Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Date: Advent III + 12/14/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In your little catechism you learned to confess the truth, in part, in the words, “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” You should know that not a few Christians of other denominations and certainly people in general find that a shocking statement with which they most vehemently disagree. You learned that this is because of the fallen, sinful nature of us all born into this world spiritually blind and dead. Spiritual blindness demonstrates itself in everything from the demand for some credit of cooperation of the human will to at least some extent, working your way to salvation by doing enough good works, to just complete ignorance of anything to do with God or things spiritual.
The recent anti-religious demonstration of the placard placed next to the nativity scene in the Washington state capital building brings up an interesting observation on spiritual blindness. Placed by the so-called Freedom From Religion Foundation, it read,
At this season of
THE WINTER SOLSTICE
may reason prevail.
There are no gods,
no devils, no angels,
no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but
myth and superstition
that hardens hearts
and enslaves minds.
“May reason prevail”? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe…or come.”
It seems to me that true a-theism would be happiest and most honest if it would simply ignore religion altogether. This public attack, on the other hand, suggests that this otherwise “non-existent” God certainly seems to be successful in exerting enough power to inspire such a reaction. Again, if there is no god, then why any concern whatsoever over him, her or it? As far as Christianity as a religion, it is sin and not the religion that hardens hearts and enslaves minds. No other philosophy in the history of the world but Christianity has knit the moral fabric and inspired the highest achievements of Western civilization and culture—from care for the sick, the poor and the elderly, to the dignity, equality, and freedom of women, to the founding of hospitals and charitable organizations, to the inception and promotion of schools, universities and higher education, to the development of music, to early Christian pioneers of science and research. The denial of things spiritual or of Christians and their faith by people that are spiritually blind doesn’t hold much weight.
Because of our common spiritual blindness, we need a guide. This is one aspect of the extraordinary and inspiring Gospel of John who, after beginning his gospel account with images and metaphors of Word and life and light and darkness, after having barely begun, stops suddenly in his tracks, speaking in very down-to-earth terms, saying, “There came a man.” “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” The Apostle John knew that if you are to find “the true light that gives light to every man,” you need a guide. “I baptize with water,” John the Baptist argued with the Pharisees, “but among you stands one you do not know.”
If you are to find the true light and the “one you do not know” you need a guide, someone who knows what he’s talking about to point him out to you. Looking around at the anonymous crowd the priests and Levites and Pharisees who came to question the Baptist saw no one of any import standing around them; yet tens or hundreds or maybe thousands of someones they did not know. Who, then? Which one was he talking about?
Now go forward in Apostle John’s Gospel. And we hear the amazing fact that even the guide, John the Baptist, seemed to have his doubts. John Shea, in his book, Starlight, described it this way.
John expected an ax to the root of the tree
and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.
He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.
When John said, “There is one among you
Whom you do not know,” he spoke from experience.
So from prison John sent his disciples to Jesus.
He will send you too.
Despite his reputation, he is best at introductions.
It is simply who he is,
preparer, primer, pointer, a tongue always on the verge of
His question was, “Are you the One Who Is to Come or
should we look for another?”
This arrow of a question was sent from prison
but the bow was bent in the desert
by “none greater born of woman”
who was awake before the sun, waiting,
watching the vipers flee before the morning his eyes welcomed.
“Are you the One Who Is to Come” is the question of John highway,
his road under construction, hammer and pick and hardhat song,
“I have leveled a mountain and raised a valley to make even the path of the Lord!”[i]
The priests and Levites and Pharisees asked John, “Who are you?” If they could not recognize the Christ even if He walked right in front of them, how could they know this one was their guide? John told them he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet like Moses. And he was not the Messiah. Though he apparently didn’t realize how much he really was Elijah who was to come.
Just like those priests and Levites and Pharisees and all from Jerusalem and the surrounding area that came out to be baptized by John in the Jordan river, so also you cannot find the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior without a guide. Yet just like those all then, you all now are in the right place, at the right time, when and where the Divine Word is preached, where living waters are poured, where bread and wine are set and candles hint at His presence. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe!” You do not know Him if you do not believe. And “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14). John the Baptist preached. John the Apostle preached. And so the Good News has been preached and proclaimed ever since by men who are sent from God to do just that.
Today we have been introduced. Today the guide has come with an outstretched arm pointing him out: “Behold!”
“Who, Him? This man?”
“Behold, the Lamb! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Follow him.”
How like the Pharisees and the skeptics of every age we live by only what we can see, what can be measured, weighed, tested, and perceived with our darkened human reason. “Among you stands one you do not know.” Only faith is sure of what is hoped for, certain of what we do not see. And it rests on the testimony of those who have seen, who beheld Him with their own eyes, and we are called to see through theirs. So faith looks strange to those who have it not.
Again, John Shea speaks about the end of John the Baptist’s life and the end and goal of his testimony.
The guards clattered down the stairs,
their impotent swords drawn.
They pushed aside the disciples and unlocked a dungeon of light
to find John dancing, his feet moving to the long-ago memory of womb kicks.
Who was about to lose his head to Herod had lost his mind to God.
The cave of Christmas is hidden in the center of the earth.
You will need a lamp for the journey.
A man named John is a step ahead of you.
His torch sweeps the ground so that you do not stumble.
He brings you, at your own pace, to the entrance of the cave.
His smile is complete, perfect, whole, lacking nothing.
there is a sudden light,
but it does not hurt your eyes.
The darkness has been pushed back by radiance.
You feel like an underwater swimmer
who has just broken the surface of the Jordan
and is breathing in the sky.
John is gone.
from whom the light is shining,
Notice from whom the light is shining. He stands among you, the tokens of His sacrifice perfectly preserved now in beauty glorified. You know Him if you have known His forgiveness. And “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…born of God” (John 1:12-13).
Who knows at any moment who it is that stands among us? Apostle John saw more, much more. Jesus now stands among the lampstands of His Church (Rev. 1:12). He stands there—the One who stands among you whom, once, you did not know. He gives you sight, and light, and life…deathless life.
[i] Shea, John, Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long; New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.