Me?? In the dark?
Week of Sunday December 14 - Advent 3
Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28
What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light….
15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’)....
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
A very draft sermon, so far... (Updated 13/12/2014)
By the time John was writing his gospel, the Pharisees had become the religious leaders of Israel. The leadership of the Temple had been lost.
John's gospel does not like "the Jews," and particularly does not like the Pharisees. He has great wisdom and insight into the Gospel of Christ; we cherish the Gospel of John. But along with that wisdom and insight there appears to be considerable anger towards the Jewish people from whom his faith had come, and a great hostility towards the Jewish people by whom it was nurtured for millennia. John's churches and the surrounding synagogues had become enemies.
We− the church− have taken that tragic historical fact and turned it into two thousand years of hatred towards Jews in general.
We need to repent that, and I ask you to look deeply into your own hearts and consider how you think and act towards Jewish people. Do you treat them— do you think of them— as your elder brothers and sisters in faith, the people who raised and nurtured Jesus— especially the Pharisees, or do you consider them as somehow less than us?
If we consider them less than us, we should repent. They are God's people, and as John's gospel itself says very clearly, "salvation comes from the Jews." (4:22)
Why am I starting the sermon here? Well…
I read a fascinating reflection on the negative way in which Jewish people, and especially the Pharisees, are portrayed in the Gospels. It comes from the French scholar René Girard. He does not suggest that the Pharisees with whom Jesus is getting upset, did not deserve their condemnation.
The French scholar René Girard says, Pharisaism was the "highest mode of religious life yet attained" by human beings! (The Evangelical Subversion of Myth)
He does not suggest that the Pharisees with whom Jesus is getting upset, did not deserve their condemnation.
But he is making the point that the Pharisees were actually not especially bad— rather they were among the best of all of us!
Do you hear that? When it came to being good faithful followers of God, the Pharisees were up among the best!
What this means… is that whenever a Pharisee is criticised in the New Testament, the sin is a sin of which we too are likely to be guilty, and likely… more guilty!
In fact, I wonder if a besetting sin of we Christians is to avoid owning our own guilt before God by saying, "Look how bad those Pharisees were!" We project our sin onto them. At their best, when the Gospels criticise Jesus' contemporary Jewish brothers and sisters, and the Pharisees, they invite us to see in ourselves the universal human faults that were on display in the Pharisees and others who opposed him.
The question is, are we with Jesus, or are we, too, going to oppose him? Are we going to say, "Yikes, that's me! I need to change!" when he gives the Pharisees a blast? Or are we going to say, "I'm glad I'm not like that. Only Pharisees are like that."?
I still don't see where you are going with this, Andrew!
What was the sin, if that's what it is, of the people who were sent to investigate John the Baptist? Their problem was that John the Baptist could say to them, "Among you stands one whom you do not know."
Remember that John's gospel is being written 60 years after Jesus' death: When he says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know," he is not only speaking about the historical time that Jesus was physically there in the crowd. He is speaking about "the now" of when he is writing. "Among you now in 90 CE, stands one whom you do not know."
"Among you now in 2014, stands one whom you do not know."
Would he be correct if he said that to us? Who is this one that, perhaps, we do not know? And why might we not know him? After all, we are Jesus' people!
John the Baptist says he is "the life who is the light of all people."
The claim of the Gospel, put in John the Baptist's mouth, is that as people gathered around him at the Jordan, there stood among them someone whose significance they did not understand, but who was the light of the world.
And the claim is that as you gather round and listen to the reading of my gospel, says John the Gospel writer, you too will find among you a light which shows the way to live, and which shows the way to the fullness of life; life and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)
He is saying this to us, too. Jesus stands among us! He is saying,
Follow the light. Don't live in the dark.
The claim that Jesus is the light is a key message of John's Gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5) That's a reference to Jesus' crucifixion. The forces of darkness killed him; they tried to put out the light, but the darkness did not overcome the light.
We need the light. This is a theme in John.
- In the darkness of night, it says in one place, "no-one can work.
- In another it says…. those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them…
- The story at the end of the gospel tells us you can fish all night without the light, but you will catch nothing. (John 9:4, 11:10, 21:3).
- Nicodemus came by night; it means he didn't have a clue what was happening in Jesus. (John 3:2)
- Judas went out into the night. It means that in his betrayal he stepped out of the light, and so was lost, because he was in darkness.
"Listen then," says John. ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ (1:32-34)
OK− let's try and put all this together…
It's less than two weeks to Christmas Day. We are going to celebrate the birth of Jesus. John is saying the person whose birth we celebrate is the light of the world. If we do not follow him, if we do not trust him, by basing our life upon him, by risking our good health and our financial security and our social status− if we just pay lip service to Jesus, we are living in the dark. We don't know where we are going.
Now… harking back to the Lament with which we began.
During the Vietnam War I made some derogatory comment about Americans as we heard the news of the My Lai Massacre. My Dad, an old soldier, pulled me into line. "All sides do that. Australians did things not too different from that during the War− he meant WW2− even if it didn't make the news."
What I was doing was projecting my own violence onto America. "Australia is not like that," I was saying. "Yes we are", said my wise Father. "Yes you are," said Jesus…"You are just like the Pharisees."
What is happening in Australia at present is worse than a My Lai. What is happening now is not the actions of traumatised soldiers pushed beyond their limits. It is a slow, deliberate policy which we have developed for well more than a decade, on both sides of politics. It is a slow loss of civility. It is a slow journey away from the light into the darkness; a journey so blatant and so cruel that one MP has "has formally asked the ICC prosecuting authority to investigate whether the treatment of asylum seekers contravenes international conventions." So blatant that "a United Nations assessment has found Australia guilty of almost 150 violations of international law for indefinitely detaining refugees…"
PROF. BEN SAUL, UNIVERISTY OF SYDNEY LAW SCHOOL: The only other country in the world which has anything like this, you know, the only other democracy that has anything like this is the United States at Guantanamo Bay. This is rapidly becoming our Guantanamo, a legal black hole where we send people forever.
It's being perpetrated by "Christian" politicians.
And we have voted them back in, and voted them back in− both sides.
Are we a nation standing in the Light, or have we been drifting ever more often into back alleys of darkness, saying, "We're not like that. We're not Jews. We're not Pharisees. We're Christians." Is that us?
If we celebrate Christmas, and we don’t care about this horror done in Australia's name…
If we celebrate Christmas and get on with life and do nothing about it…
then we are living in the dark. We truly deserve it when former Prime Minister Fraser declares us the "most inhumane, the most uncaring and the most selfish of all the wealthy countries."
If that is us, we are not following the Life which is the light of the world.
We are lost.
Come into the light. Follow the light. It lights the way to life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!