Prepared by the Rev. Thomas McAlpine.
Good morning, and Merry Christmas!
The puzzle in today’s Gospel reading: why does light need a witness (and how does that work)? I’m going to wonder about that in this sermon slot, but since at best I’ll only scratch the surface, I’d encourage you to take the bulletin home to wonder about it yourselves.
Why does light need a witness? That light [pointing] is on. If that’s my shtick, I’d better have a day job. Light doesn’t need a witness—unless we’re visually impaired. And that theme, it turns out, shows up elsewhere in John’s Gospel. In the arguments after Jesus heals the man born blind: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains’” (9:40-41).
So even if we’re talking about “the light of all people,” or—as our epistle puts it—”the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” we need witnesses—like John the Baptist.
If we wonder how to unpack this metaphor there’s this aphorism: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
Chew on that, and it’s not hard to despair. We like to assume our vision is 20/20. But we see things as we are, so why do I assume that I’m seeing things clearly, that I’m reading situations correctly, that I have a reliable idea of who I am or what I need? We can spend a lifetime observing the visual problems others have without it registering that we’re vulnerable.
It’s not that we’re totally blind. John’s Gospel explores the ambiguities. Sometimes the obscurity is elective. From early in the Gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (3:19). Sometimes it’s a strange combination of prophetic clarity and blindness. From later in the Gospel: “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’” (11:49-50). From one angle Caiaphas sees more than any of the disciples, but is blind to Jesus having anything useful to show him.
The good news of the Gospel: God can deal even with our lousy vision, as evidenced repeatedly in the Gospels, whether with James and John (“sons of thunder”), who are all for calling down fire on a village that doesn’t receive them (Lk 9:54), or Thomas, the resident Eeyore, who greets the upcoming trip to Bethany with “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16).
How does God deal with it? By sending folk like John the Baptist that nudge us towards Jesus, and then putting us together with others who are fumbling towards Jesus.
It’s not that John the Baptist gets everything right; he has his doubts about Jesus (Matt 11:3), but he points folk to Jesus, and that’s enough. The folk God sends to play John the Baptist’s role in our lives don’t get everything right, but that doesn’t mean they can’t nudge us towards Jesus.
And God puts us together with others who are fumbling towards Jesus. I like how Paul puts it: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). And that’s on our good days.
As you may recall, this comes toward the end of Paul’s description of “a still more excellent way” (love). The description is often read at weddings, but what Paul wrote it for was to help the Corinthians get through their thick heads the sort of practices needed to not self-destruct as a church: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4-5 NRS). We might hear those verses as a sort of warning label: churches—marriages, for that matter—can be difficult, and flourish only with liberal amounts of patience and humility. As the African proverb has it, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
My favorite example of what God achieves in putting us together comes toward the end of John’s Gospel. One week after the resurrection the disciples don’t even agree on whether Jesus is dead or alive. But there’s enough patience and humility—enough love —that they stay together, and together meet the risen Lord.
It’s John’s Gospel that has that memorable “God so loved the world.” The word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in today’s reading, but it’s the motor for the action. God loves, and the Word reaches out to us. God loves humbly, and the Word takes on human flesh. God loves humbly, and sends John the Baptist to nudge us towards Jesus. And as the text lays it out, we need some corresponding humility to engage the story: humility to recognize our need for various versions of John the Baptist, however off-putting we may find them, humility to hang with others fumbling towards Jesus. We’re not alone. The Holy Spirit who came upon Mary has come upon us. As Spufford puts it “Far more can be mended than you know.” One day we will see face to face.