A Sermon for Advent 3 Year B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
—Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles
Until I met my husband, the extent of my legal knowledge was pretty slim. It was mainly a compilation of television shows—like “Law and Order” or “CSI”—or a remnant of the information I retained from that year af AP government in high school. But in order to love my husband, I also had to love his best friend and best man: Greg.
Now thankfully Greg is easy to love, and he is a man I admire and respect immensely. I’ve learned a vast amount from him. For Greg is a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia. And he views his job, not just as a way to make money, or an opportunity to obtain status in our society, or an avenue to put to use his amazing debate skills, but for Greg defense law is a Christian vocation. It is as an opportunity for him to try to enact some of God’s justice in a very broken American legal system: a system that arrests and convicts people of color at an exponentially higher rate; a system that thinks life sentences should be delved out for strike three of a minor crime; a system that is really based on how the defendant presents to a jury.
So many of my conversations with Greg consist of talking about whether or not his client should take the stand. Will the jury be able to hear this individual’s testimony? Or will they be resistant? Will they only see the fact that the person on trial is black? Or mentally disabled? Or looks like a criminal? Will the jury be biased against the defendant? Or will the audience believe the testimony?
I have a feeling that if John the Baptist was giving his own testimony today—as recounted in our passage from the Gospel of John—, the jury would be biased against him. I mean, he looks off-kiltered. He seems crazy… Right? He has ragged hair, a mangy beard, dirt under more than just his fingernails, leathered-looking skin from days in the desert sun, a profuse aroma I dare not describe, and those dark brown eyes seemingly piercing through our souls. If John was called to testify today, this middle-Eastern man would not measure up well on the witness stand.
Yet this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man—this beloved child of God—, “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1:7). And what I find beautiful, and vulnerable, and utterly authentic about this beloved child of God, is that he never tries to be someone he is not. Although we today honor him and call him, “Saint,” and, “prophet,” and, “the Baptist,” he is in so many ways, just John.
Even the religious authorities of ancient Judea ask him to clarify: “‘Who are you?’…” He 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?’” (John 1:19-22). And John’s answer is not to define or defend himself, but to be a witness, to testify to the light, to declare from out of the wilderness Emmanuel, our Lord God will come.
And so why did people of 1st century Palestine believe this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man? Why did people wait around to hear what he would say? Why did people flock to the River Jordan to be baptized by John? How could this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man so ardently and convincingly testify to the light? It is because he let his little light shine so brightly that it invited others into the Divine light. So that they themselves could recognize it, experience it, believe it. John chose not to hide his inner light by trying to be someone he was not—by ignoring both his gifts and his limitations—, but instead John honored the glory of God, that image of God found within himself. And he lived into the witness the Divine was calling him to be. As he testified to the light coming in Christ, he also embodied the light of the Divine.
He was just plain old John, and that is all God needed him to be. John’s testimony was believed (even though people were probably biased against him), because he was beautifully, vulnerably, authentically the witness God needed him to be.
And my friends, God can do the same of us. We may think we are not special, or important, or sufficient witnesses. We may think we are not enough, or are lacking the faith, or do not possess the courage, yet God calls each and every one of us to testify to the light. John has empowered us so that we can empower others. John lived into his light so that the light may be multiplied in others.
Throughout our life times we each have the opportunity to testify to the light of God, Emmanuel breaking forth into the world. We each have an individual, or even a whole audience, a whole family, a whole community, a whole state, a whole country we are called to reach. And yes, it may be intimidating to admit this. It may bring about fear, insecurity, feelings of insufficiency. Yet if we create holding space, if we set aside time to listen, if we wait o-so-patiently (as we already have been this Advent season), we are actively making room for the Holy Spirit to work within us. We are making room for the breath of the Holy One to stir our very souls. We are making room for the image of God found within us to shine forth and overcome the fears of our own hearts.
When we allow ourselves the opportunity to stop and wait (as I imagine John had a lot of time to do as he wandered around in the wilderness), we can do remarkable things through Christ who strengthens us. We can allow our own lives to witness to the Word of God. We can learn to trust that when that time comes, God will give us the courage and the capabilities to testify to the light.
And this light isn’t limited to John, or to us here at St. Patrick’s, or to the Episcopal Church, or to the Christian tradition even. It is a light for all people. It is a light for everyone we encounter. It is a light—as our reading from Isaiah reminds us—for the least of these: for the oppressed and the brokenhearted, for the captives and the prisoners, for those in debt and those who mourn. We are called to share God’s good news, to take part in the wideness of God’s mercy, to testify to the light when we notice anyone in need of God’s love.
We testify to the light when we see someone struggling with food scarcity in our community and we partner with organizations, such as Project Mana, to distribute much needed nutrition to families in our midst. We testify to the light when we see someone captive to drug or alcohol addiction and we stand beside them in the search for sobriety, offering God’s forgiveness and grace. We testify to the light when we see someone alone during this holiday season, and instead of ignoring their pain and isolation, we offer healing hospitality by inviting them to Christmas Eve worship and dinner with the family. We testify to the light at the grocery store and the post office, at the university and the hospital, with our coworkers and our children, with our significant others and complete and utter strangers. In every moment we are willing to witness, with every person who is willing to listen, we testify to the light.
We testify to the light when we make the choice to invite others into God’s transformational love. We do not know who will listen. We do not know who God will place in our path. We do not know who might be in need of our unique gifts and talents, of our limitations and shortcoming, of our unique perspectives. But this Advent season, in the midst of our waiting, we have the opportunity to discern what kind of witnesses God is calling us to be. We have the opportunity to transform our hearts from one’s living in human fear to one’s living in God’s glory. We have the opportunity to let the light break forth into our own lives so that we can be and share the light of Christ with others.