Princeton University Religious Life

Testifying to the Light

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

The Gospel of John does not say that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It doesn’t - the other gospels do, but this one does not. John is named as a baptizer. The gospel says that John sees Jesus walking towards him, and it records John as saying that he had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. But it doesn’t say when that happened, and it doesn’t say that John was the one who had baptized Jesus. Many would say, “But the other three Gospels tell of John baptizing Jesus, so we know he did it.” I do accept that John baptized Jesus, but I’m grateful for the fact that the Gospel of John does not make it clear. If John is just a “regular” person calling people to repentance, if John is “just” a witness, if John is “just” a truth-speaker, then John is “just” like you and me.

The Gospel According to John begins with such beautiful, cosmic language: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the word was God!”  And four verses later, we hit the ground hard with mention of a very regular guy named John, “sent from God.” Regular people are sent from God! Maybe you’ve encountered one or two. John, we read, was a witness sent to “testify to the light.” He himself was not the light; he was just a guy who was announcing its arrival. Ten times the Gospel says no/not/neither in relation to John - John is not the one we are waiting for, no matter how truthful and faithful is his testimony. John is not the one we are waiting for; John himself says that the Coming One came before him, and that he himself is not worthy to untie the throng of his sandals. It did happen that a cult of John the Baptist arose, people convinced that he was the Messiah. The Evangelist John was writing, “No.”  No - John himself says no. Ten times the Bible says no. John is not the one for whom we wait. But John recognizes that one when he sees him, and John calls him out. Jesus says, “I am!” John keeps saying, “I am not!” John says, “I am just a voice crying out in the wilderness,” and aren’t we standing in the wilderness today, just as folks were 2,000 years ago. John says, “I am not your salvation, I’m just calling things as I truly see them.” And don’t we need that today, as folks did 2,000 years ago?

John did his good work while he told everyone who he was and who he was not

Who are you? Who do you need to distinguish yourself against - who are you not? Who are you in relation to Jesus, and what does that mean? Are you his disciple, his follower? How do you need to live that out, and what do you need to tell others about him? Are you Christ’s friend? What does that mean, and how do you live out that friendship? Do you know yourself to be Christ’s sister or brother, and what must that mean for how you live your life? Are you, as an old minister of mine would say, “Christ-haunted” – does Christ linger, unasked for, on the outskirts of your life? Is he the shadow that falls across your path each day, moving with the sun, tracing the outlines of the objects around you, present but not acknowledged, pursuing you even if you never asked him to - are you Christ-haunted? Or are you empty of Christ, wishing he’d even haunt you - are you finding no trace of him no matter how much you search? Who are you in relation to Jesus, and what does that relationship mean you need to do?

What would it mean for you to testify to the light, the light of Jesus that is coming into the world? You and I won’t be his baptizer. You and I needn’t fear being mistaken for the Messiah of God! How shall we, in whatever relationship we have with him, testify to the light? Perhaps the teaching - the message - of the Prophet Isaiah is for us - “Proclaim liberty!” he says. Tell all the world that God does not slumber nor does God sleep. Restoration to an original state of wholeness is God’s plan for all humanity. Testify to the light, the prophet might say, by announcing to all people that God will return us to the way we should be, before our descent into human sin, oppression, depravity, violence, marginalization, domination, disobedience. Humanity’s resting point is justice - that is our origin and it is our destiny. No matter how far we’ve moved ourselves from that point it will be our inheritance, because God remains in covenant with us. God has the power and the will to press the “reset” button.  It is a Jubilee year, and all who have suffered and been dispossessed will be treated like respected guests - guests at a banquet that is given in their honor. In the midst of ruins and the devastations - the children trafficked into brothels, the families destroyed by addiction, the endless city blocks become vacant and waste where once neighborhoods had thrived, countries reduced to rubble by war or natural disaster - in the midst of this we testify to the light of Christ to people who have ample reason to believe God checked out a long time ago. “Play your role,” the prophet says to us - testify to the light in your own location, your own place and time. Speak the language you know, tell the people who can hear you, use the gifts you’ve been given. Wherever you find yourself, you are needed right there. You are necessary today. You are the herald of the Messiah, the one who proclaims his arrival. You are the one who knows that the light of God is breaking into this world. Begin to speak. You will discern what to say. John the wild man didn’t look too convincing, and he spoke words that were hard to take. He spoke the words that needed to be uttered in his place and time. You can too.

And the response of the people around us well may be - “There is no light on the scene. It is darkness. You know nothing.” But you and I know something critical - wherever there is light, that’s where God is working. And there is light; you just have to stay in one place long enough to let your eyes and spirit adjust. There are beams everywhere - the teacher who believes in her students’ abilities and will not let them fall behind - the community organizer who knocks on doors without ceasing because toxic waste is poisoning a community - the roommate who stays up all night with a friend who is down - the eyes that open to Christ’s presence - the heart that awakens to love. A new future is possible and even has begun because God remains covenanted to us. The light of God is all around us, actually, but many find it hard to adjust their eyes. Like coming into a darkened room, it can take time to discern what is actually around you. With patience, you can see that there’s a lot there.

The light of Christ is coming into the world, and no darkness can overcome it. This testimony is incredulous to weary people, but we continue our testimony simply because it’s true. The restoration described by Isaiah won’t arrive on December 25th, and the weary will continue with their sighs, but as the soul singles I heard on albums as a child would say, “a change, it’s gonna come.”  The light of Christ is coming into the world, and no darkness can overcome it. Humanity’s resting point is justice - the point of our origin and the point of our ending.  We testify to the light of Christ when we work for wholeness, when we inhabit a tiny beam of light in the darkest place, when we say the truth we know wherever we find ourselves, when, like the wild man John, we blurt out to all people that the fulfillment of the hopes of the universe is in our very midst, in human form. He looks like us, he hurts like us; he loves like us, he will end all our dominations, he will bring us his peace, he will bathe us in a light beyond all our imaginings. This is what we who are in relationship with Christ have the privilege to share with all people. This is our testimony. This is our story to tell, just like our regular old truth-speaking forebear John. What a sacred trust we hold. In what grace do we move through our days. In what power do we humbly, like John, carry the good news that can set all people…free!




12/11/11-, Karoline Lewis and Elna Solvang

Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor

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