"Navigating the Wilderness" by Pastor Leah Rosso

Psalm 126; John 1:6-8; 19-34

A few years ago my friend Nathan was going through law school and needed a witness for his mock trial and asked if I would play the role. I was kind of excited about it. It wasn’t anything dramatic, just a car accident in a parking lot, but I studied the materials he gave me and was ready to answer any question the prosecutor might ask. Well, apparently I’ve watched too many movies with court scenes in them. The day of the mock trial I dressed appropriately to look like a respectful witness and I went over my notes again, since I was going to have to pretend I had actually witnessed what happened. When I was called up by the Judge I walked confidently up to the witness stand, took a seat, and 20 seconds later I was dismayed at being dismissed after one question from the prosecutor. I was so disappointed! He only asked me one question! I was so ready to prove that the person Nate was defending was, in fact, telling the truth. But that wasn’t my job. My job was just to bear witness- to tell what I saw— not what my opinion was of what I saw.

There has been a lot of witnessing going on in our country lately. The wave of #metoo that has infiltrated social media; the witnesses that have come forward to tell their story about being sexually harassed by men in power; and even with Time magazine showcasing the bravery of these women by naming them the Person of the Year. I wish I could say it’s surprising, but it’s not. Horrifying, yes. Surprising, no. Perhaps people in power are surprised; surprised that those with less power are speaking up; surprised that it’s costing people their jobs; surprised that it’s finally being challenged after hundreds of years. But for many of us, it’s not surprising. What is surprising, I think, is that by hearing the witnesses, we’re able to imagine a different future. The naming of what’s going on, while awful to listen to, creates space for something different to happen if we have the courage to create a different future. Giving voice to something that is terribly wrong helps us to name a future that we want for our country, for ourselves, for our children.

In the Gospel this morning, we hear of the one who bears witness to Jesus— the one named John. You might think that being a witness to Jesus wouldn’t take a lot of bravery, but you would be wrong. Because as much as we like to separate faith and politics in our world, there is no such thing in Jesus’ world. To bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God is an extremely political act in a time when Caesar called himself Liberator; Savior; Son of God. In the past, only non-Jewish people needed to be baptized— but John is baptizing even Jewish folk because he’s ushering in a new age; a new era; a new kind of faith. It isn’t enough for him to tow the line. You see John is born into a long line of priests; and at that time, the way you became a priest was to be born into the line of priests. He knows the rules; he knows the culture; he grew up seeing it from the inside out. So when he comes of age, instead of seizing his power as a priest; instead of becoming part of the ruling class of political leaders which were the religious leaders; John takes the less traveled route. I would call him a prophet, but he’s uncomfortable with that designation. The Pharisees come to ask him why he is baptizing people. The priests and Levites ask him if he is claiming to be Elijah; Moses; Christ. But John only replies, “No. I am none of them. I am only a voice calling out in the wilderness to make the paths straight for the one who comes after me.”

John is a voice— a voice in the wilderness. John bears witness not only to Jesus, but to the vision of a new future. He sees himself in the Biblical story— quoting these words from Isaiah— to show that the same corruption that happened in Isaiah’s day is happening again, and once again someone is needed to cry out; to navigate the wilderness that the people find themselves in; and so John does this. He cries out. He points to Jesus as the light; the one who has come to save the world. And he does this even though he doesn’t even recognize Jesus.

Isn’t that curious? From the Gospel of Luke we are told that John and Jesus are cousins; that Jesus’ mother Mary had a special relationship with John’s mother Elizabeth. And yet as adults, John says he didn’t even recognize Jesus; or, what I think he means, is that he wouldn’t have guessed Jesus was the Messiah— the one he is paving the way for. Twice, in our reading this morning, John says to people— look, there Jesus is— the one I’ve been talking about— and I didn’t even recognize him.

Wow. John tells us that he didn’t even recognize the one he was paving the way for. What I think this tells us, is that advent, the time of preparing for Jesus, isn’t about us.

Thomas Merton once wrote that “Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Let me say that again. “Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.”

In other words, Advent is about emptying ourselves of everything that keeps us from God; of everything that is in conflict with who Christ is. It’s why we talk about the endtimes during Advent— because every beginning is also an ending, and if we aren’t willing to give up the parts of ourselves: our habits, our expectations that keep us from God, than there’s no room for God to be born in us. So it’s not that we bear witness to what God is doing as long as it fits our political agenda. Or we bear witness to the light of God in the world but only when it helps us personally. It’s not that we are called to be disciples, bearing witness to what Jesus is calling us to, but only when it means not giving up our privilege; our power; our status. John gives up all of these things and he is still surprised at who the Messiah is. John empties himself— gives up his own agenda; his own ideas of judgment; his own perceptions of how the Messiah will come, and who it will be, and is willing to bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God, even though it doesn’t fit with who he was looking for, because John loves God and trusts that God’s ways are not his ways.

Today is the Sunday that we light the Candle of Love. And while love may not be the word we think of when we think of John the Baptist living in the wilderness, eating locusts, and inviting us to repent; what I see in his statements of who he is, and who he is pointing to— is a deep abiding love that enables him to give up his own comfort, his own privilege, his own prestige— in order to point to the way, the truth, and the life. He knows it’s not his job to approve of Jesus, or to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. His job is to be a witness— to point to what God is doing in the world. And that is truly love.

Pastor Julia Wike and her church are a voice crying out in the wilderness. Living in Youngstown, OH, they’ve watched over the past forty years as half of the population of the town has left because of the closing of manufacturing jobs. And those who are there have been left with little hope, which has made the opioid epidemic spread like wildfire. On Friday nights Pastor Wike goes to the local fast-food restaurant, buys a few dozen hamburgers, and then walks the streets— handing out burgers and prayer, and help. The church has a ministry called Basement Ministries, which offers free meals, helps people get into recovery programs, finds transportation, and just opened a new residential ministry for women in recovery called “God’s Refuge House.” They know that it is up to them and others like them to be witnesses of God’s love in their community. To name the struggle that is taking down their town. And to give voice to a new future with hope in what God can do. That is truly love. (Story from Sojourner’s Magazine, December 2017 edition)

John gives voice to what is wrong with the way power is being abused in his time and place and he creates a space for people to see and experience Jesus. And that’s our job too. May we be a witness this advent for the ways we see Christ’s light so that we can share that light with the world.

Resources Consulted:

Sojourner’s Magazine, Dec 2017 edition WorkingPreacher.org, specifically an article by Karoline Lewis about John