Monday, December 8, 2008

John 1:6-9, 19-28 - Sermon - Hoping for the Light

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John 1:6-8, 19-28
Hoping for the Light
12-14-08

At this time of year, a couple of years ago, Alycia and I had dinner with a friend and her little girl. It was a great time and the little girl was excited to be eating dinner with us. As she picked at her taco and as I munched on my burrito, I asked her if she was getting excited about Christmas coming. She said yes she was. Then I asked the preverbal question everyone asks a five year old during this time of year, what do you hope to get for Christmas? I got an answer I was expecting, my little ponies, doll house, the usual. I chuckled a little bit to myself on the way home because I could imagine this little five year old hoping to be like the ponies she was wanting for Christmas. I could see her running through the fields with her mane and tail blowing in the wind. If this was true, then she would have the sense of freedom and fun that she was truly hoping for.

Then I started to think about other gifts the majority of children wanted for Christmas, and what that told me about them. What do we learn about a boy who hopes to get a remote control car for Christmas? Well maybe that this boy hopes to really drive one day and that he enjoys speed and being a little reckless. What do we learn about a little girl who wants the Disney Cinderella Castle? Maybe that this little girls hopes to be a real princess one day, dressing up and wearing pretty clothes and having Prince Charming sweep her off her feet. What do we learn about someone who wants the new Xbox 360 video game console? Maybe that this person hopes to escape the reality of this world and go into another, where he or she can do things that cannot do in real life. This is what Christmas is about right, a fulfillment of our hopes? Isn’t Christmas about getting what we want?

The scripture I read today is segments of the first chapter of John. These segments are nestled in the very poetic part, the one we know well. The chapter that starts off, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You know the one. But these verses I read seem to break up the flow of this poetry but today we get them together in order that we might understand better who is coming in 11 days. That’s right, today is the third Sunday of Advent, and there are only 11 days until Christmas. We only have one more Sunday to prepare ourselves and today, is a reminder of who is coming.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned by Hitler during World War II, wrote to his fiancĂ© on one lesson he learned from life in prison. He wrote, life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.[1] We are in the midst of this waiting time, the waiting for the door to be opened and but who will be on the other side?

For 400 years the Jewish people were waiting in anticipation for the door to be opened. For 400 years it seemed that God had been silent. Nehemiah had been the last prophet they heard and God’s chosen people were waiting for another prophet to come soon. They might have thought God was silent but the world they lived in was anything but. In those 400 years the power in this area switched hands many times. Persia was in control to begin with then the Greeks took over, then the Syrian take over for a little bit. The Maccabees revolted and won but then these people called the Romans come in and take over. This was a world of controversy and struggles and the Jewish people were anxious for the Word of God to come through someone, a prophet or even better yet, the Messiah!

It was during this time there came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. John was baptizing people and making a name for himself, I talked about him last week. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem got wind of John and sent a team of researches out to find out more about him. They wanted to figure out if this guy was really from God and who he was. So they went and they asked him some questions. They asked him if he was the Messiah and he said I am not the Christ. So they thought that he might be Elijah, but he said no I am not. Then they asked if he was the Prophet, and once again he answered no.

Both of those people Elijah and the Prophet, were people associated with the coming of the Messiah. So they thought if they could finger John as Elijah, then they could figure out that the Messiah was coming. But John tells them that he is neither of these people, so they get frustrated and finally ask him, who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those that sent us. What do you say about yourself?

It is in this moment that John finally gives them an answer, he states, I am the voice calling in the desert; make straight the way of the Lord. John names his role in the grand event of God’s incarnation, God’s coming into the world. He states that he is the one to pave the way. He is the one to point and show people who the Christ truly is. All John is, by his own confession, is the Voice.

Do you all remember who Pavlov’s dog is? Ivan Pavlov had a theory that animals (and humans) could be trained to respond in a certain way to a particular stimulus. To quickly sum up his research, when Pavlov would feed his dog, he would also ring a bell. Soon he would only have to ring the bell and the dog would salivate. My cats have followed suit with this theory. Every time I touch the can opener, I hear the pitter patter of little paws running towards the kitchen hoping that I am opening up a can of tuna. The voice is here today to call out to the world that the light is coming. By hearing the voice, we are to respond by preparing for God to enter the world.

John, the voice, in the Gospel of John is a little unique. You see in this fourth Gospel, John is never referred to as John the Baptist. In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, John is referred to as John the Baptist and actually baptizes Jesus. Yet in the Gospel of John, this man named John is called as more of a witness, to testify to the light. The fourth Gospel says nothing about how John dresses like the Gospel of Luke does. We receive nothing about what John’s ministry is about, nothing like repent for the kingdom of God is near.[2] We don’t get any real picture of this person named John. The only thing we get is that John is called by God to be a witness to the light and that the light that is coming, and that John is not worthy enough to even untie his sandals.

John knew his place in the story. John knew that he was only to point the way, only to make straight the way of the Lord. John knew he was only here to testify to the light. But there is a promise in this knowledge of what his job is. The promise is that if John is sent by God to make straight the way of the Lord, then the Lord is coming. John knew that he was not the Christ, which means that the one who is the Christ, who is the True Light, is coming. We only have to wait until that door is opened.

In the Fourth Gospel, John he never points to himself. This is exactly what we should be doing in this season as well. Advent is a time of preparation, to prepare for the gift in the manger. Too many times Christmas focus on our own hopes and our own desires. The reality is Christmas is about our needs. God’s gift, the True Light, comes because we need him to come. If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator; If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist; If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist; If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer; But our greatest need is forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.[3]

In the book, Is Jesus Inclusive or Exclusive, the author writes about David Peterson, the former pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, tells a story about a time when he was preparing his sermon. While he was deep into his preparation and his little daughter came in and asked, “Daddy, can we play?” He answered, “I’m awfully sorry, sweetheart, but I’m right in the middle of preparing this sermon. In about an hour I can play.” She said, “Okay, when you’re finished, Daddy, I am going to give you a great big hug.” He said, "Thank you very much." She went to the door but then she did a U-turn and came back and gave him a chiropractic, bone-breaking hug. David said to her, "Darling, you said you were going to give me a hug after I finished." Her big eyes looked up and deep into his, and she answered, "Daddy, I just wanted you to know what you have to look forward to!"[4]

We know what we are looking forward to. We can feel it. The light is coming. Out of 400 years of darkness the light finally came. Out of the darkness of the womb, God entered this world as a baby. It is in the midst of our preparation, our searching, and our need to be a forgiven people that the light dawns. I am hoping that you all were aware of the words that you were singing in that last hymn. You sung this, on prisoners of darkness the sun begins to rise, the dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes.[5] John tells us that the light is coming, but until then we are still in the dark, waiting.

The nights are long now and darkness can be a scary thing. Today the sun will set a little after 5:00 and won’t come up until a little after 7:00. That is about 14 hours of darkness in the day. Add cold weather, dark skies, clouds, and sometimes rain or even snow or ice, and daylight seems like a precious thing. Darkness changes people too. Things don’t look the same in the darkness, people become more self-serving, a little ruder, and seem to lack patience. Yet those attitudes are usually saved for January and February. Here in Advent, there seems to be something bigger that takes over. Somehow in the midst of all the holiday activities, people still have smiles on their faces. Somehow in the midst of long lines, horrendous traffic, frantic shopping, and excessive merry making people don’t lose the childish excitement that comes with this season. I think it is because deep down we know what to expect on Christmas. We know the light is coming and that knowledge allows us to rest assured that the darkness will not last forever.

It is like a little boy was lying in his bed one night willing himself to sleep. He lay there with his eyes opened as wide as he could get them. He lay their praying to God for help because the darkness of his room was getting too much for him. He was becoming frantic because the room that he had known and loved had changed once the lights went out. The trophies on his shelves were gone, the pictures of his family vanished, and the walls that held in a place of comfort and joy, disappeared and left a feeling of emptiness and loneliness. As he lay there, the feeling of fear overwhelmed him and he yelled, MOM! As he lay there in a panic, starting to sweat, paralyzed, he heard her voice. “I’m coming, I’ll be right here.” And then the light came, a small strip of light underneath the door. Just enough to constrict his pupils and bring his room back to life. In that moment his fear left him and he could move again. He felt comfort, a sense of ease, and calm, and she hadn’t even gotten to the door yet. Christ is not at the door yet but he is almost there. The light is underneath the door, we just have to wait for it to open.

I don’t know what is on your Christmas list. I don’t know what you are hoping to get but I pray you are hoping for the light to come into your heart. The light is coming, the true fulfillment of all our hopes. It is coming, and so today we can stand and be proud to be children of that light. We can find joy in knowing that today a promise is given because there came a man who was sent from God, his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all people might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only to witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every person was coming into the world.

And all God’s people said…AMEN

[1] Dietrick Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 135.
[2] Matthew 3:2
[3] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/c/christmas.htm
[4] Dale Bruner, "Is Jesus Inclusive or Exclusive?" Theology, News, and Notes (October 1999), p. 3
[5] United Methodist Hymnal, Blessed Be the God of Israel, 209.

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