Recent Sermon Notes
Third Advent Sunday
'The Meaning Is In The Waiting'
13th December 2020
The Revd Hennie Johnston
Theme: ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’ – waiting and witnessing
John 1: v. 6-8 & 19-28
Last Sunday 2nd Sunday in Advent, Anina preached from the Gospel of Mark, and we were introduced to John the Baptist as he appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We thought about watching, waiting and preparing – the message of Advent, so forgive me if there is some overlap in this message too. I had already written my sermon before Anina preached last Sunday, as I knew I had to record it early this week for you all.
Today the 3rd Sunday in Advent we are in John’s Gospel still with John the Baptist. Verses 6 – 9, telling us where John came from ‘sent by God’, what his calling was, ‘he came as a witness to testify to the light, so that the all might believe through him, and then verses 19 – 28 we have John’s testimony that he gives to the people who have come, on behalf of others, to question him, and challenge his authority to baptise? So again we will be thinking of waiting and witnessing in this season of Advent.
Advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ and is essentially a season of patient waiting, but not passive waiting, as Anina reminded us of last Sunday. Rather we wait with anticipation and expectancy for the coming or arrival of God’s son into the world – Immanuel – God with us. I always say that I think it is sad that Advent is kidnapped by Christmas and probably no more so than this Advent in 2020. I saw Christmas trees in people’s homes long before December even arrived, and of course I can understand why.
It seems we have had a year of waiting, well at least 9 months of waiting. Waiting for lockdowns to be lifted depending which part of the United Kingdom you live in; waiting to hear what the new restrictions or regulations are going to be; waiting for government guidelines; waiting to know whether we can gather to worship in public, and even sing; waiting to know what we can or cannot do; waiting for a vaccine; waiting for some sort of normality to our lives; waiting to be able to see loved ones, waiting for some sort of human contact – like a good old fashioned hug – just waiting!
So, it is understandable that many people have brought a bit of early Christmas spirit into their homes so early on in the Advent season. We also have here at St. Mark’s, with our beautiful Winter Garden outside in the church grounds, and our zoom Christingle Service last Sunday afternoon. As we take our walking Nativity into Lache next Saturday singing carols and giving out gifts; and as we gather inside for our Carol services. We pray all these activities and services will be signposts towards what we celebrate on Christmas Day - the arrival of God’s Son into the world – but until that day we remain in Advent, when we wait, prepare, and signpost others to the true meaning of Christmas.
And that is exactly what John the Baptist was all about. He had come as the fore-runner to our Lord Jesus Christ – he himself was not the light, he came only as a witness to the light, to point, and prepare people, for Jesus’ arrival – the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. John the Baptist was waiting and preparing the way for the arrival of the new Messiah; but not passively, he knew he had been called by God to announce Jesus’ coming, and prepare the people of Judea and Jerusalem to repent – literally have a complete change of mind or heart, symbolised by baptism. Turning away from one way of being and facing in a new and better direction towards the Light to whom John was testifying to. In other words, an entire re-orientation of their lives so they would be a people looking in the right direction, and ready to meet and greet Jesus.
In John’s Gospel we are told that John the Baptist was sent by God into the world to witness and testify to the Light – and then in verses 19 – 28 he is asked ‘who are you’? And John confesses freely that he is not the Messiah, neither was he Elijah (though many thought he was); nor the prophet (probably meaning Moses), but he says, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert. Make straight the way for the Lord’, quoting from Isaiah Ch. 40. John knows who he is, and who he most certainly isn’t. Well if you are none of these people the Priests and Levites ask, why do you baptise? ‘I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’. It appears that Jesus is in the picture here and John recognises Him as the One for whom he has been preparing the Way - but those who have come to challenge John’s new version of baptism proclaiming repentance and forgiveness, have yet to recognise the Light in their midst. Servants untied their masters’ sandals – but John says he is not even worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.
It has been suggested that John the Baptist’s story is an intimation, a rehearsal, and an anticipation of the story of Jesus. What happens to the Baptist has some echoes with the story of Jesus. Both are ‘sent from God’. Both stand alone against an array of antagonists, and both are subjected to interrogations by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
Mark Stibbe in his commentary on John says, ‘some similarities between the stories of the Baptist and of Jesus imply that followers of Jesus can expect their own story of discipleship to follow a similar pattern’. And, of course, Jesus said to his disciples ‘as the Father has sent me so I send you’. They are to continue Jesus’ mission revealing the true Light of the World to those walking in darkness; and Jesus says, they must expect to the same sort of antagonism – ‘if they persecuted me, they will persecute you’. Stibbe concludes ‘when the story of Jesus ends, the story of the discples begin’ – the difference is the disciples then and today have the Holy Spirit, the paracletos, the helper to help them. I get what Stibbe is saying, but surely the story of Jesus never ends?
But it brings me nicely to the place in the sermon when we reflect on what we can learn from the story of John the Baptist in St.John’s Gospel?
In our world in which personal status and success is so important, it is hard to get our heads around the concept of someone whose whole raison d’etre is to point beyond themselves to someone else. John was sent by God simply to testify to someone else, to point ever beyond himself to the one who really was the Light of the World. One of the important features of the Fourth Gospel is this theme of witnessing. It can be hard living in such a self-centred society, where status, success and social standing is worshipped & glorified, and we find ourselves easily sucked into this same way of thinking and living, whoever we are, and whatever our status.
It is a constant battle within me not to covert the wealth of some of my family members, and I have to remind myself that God has called me and sent me to witness & testify to the Light that has now come into the World. When I made that decision to follow Jesus so many years ago, it was a beginning of a journey when I had to learn to begin to say no to being ego-centric, self-obsessed, and being such a people pleaser; to becoming more focussed on Jesus, Jesus obsessed, and wanting to please God and not man. But it is not easy. As Paul says in Romans 7 v. 15 ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. But Paul’s heart and mind had been re-orientated on the road to Damascus, and he was now facing the right direction.
So, for those of us who have taken that road of re-orientation and turned around from directing ones’ gaze at self, to looking towards Jesus, we need to recognise that John the Baptist’s calling is, in fact, our own calling too. John the Baptist’s ministry if you like, sets up a chain of which we are part. We are called as witnesses to the one who brings forgiveness and new life, life in all it’s fullness, so that others might believe through us. This is so counter culture to the world we live in today, where the message of the celebrity, fashion, sport, business, financial, political world says look at me, whereas the Advent message calls us to a place of humility, where we are not the centre of attention or attraction, but rather the signposts to the main attraction. Not the Light, but the one who helps others to see the Light. Does the way we live, talk, walk, think, witness the Light of Christ, and point others towards Jesus?
Another thing we learn from this passage is the importance of knowing who we are. Because as we witness Jesus in our lives, and signpost others to him we will face interrogation and antagonism. There will be times we feel foolish because we haven’t got the right answer to a difficult question, or may be an easy one; we jump in with 3 feet and wish we could retract what we said or did; we don’t take the opportunity of sharing our testimony/our story because we are afraid of how a friend, colleague or neighbour might respond. But Jesus made it quite clear to his disciples that they would suffer as He did, and the same baton is passed on to all disciples who follow Him. I think when we know who we are in Christ, we are willing to take a few more risks for Him because at the end of the day it is not about us, but about sharing the good news of Jesus. We too need to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, making a way straight for people to meet Jesus the Messiah.
The waiting we do at Advent should remind us of the importance of taking up John’s baton of witness, and passing it on, and of re-orientating ourselves outwards away from self towards Jesus, so there is less of us, and more room for Jesus in the core of our beings.
When I was first given the Isaiah scripture from Ch. 54 I was challenged that my heart had to be enlarged and the curtains stretched out so that more of Jesus could inhabit me, more of Him and less of me – and I believe as this happens to us as individuals, then these prophetic verses given to St. Mark’s of enlarging the site of our tent, spreading out to the right and the left will happen in every area of our mission and ministry, including extending our church centre premises for the work and glory of God.
This Advent may the Light of Christ truly reflect from us, and signpost others to see that the meaning is in the waiting, and understand the real reason for the season of Christmas – Immanuel – God with us.