to him as we wait. And today’s reading from John chapter 1, highlighting the ministry of John the Baptist, encourages all of us in this.
My encouragement to you all then is to see that, despite the fact that it looks like the world is caving in on us at times, that the world is becoming an unsafe place for followers of Jesus, and the evil one is attacking us, and that living and bearing witness to our faith is getting harder, Jesus is right there in the midst of them, even though they do not know it. As he is with you and me. I encourage you to see that bearing witness is pointing out where Jesus is and what he has done and is doing. As Jesus is the Saviour, not you and me.
And finally, I encourage you to take heart in this, and to be confident that our Lord Jesus is at work, doing his work in us, as we await his return.