Sunday, December 11, 2011

Untied Sandals (John 1:6-28)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

In this Advent season, we have been preparing for the coming of Jesus - in the pages of Scripture, in our world, and in our hearts and lives. Part of preparing for Jesus is to clearly identify, according to the Bible, who Jesus is, what he’s about, and what he expects of each of us. If we’re going to be followers of Jesus, it’s probably pretty important to know who the Bible says he is!

Last week, at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark, we realized that Jesus is the one who pokes holes in the darkness, and he invites us to join him in that task. Did you do your homework this week? Did you go around looking for opportunities to poke holes in the darkness and let God’s light and love in?

Today, we are focusing on how Jesus is identified by one named John whose voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Today, may God prepare our hearts for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to make his way in us. May we pray.

Who here has ever heard of John the Baptist? We call him John the Baptist, or, to be more accurate to the Greek, John the Baptizer, because when we find him in the Judean wilderness, that’s what he’s doing. He is baptizing the masses who are coming to him to hear his preaching and follow his teaching, and because he is baptizing, we commonly refer to him as John the Baptist.

But, if I can reframe what you learned about him in Sunday School, according to today’s text, John’s primary role was not baptizing. The Gospel is always the story about Jesus – first and foremost, it is about Jesus, and so the details of the story always have to be read through that lens. And so, according to today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. John, John the Baptizer is actually John the Witness. It says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-8).

Though it may blow our minds and shatter our preconceptions, a close and careful reading of the Bible reveals that, while John the Baptizer did do plenty of baptizing, his primary role is as one who testifies to the light coming into the world. In this way, he is a very human witness to a very cosmic event. He is John, the Baptizing Witness.

John is trying to tell us that God is up to something new – something that is truly earth-shaking. John was testifying to the light, and his testimony was good news because it was about the One who is good news – the One who is God-come-to-earth, the One who will point the way across the bridge for all the world to be reconciled to God, and who will then serve as the bridge himself. John just keeps pointing to the light – the true light which enlivens everyone – that is coming into the world in the person of Jesus.

John’s testimony about Jesus was essentially saying, “Jesus is the real deal, he’s the source of real hope, and peace, and joy, and love. If your life is dark and you seek light, put your faith in him.” John just keeps pointing to the light, pointing to Jesus. And anytime we are tempted to make it about anything other than Jesus, the witness of John is still there, testifying to the light, pointing to Jesus, calling us to place Jesus at the center.

The rivals to our full attention toward Christ are many. There are many would-be-idols competing for our attention and devotion, seeking to take for themselves the place of first priority in our lives that rightly belongs to God. It is a phenomenon that happens not only in the world, “out there,” but among religious folk, as well. Perhaps the deception is all the more dangerous when it occurs among good, Godly folk like us, for I can’t help but wonder if we’ve sometimes made our message more about church membership than discipleship, more about Christianity than about Christ, or worse, more about ourselves than about Jesus.

The writer of the Gospel of John was wrestling with a similar reality. History tells us that a group of followers of John the Baptizing Witness established themselves in opposition to the followers of Jesus. They claimed John was the Messiah, and they sought to turn the spotlight on him so people would recognize him as the light and follow him. Take some comfort in that – factions, quarrelling, and power plays – really nothing all that new for people of faith!

For John the Baptizing Witness, it wasn’t about him in the slightest way. He just kept pointing to Jesus. Think of it this way. Who knows what attraction is at the North Carolina-South Carolina state line right next to I-95? South of the Border. You know it’s there because there are billboards for the stupid thing 150 miles in either direction before you get there! Personally, I know more about the billboards than I do about South of the Border itself because I’ve never actually stopped there. But yet, the billboards aren’t the main attraction; they point to the main attraction; they draw attention to the main attraction.

Likewise, John the Baptizing Witness is like a billboard pointing beyond itself to the main attraction. John’s testimony consistently made Jesus the star of the show. In fact, every time John points to Jesus, what he’s also saying is, “It’s all about Jesus.” And so, if I say, “John points to Jesus, WHY?” I want you all to respond by saying, “It’s all about Jesus.”

Have you ever had someone ask you something, that, down in your gut, you know is a loaded question? John knew what that was like, too. The religious leaders were asking really loaded questions of John, but he must have been incredibly frustrating for them to talk to. “Are you the Messiah?” “No.” “Are you a manifestation of Elijah?” “No.” “What about Moses?” “No.” They went through all the great figures of their religious history, the ones they would recognize as having authority, and when he makes no claim of any recognized authority, they say, “What gives you the right to say what you’re saying and do what you’re doing?”

Given this line of questioning, do you know what John does? He doesn’t really give them an answer; instead, John just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” He points to the coming One, the one who is greater than he is. John just points to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” John chooses the position of something slightly less than a slave, for untying sandals was the task of a slave, and John says he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. John just points to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.” His task was simple and clear, to keep witnessing to the light that was coming into the world in the person of Jesus. John fights the temptation we all face when we want to make it about ourselves, and he just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.”

All John wanted to do was to keep witnessing to the light that was coming into the world, to keep pointing to Jesus, and prepare others to place their belief and their trust and their everything into the Christ when he came. His entire focus was away from himself and squarely on the main event – Jesus the Christ. John just keeps pointing to Jesus, WHY? “It’s all about Jesus.”

There is great wisdom in knowing what – or who – is at center stage, and what our place is relative to the One who is there. As one theology professor said to his class: “I have learned there is a God . . . and it’s not me.”

The temptation is always there to draw the attention to ourselves, but our call is to point to the One who is greater than us, the One whose sandal we are not worthy to untie. Every time we are tempted to make it about anything other than Jesus, John is still standing there, witnessing to the light, pointing toward Jesus, reminding us that we are to do the same.

John’s witness remains a powerful challenge for us today. If we make Advent, or Christmas, or any Sunday, or anything about our faith in Christ about anything other than Jesus, then we’ve missed the point. If we’ve made it about us – our agendas, our church, our denomination, our personal preferences or ideologies, then we’re pointing the wrong direction.

And so, on this third Sunday of Advent, I have a question for you – which direction are you pointing?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a list a mile long this time of year - gifts to buy, parties to attend, preparations to make, things to do. What I invite you to do is to find ways for your list - whatever and whoever is on it - to point toward Jesus. This year, let’s be less concerned with the presents under the tree, and more concerned with how we can practice the presence of God and other people.

Here are some simple ways you can do that. First, pray over that list - pray for the people on it, pray for opportunities to point toward Jesus for them, pray for the activities and things you’ll do, that they would point toward Jesus. Pray for Jesus to be seen in your preparations and parties.

Second, while you’re out and about, be intentional about practicing the presence of people. Take a moment, sit down on the bench in the mall, and take a look at the people around you. Chances are, they are preoccupied in a world that is just as busy and hectic as yours. Say a quick prayer for those people, even though they’re strangers, they still need an encounter with Jesus.

As you drive or walk through your neighborhood and see the homes of your neighbors, offer a prayer for them too. When you see a home that is lit up with bright lights, pray that the hearts of those within that home might be filled with the light of Christ in just the same way. When you see a home that is dark and seems cheerless, pray for the light of Christ to fill to scatter whatever darkness lurks in the hearts of the people who live there.

When you’re going through a check-out line, go out of your way to show genuine kindness and concern to that tired and overworked cashier. As you pass people in the parking lot, in the stores, in the aisles, remember that they are not just objects in your way that are slowing you down from what you’re trying to get and where you’re trying to go - they are precious children of God. Practice being in wonder that God has fearfully and wonderfully made so many different people. They are the people, just like us, for whom Jesus is being born. John is pointing to Jesus not only for our sake, but for their sake as well. They are, just like us, the very precious people for whom Jesus, the true light, is coming into the world.

The good news of Advent is this - Christ is coming, Christ is always coming. Not only for you, not only for me, not only for us, but for all the world. The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world. John just keeps pointing at that light, and as he stands there resolute in his witness, we are reminded that we have the same task.

When people are telling you what their holiday plans are, and ask you what you’re doing, let them know that worship is part of what you’ll be doing. When they ask whose house you’re going to, be sure to tell them that you’ll be spending part of the holiday at God’s house, and then ask if they’d like to come with you. We have a great big generous God who loves to get the whole family to the table, so be sure to invite some of the rest of God’s children to the party. Invite someone with you on Christmas Eve. Invite someone with you for Christmas Day. Christmas Day is on a Sunday this year - how cool is that! We American Protestants don’t usually go to church on Christmas Day, but this year, we will! Don’t let that opportunity slip by! Your life, your witness, your invitation can be the signpost constantly pointing to Jesus.

And so, which direction are you pointing? At what, or whom, are you pointing? John spent his life pointing toward Jesus. This Advent and Christmas, just keep pointing toward Jesus.

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