Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: Sunday, December 16, 2018 (Advent 3) – John 1: 15-28

Sermon: December 16, 2018 (Advent 3) – John 1: 15-28
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley

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What do we know about John the Baptist?  Quite a bit, actually, when we put together the reports from all four gospels:

  • He looked and sounded like a wild man: a coat of camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist, a diet of locusts and wild honey, roaring his disapproval of the religious establishment
  • he, too had disciples, some of whom became disciples of Jesus
  • people came from as far away as Jerusalem to confess their sins to John and be baptized in the Jordan – and he was the one who baptized Jesus
  • His harsh, uncompromising ways, and his popularity, which may well have exceeded that of Jesus, eventually got him imprisoned and killed.
  • The gospel of Luke goes to great lengths to let us know that John was related to Jesus – through their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary – and this his angel-heralded birth had an element of divine purpose and inspiration
  • All 4 gospels understood him as the one who had come to prepare the way for the Messiah

But what if the only source we had about John the Baptist, was the gospel of John?  This gospel spares us the odd, loud, showy details about the Baptizer, focusing instead on his purpose, which all revolves around one word: WITNESS. Only six verses in to Chapter 1, we hear:  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”. John the Baptist, in this gospel, is a witness, sent to testify.

Lutheran Pastor and Bible commentator Brian Stoffregen points out that the Greek verb that English Bibles translate as “testify” or “bear witness”, occurs 33 times in the gospels, and 31 of those are in the gospel of John.  Similarly, 14 of 18 gospel occurrences of the Greek noun we translate as “to be a witness” are in the gospel of John.  Clearly, being a witness or bearing witness is an important theme to this author, and most of that is focused on John the Baptist.

An aside here, which might not be an aside at all, takes us to the root of the Greek words we translate as “witness”.  The Greek word is MARTYR.  While this word came to be identified with those who died because of their beliefs, it was a fairly common Greek word referring to anyone who had, either by choice or because they were compelled by the courts, bore witness to something they saw or believed.  Being a witness in those days was serious business: you said what you believed to be true, and were willing to stand by what you said no matter what the consequences.

But back we go to the 1st chapter of John’s gospel:  In our reading this morning, we hear John the Baptist being grilled by the religious authorities, and he testifies that he is indeed the one sent to prepare the way for the much greater one who will follow him – understood by the reader, and by us, to be Jesus. The next day, John is at the Jordan, sees Jesus and declares (John 1: 29-30) “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Jesus is that same day baptized by John, and the next day two of John’s disciples, Andrew and an unnamed companion, ore released by John to follow Jesus.

So before we are even one chapter in to the gospel of John, John the Baptist has played this huge rule in establishing the mission of Jesus.  He has borne witness – to the authorities, to Jesus, to his own disciples, to anyone who will listen – that this Jesus is the one to point them in God’s direction for their lives.  Through his spoken testimony, through the visible, symbolic act of baptism, through his willingness to release his followers so they could serve Jesus’ mission of radical inclusion, John was the first witness to Jesus Christ.

So “witnessing” is a big deal in the gospel of John’s portrait of John the Baptist. Yet “witnessing” is, in my experience, very much “someone else’s word.” Particularly in the past few centuries here in the northern hemisphere, witnessing to Jesus has been connected to extreme, disrespectful, one-track thinkers who shout out the perils of going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus.  I acknowledge the importance of John the Baptist as the first and foremost witness to Jesus Christ, even more so, when I remember that the Greek root word was Martyr, and I take a moment to ponder the price paid by John and so many others who have borne witness to Jesus…and yet, even then, I have to admit that “witness” isn’t typically a word that draws me closer to John the Baptist…or, even, closer to Jesus.

And the moment I say that – I need to pause for a moment, and give all of this a second thought, and let it seep in … for this point in history, when the message of Jesus is barely even familiar to the next generations in this land, is a time when witnesses to the amazing love of Jesus Christ are desperately needed.

No, I’m not picturing setting up a series of soapboxes we can stand on to shout at people about their behaviour.  And no, I’m not picturing a leaflet campaign telling people that their path to eternity starts with Jesus…I’m talking about explicitly, noticeably incorporating the love of Jesus into our lives.  For in my experience, people have witnessed to Jesus Christ, not by shouting his name in a heaven-or-hell ultimatum, but by embracing his love as their love, and showing it in concrete, caring ways.

Twenty-four years ago, when our family was living in small town Alberta and didn’t have two nickels to rub together, I saw a witness to the love of Jesus when a local farmer stood on our doorstep with a big box of frozen pork cuts full to overflowing. “We just did some butchering” he said, “and we had way more than we could take to market.”  Yeah, sure ya did, Jim. He handed me the box, and I nearly buckled under its weight, and our hearts and our bellies were fed.

Four years ago, when my mom and my only brother died within 100 days of each other, I felt a witness to the love of Jesus in the spaciousness you created for me to grieve, in the compassion you expressed through hugs and physical expressions of companionship, through a prayer shawl that still brings me warmth and love and comfort.

Three years ago, when our local refugee sponsorship group was having a hard time being matched with a family that needed to be resettled, I heard a witness to the love of Jesus in a phone call.  Gathered in a conference call with our friend Anoush at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, we had kind of reached the end of our options and then she said, “well, there is this Armenian guy from Aleppo who has emailed me and phoned me a few times” and within a week or two, we were sitting around another conference call, only this time the voice on the line was Anto in Beirut and the rest, as they say, is history. In both those calls, I heard the love of Jesus witnessed aloud.

In each of those circumstances, Christians testified to me the very love of God as experienced in Jesus Christ. In each of those events, someone turned their willingness to witness to Jesus Christ and embody his love, into action.   They perceived a situation of need, they engaged the resources at hand, and they did or said something that turned their commitment to Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour as oneself, into something loving and meaningful and real.

I am so thankful for those times when the witness of another impacted my life. But what about paying that forward?  what is there in my, in your life, that could bear witness to Jesus Christ and the love of God that he embodied?  Or is there something in my life, in your life, that is already bearing witness?

The first part of that question – what could be done in your life to witness to God’s love for all the world – is one that you may already know the answer to.  There may well be something that you have been on the verge of doing for some time now, but haven’t quite turned the good intention into action: it could be taking a leadership role in something we’re struggling with at Church that you’d like to help revitalize, or adding your effort to one of our established ministries; it could be something very individual, stepping outside your comfort zone to personally help a newcomer to this community or nation feel welcome; it could be involvement in the walk of reconciliation, or a justice issue where your voice can add to the voices of others who are already witnessing to the power of love made real. Or it could be that the thing that needs your involvement, your witness, is something just dawning on you now.

The second part of the question – the things in your life that already bear witness – might be things that your friends need to tell you about.  In this room this morning, are any number of inspiring stories: physical, mental or spiritual illnesses from which you have been healed; oppressive or abusive situations that you have emerged from; addictions or compulsions that you are confronting; long-time involvement in making your community and your world a better place; kindness that you regularly show others.  We celebrate not only the new ways we are called to bear witness to the love of Christ, but the ways that the call is already being responded to.

By our attitudes and actions, we testify to the Good News of Jesus Christ, but it does also take words.  So many folks connect the words Church and Christian with words like judgmental or mean-spirited or irrelevant, so it’s important at some point to name that we follow Christ’s way of love rather than the way of hate, Christ’s way of hope rather than the way of despair, Christ’s way of inclusion and welcome – for LGBTQ neighbours, among others – rather than the way of locked doors and shuttered lives.  The actions likely come first, but the words matter too.

In kind and courageous words and deeds offered and received, Christ’s love is witnessed. But it’s not just person-to-person that this happens. Several years ago, this congregation developed a mission statement, which goes like so:

Ralph Connor Memorial United Church’s Mission as a Church Community is:

  • to nurture the spiritual exploration and growth of all our members and adherents;
  • to be an intentionally inviting Christian community that seeks, welcomes and embraces new members;
  • to reach out and become an agent for social justice in our neighbourhood and in the global community.

I am so thankful to everyone who took the time to prayerfully develop that set of words, for it gets used over and over again to help us decide where and how we, as a group, can bear witness to Jesus.  We use those words when deciding whether or not to launch a new initiative, we use those words when people ask for space to hold an event here at the Church, and those words help us to reach beyond our needs to serve the needs of our community in our life as witnesses to the love of Jesus.  The heart of this statement brings us back to Jesus’ core values of loving God and loving neighbour.

The life of Jesus, witnessed to God’s outrageous love.

The life of John the Baptist, witnessed to the Good News of Jesus.

Our lives are called to participate in that great tradition of witnessing, as we open ourselves to the world around us in ways that far exceed our comfort level, and far exceed what we could accomplish by our own energies.  We express our gratitude, and extend our humble prayers, for the opportunities that life continually presents us, to give and receive empowering love.  In the tradition of John the Baptist, and in the name of Jesus, may our lives bear witness to that love, and the God who is at its source.  Amen.

Reference cited:

Stoffregen, Brian. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john1x6.htm

Gospel References about John the Baptist/Baptizer are found in

Matthew 3-4, 9, 11, 14, 16-17, 21       Mark 1-2, 6, 8, 11

Luke 1-3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 16, 20               John 1, 3-5, 10.

© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.