Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Third Sunday of Advent (13th December 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

The Gospel according to John is a book of signs, of things and people who point to something or someone else.  If you think of a road sign to Konya, you are presumably less interested in the quality of the paint on the sign than the fact that it shows you how to get to Konya.  A sign is what connects the person looking with that to which he is looking.  It is an intermediary.  So in John's Gospel John the Baptist points two of his disciples to the Lamb of God and Andrew points Simon Peter at Jesus.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">In a sense Jesus himself is such a sign or intermediary as the Word or Revealer of God. The whole Gospel of John itself is a sign. As its author writes at the end, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31).

John the Baptist, so today’s Gospel passage tells us, has been sent as a witness. In the middle of the great cosmic picture of the Word of God we suddenly swoop to earth with the lines about John. He is the one who testifies to the light coming into the world. God is sending a new presence of light into the world in Christ Jesus but a fellow human is needed as a sign to point to his presence, so that we humans may see the light. That human is John the Baptist.

This introduction of John the Baptist into the prologue to John's Gospel brings the cosmic story of salvation down to earth at a particular time and place. It is one thing to talk about Jesus dying to forgive the sins of all people. It is another to show that this forgiveness comes into our lives at a particular point and for particular sins. The birth of Jesus took place at a particular time and place and his experience on earth are rooted in historical reality. We do not worship a concept or an ideal (what we might imagine would be the best or most satisfying framework for our lives), but we worship a person, Jesus, who was born at a particular time and place. The sudden arrival of John in the prologue is a first indication that the story of God’s love for us is to be rooted in the historical event of a human birth.

In John’s Gospel we read of a series of occasions when Jesus defines himself by saying “I am…” (“the Good Shepherd”, for example, or “the true Vine”). By contrast John says who he is not. He is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. Yet he defines himself with reference to Jesus, for he, John is the revealer, the witness who says “Behold the Lamb of God.” John is a sign-post pointing us to God revealed in Jesus.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">The story of John the Witness reminds us of the invigorating claim that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. This is stated in John’s prologue even before the central statement “the Word became flesh”. The first testimony of God becoming human is light in the darkness.

It is difficult for us in a world of electric switches and street-lights to imagine the significance of light in the darkness. We seldom experience real darkness. There is usually a car-light or a moon to give us a glimpse of light. I remember walking across part of the island of Bermuda where there were no houses or street-lights or moon at all, and the darkness was intense. The world before modern times was well aware of the power of darkness and most cultures had a winter festival of light in the middle of the winter to cheer people oppressed by the shortness of the periods of light we call day. Appropriately enough this winter festival became for Christians the festival of the birth of Jesus, for it is the Birth at Bethlehem that brings us hope that light will shine in the darkness of humanity.

John is a witness to the coming of Christ, to the coming of light in the darkness. We in our turn are called to be witnesses of the light. We are awaiting the arrival of the light of the world, the light that is about to come into the bleakness of mid-winter. How as witnesses are we to prepare for this? One way of preparation may be for us to adjust our eyes to see light where there seems to be none. We all are familiar with going out of a house or car into what appears to be utter darkness only to see, as our eyes become adjusted, that there are various points of lights around us, be they the eyes of animals or distant windows or a pattern of stars.

God has called us to be witnesses like John. John pointed at Jesus and said “Look! Behold the Lamb of God!” We can look at our world, apparently so dark, and discern in it the points of light that represent God at work in it, be it in examples of generosity or patience or sacrificial love. Then when we have seen the points of light that reveal God’s presence we can use them to illuminate the darkness and sorrows of our own lives and those of others. These may seem but small patches of light and limited actions, but actually they will play the same role in our own lives as the great calling of the prophet in today’s first reading, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. To look for little patches of light in the world around us and to share these with others would be a good way to prepare for the coming of the light of Christ at Christmas.

John says that he is not the Christ. No more are we. John did not save people. We do not save people. Jesus saves. That is a divine prerogative. Yet we and John, who are not the Christ, do have our own appropriate and responsible role. We are sign-posts (and voices and ears and arms and legs) that point others to Christ. Without such signs people will not know Jesus even if he is standing in their midst, as we Christians believe that he is doing here and now.