Chaplain (CPT) Mel Baars
John 1:6-8, 18-28
December 11, 2011
Preparing the Way
I come from a proper family where etiquette played a principle role in my rearing. No elbows on the table, napkin in one’s lap, “Yes sir” and “No Ma’am,” were a given, not a choice. I remember my grandmother teaching me the right way to eat soup. I must have been about four. I practiced over and over, first touching the spoon on the opposite side of the bowl, and then to one side, making sure that any run away broth was dispensed back into the bowl, and not down my chin. I can’t eat soup without thinking of her. My shoes stayed white and clean and there was always a matching bow in my hair to complete any outfit. I steered very clear of long haired, “Hippy” types who wore Birkenstocks.
It shouldn’t surprise you that John the Baptizer has never been one of my Biblical role models. He wore a camel hide, ate locusts and wild honey and seemed a little crazed to say the least. One Sunday evening, after learning about John the Baptizer, there was a special on the news about the Unibomber. I will never forget thinking that he looked a little like John, at least in my childish imagination. Not the kind of people that I should be associating with. If John the Baptist would have showed up in my town, I seriously doubt we would have gone to hear his message.
It always struck me as peculiar that John, with his alternative lifestyle, would become an example of a witness, preparing the way of the Lord. He is the one who quotes Isaiah saying, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” Even still, John is not who I would have expected, and maybe this is the point. Being a witness doesn’t necessarily look like one thing, one kind of person, but God calls all manner of people, often using those whom we least expect, to include, on many accounts, ourselves. What makes John any more qualified to prepare the way of the Lord than any other person? What makes him such a good witness? It would seem to me that John makes this good example because, throughout his life and service, he remembers his place in relationship with God. He was a witness to the light, not actually the light. There is a big difference.
The idea of “witnessing” has many connotations, some positive and some quite harmful. When the great commission was spoken, Jesus’ followers were tasked with going to the ends of the earth to share the good news of the gospel with all people. In effect, these people, eventually called Christians, picked up where John and others like him had left off, preparing the way of the Lord. Some of these witnesses brought light into dark places, often sharing the gospel through their actions of love and care and sacrifice more than through their words. Over these two thousand years, many have left home and family witnessing in the name of Christ, offering skills in medicine, fighting for justice, teaching in places where there were no schools, and practicing ministry of presence wherever suffering exists. Yet, there is also a dark history to witnessing. As we also know and would like to forget, some of our witnessing has brought more pain and devastation instead of healing and peace. There are many who would rather run the other direction than be witnessed to, because their experience with “Witnesses” has caused more harm than good.
At the heart of this struggle of witnessing seems to be a dilemma which has faced Christendom during all times. We seem to teeter between two extremes and in both, we lose sight of the source of the light. We forget what John the Baptizer taught us, our place in relationship to God. In one extreme, we take on a savior complex. We focus so much on all the work that we need to be doing to prepare the way, to sow the seeds of God’s kingdom, that we forget that God, in Christ, has already saved us. To spread this good news, there is certainly hard work to be done, but it is not ALL up to us. We are not the source of the light. God holds us all in God’s hands, and will ultimately be the one to determine the time and circumstances of the restoration of the world.
But, this doesn’t mean that our witness doesn’t matter, that we should just throw our hands up in the air and neglect the world that we have, not worrying about justice or poverty or suffering. This is the other extreme attitude which some adopt. I have heard the argument, “I am saved and, really, my life begins in heaven. Who cares about this world or the problems that we face.” But, is this really how to prepare the way of the Lord? Is this the way to share good news with the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, or to comfort those who mourn?
A few moments ago, we heard Isaiah proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. These verses must be pretty important to God because they are also the same verses which begin Jesus’ formal ministry. These verses are also about witnessing good news. God is tasking Israel to be the kind of people whose way of living reflects God’s goodness. God is the source of their renewal and restoration, but they play a roll in transforming the world. When they live with justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, then ALL people will see this transformation and will know that it is God who has made this possible.
As Israel was called to witness God’s imminent restoration of Israel and the world, as John, too, was called to be a witness, testifying to the light of Christ, so we also are called to be a witness of God’s good news. We witness Christ in all kind of ways, sometimes not even realizing what we are doing. And, if we look carefully, we may see that there is a quiet but sure witness which is happening all around us, even here. Sometimes I will catch a glimpse of it, as I observe guards in the DFIP, walking side by side with Afghan soldiers, making a joke, sharing a moment of friendship. I have seen it at the Egyptian hospital over these last weeks as we have gone to share from the abundance of what we have been given. Witness happens when we meet one another with openness, with a desire to give God’s love, even to a stranger, even to someone who is different than we are or believes in something that we don’t. And this is the thing about witnessing, it can only be done with humility, acknowledging, as John did, that we are not the light, we do not own it or control it, but we simply reflect it as it is, full of infinite grace.
A few years ago I took a trip to the Holy Land and visited the museum in Jerusalem that memorializes the Holocaust. After a few hours of wandering the grounds of the museum, I stepped into an exhibit which honored the children who had died at the hands of Nazi Germany. Though I saw and experienced many holy sites here, there is an image from this museum that I will never forget which illustrates the great potential when Christ’s light is witnessed to the world.
Entering the dark room was like entering a cave. At first, I could see very little because my eyes were adjusting to the sudden absence of daylight. Soon, though, I realized that I was surrounded by hundreds and thousands of little flickering lights, all dancing around me. As I watched them, their brightness grew so much that it seemed that the light, however small individually, had overcome the dark room. I am not sure how long I stood there mesmerized but at some point, the main lights of the room came on. I was shocked to find only one candle burning.
Looking around the room where I had just seen the candlelight flickering, there were mirrors, hundreds of them. There was just one tiny light, yet in the darkness, the mirrors multiplied the candle light thousands of times, so it seemed like the light was everywhere, all around me. I realized that without the mirrors, this one candle, this light, would continue to burn, but it would not have been as apparent or as bright had those mirrors not reflected it again and again and again. The light goes on without us, yes, but when we have caught a glimpse of its warmth, why not share it? Why not hold up our own mirror, and take part in spreading a light which promises hope and newness, to give us life instead of death?
He came as a witness to testify the light, so that all might believe. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
Make no mistake, God’s light is eternal with or without us. Whether or not we hide it under a bushel or let it shine, whether or not we stand on our tip toes and hold up our mirrors, reflecting light for all the world to see, no matter what, this light continues on. It is alpha and omega, our beginning and our ending, and everything between. And, nothing, real or imagined, past, present or to come can overcome it. This is the Good News, not just for us who gather in pews or in churches this Advent, but this is Good News for the whole world. So, come, let us prepare the way of the Lord. Amen