John 1:6-9, 19-28
David A. Davis
December 13, 2020
If you are keeping score at home, if you are remembering last week’s text and sermon, if you are saying to yourself, “John the Baptist again?”, you would be right and the answer is yes. Last week it was John the Baptist in Mark. This week it is the Baptist in John. Like Mark, John’s gospel doesn’t give an account of the birth of the Child Jesus. John begins with the beautiful poetry of what the tradition labels “The Prologue to John”. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
As to the account of John the Baptist, last week in Mark it was “all the people of Jerusalem” and “people from the whole Judean countryside” who came to see John. This week it is the investigative branch of the priests and Levites in Jerusalem that have been sent to find out who this character is attracting a crowd and baptizing people. In this gospel account there is no description of the attire or the diet of John the Baptist. The immediate focus, the only focus, is the interrogation. The focus is on the questions directed at John probably right there at the river in front of God and everybody. The cross-examination happens in front of the crowds of people who came to hear and to see and to be baptized.
“Who are you”, the religious leaders from Jerusalem ask him. Then, according to the gospel narrator, “John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” “Confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” It’s an awkward sentence. A bit redundant, too. John did not deny it but they hadn’t accused him of anything yet either. Only “Only who are you?” He is confessing; a sort of pre-emptive confession as to who he is NOT. Perhaps the messianic yearnings, the longing for a messiah hung so thick in the air that it really didn’t need to be spoken for John to address what everyone was wondering. “John confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” Eugene Peterson in his bible paraphrase “The Message” sidesteps any awkwardness or confusion. He writes, “He was completely honest. He didn’t evade the question. He told the plain truth.”
“Who are you…I am not.” “I am not the Messiah…Are you Elijah? . . .I am not…Are you the prophet? No…I am not.” Remember this is John’s Gospel. John’s gospel is the one full of those “I am” verses from the lips of Jesus. “I am the Bread of Life…I am the Light of the World…I am the Door…I am the Good Shepherd…I am the Resurrection and the Life…I am the Vine.” And here, early in John, long before any of those quotes are dropped by Jesus, John the Baptist replies “I am… not.” “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one coming after me…I am not him…I am not”. And it all started with “Who are you?”
It is fitting that just as the gospel of John shifts from the iconic poetry of the prologue to the narrative prose of the rest of that is to come, it is fitting that the first piece of that shift to narrative is that brief, curt, brash interrogation. The narrative flow begins with the questioning of John the Baptist. A questioning akin to questioning a witness. Perhaps better said, the questioning of THEE witness. That’s what John is called in the first part of this morning’s reading. A part of the reading taken from the prologue. “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.” The witness of John in the gospel of John in front of the priests and Levites and the crowds at the river who came to see and hear him and be baptized. John’s witness? “Who are you? … I am not.”
Again, in the prologue, “He…was NOT the light…he came as a witness to testify to the light.” To testify to the true light…to testify to the light which enlightens everyone. The light that was coming into the world. The light standing among them that they did not yet know. The light was the light of people. The light that shown because what was coming into being into the Word made flesh was life and the life was the light of all people. “I am not”. John was not the light. But the light to which he bore witness, it is the light of all people and yes, that light, that “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or as the King James puts it. The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
The true light that enlightens everyone. The light of all people. The light of the world. The light of God’s promise. The light of God’s love. The light of Jesus Christ. The world neither comprehends it nor conquers it. When it comes to this light, the world’s darkness neither gets it nor dampens it, neither understands it nor crushes it, neither embraces it nor blows it out. Because this light, his light is enough. The true light that enlightens everyone. The everlasting promise of the light of Christ. It is forever breaking into, breaking through, and holding back the world’s darkness. The light conquering, incomprehensible light was not just a first Christmas one off. The life of the light of all people came into the world and lived among us. The light is the very glory of God. The darkness couldn’t put out the light then when Christ was born and it cannot put out the light now. It cannot, it will not, it will never overcome the light of Christ. Because his light, his light is enough. For by his grace, the mercy of God still shines forth in the world today. The light is the very kingdom of God still breaking in, shining forth, glimmering on, lighting the Way, in the world, in your life, and in mine. His light illumines you, me. Everyone according to the gospel.
His light that is true, dependable, genuine, real. True light. The witness of John the Baptist was the plain truth. “I am not”. No, am not the light. Jesus the Christ is the true light. “True light”. A unique biblical affirmation and promise that occurs only here in John (true and light) and again in the First Epistle of John. “Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.” (I John 2:8-11) Darkness has brought on blindness. Darkness is blind to the plain truth. The world’s darkness is antithetical to all that is true, dependable, genuine, real. Antithetical to his light. And darkness shall wither in response to the true light. Because his light is enough. Or to borrow a bit from the title of Jim McCloskey’s recent book “When Truth is All you Have, to borrow with apologies to Jim; “When True Light is all you have”; you have enough.
On Christmas Eve in a bit more than a week, you have to light a candle there at home. A single candle or a candle for each in the house. Light it on your own. Light it as part of our 8:00pm livestream worship. But you have to light one. Candle lighting on Christmas Eve, sharing the light of Christ on Christmas Eve, is more than remembrance. It is more than remembering the Holy Night a long time ago. More than remembrance. It is not like lighting a candle at a vigil to remember those who lost their lives due to senseless gun violence ravaging cities, or who lost their lives unjustly at the hands of law enforcement, or lost their lives in a mass shooting involving an assault rifle. It is not like remembering the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to this vicious virus in this country alone. The death count will pass 300,000 this week as elected leaders, and evangelical preachers, and armed people in the streets say it isn’t real.
Lighting your candle on Christmas Eve is about more than remembering. Of course, we will share the light of Christ and remember his birth in a manger so long ago. And yes, we will share the light of Christ and remember watching candlelight spread among us in this room and long for that in years to come. But to light a candle on Christmas Eve, to share the light of Christ in your home and virtually on Christmas Eve, is to claim the promise of His light in your life. The true light. It is your own testimony and witness in symbolic action to the very promise of God made known to you, to us, to the world in the very light of Christ. That in and through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the true light still shatters all the darkness the world has to offer. The true light still offers peace and hope in the darkest of valleys. His light still flickers amid darkness for what is true, dependable, genuine, and real. The true light still shines for righteous, justice, and abundant life for all. The true light, His light still burns with God’s love and grace for you. Enough light, for you.
Indeed, the light of Jesus Christ “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Notice the tense there in John’s gospel. “Did not overcome it”. Part of the wonder, the magnitude, and the mystery of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, is that the power of the promise shatters the tense here. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, will not, shall not overcome it. As his lighter shatters the darkness, his promise shatters the tense. Because, of course, Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow.
So get your candle ready for Christmas Eve, get ready to join together in a new way, and to offer a symbolic action, a witness, to testify to the true light. Light a candle on Christmas Eve and stick your finger into the chest of the world’s darkness, saying “No, not this year, either.” I have the Light of Christ in my heart. And yes, that’s enough light for me.