Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28
3rd Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 13.12.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Over the last couple of weeks, we have lit our Advent candles reminding us of those who waited for the coming Messiah. Two weeks ago we thought about Abraham and Sarah; last week, we thought about the prophets; and today we think about John the Baptist, sent by God to prepare the way and witness to the light that was coming into the world.
The timeframe with John is slightly different from the others who we remember at Advent. The others including Mary next week are looking ahead to the birth of Christ; with John, he is looking ahead to the ministry of Christ. But for all of them, there is that theme of waiting for something that has not yet come, but for which they long.
I don’t know about you, but at this time of year I can look out of my window in the mid-afternoon and can’t quite believe how dark it is. Surely it must be later than 4pm. For many the loss of daylight can diminish our mood, make us feel low, make life feel more of a struggle. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a recognised diagnosis within the NHS, where lack of daylight can cause persistent low moods, irritability, lethargy and feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness. And I know that for many who are bereaved, it is the long evenings that are the hardest times, the times when feelings of loneliness and loss are strongest. We need light.
I remember when I used to be a regular bicycling commuter to work, and would be very aware of the darkness when cycling to and from work, of counting the days to the 21st December, the shortest day of the year. I knew from then on the days would slowly, imperceptibly, start getting longer and lighter again. The knowledge that every year the daylight would start to come back in the late afternoons and evenings gave me hope.
For the people of Israel, living in dark times of their own, their darkness wasn’t caused by the changing seasons, with the knowledge that lighter days would return.Their darkness was of a different kind. The days of struggle just seemed to be getting harder, darker – there was no end in sight. Isaiah spoke of a return from exile, but though the people of Israel had returned to their land, things in the following centuries had not worked out how they had hoped. In John the Baptist’s day, the people of Israel were a vassal state, under the thumb of the Roman empire. Economically, they were still a back-water. And spiritually, well the heady days of David and Solomon, when worship was full of vibrancy and life, when the psalmists were in their hey-day, when people flocked to Jerusalem to worship God, those days seemed long since gone and never to return. In the darkness, there seemed little hope of light returning.
Into this scene bursts John the Baptist, sent by God, proclaiming that light is on the way, that the days aren’t just going to keep getting darker and darker, but that a time is coming, and will soon come, when light will break in upon the world and the decline into ever greatness will be halted and turned around.
It’s a message that many, unsurprisingly, were longing to hear. John began to attract large crowds, causing quite a stir. “Could this time of darkness really be over?” the people began to wonder. After all, John the Baptist seemed the genuine article, a holy man in the line of the prophets, poorly clad and emerging from the wilderness. The religious authorities send out their scouts to check him out, to find out more about this man causing such excitement and hubbub, to check whether he presented a threat to their interests.
John could have been quite flattered by all the attention. Just imagine if the CEO or the senior most head in your place of work began to show interest in what you were doing. Or that the local press, followed by the national press, began to request exclusive interviews into your life-story, because people had begun to realise the incredible impact of your life. It would be hard not to feel flattered, not to talk up your achievements.
But instead, in everything he does and says, John points to another. He couldn’t have been clearer to those wanting to know his identity: “I am not the Christ… I am not Elijah… I am not the prophet.” Indeed, the one he has come to witness to, he says, is so much greater than he, that he wasn’t even worthy enough to untie his sandals, the task reserved for the most menial of slaves. Even his trademark act of baptising, for which he had become named “the Baptist”, was of little consequence compared to the baptism with the Spirit that the Messiah would bring. John, in all he did, was about preparing the way for another, about heralding the coming of the Lord, about pointing to the light.
For it is the light that brings hope. That was true in John’s day. It is true in our day too.
A few years ago I shared with you about someone I got to know well during my time in South Africa in the early 1990s. He was one of four brothers. In the space of just a few years, he lost one brother to AIDs, another to murder, and his third killed by the police in custody. And then he lost his two-year-old son to illness. He knew a darkness that I don’t think I can fully comprehend. Yet he spoke of the love of Christ with him in that darkness, a light that the darkness could not extinguish, that in the midst of such grief and agony, Christ remained. This was not a glib answer or a trite denial of reality, but instead a truth that touched the deepest core of his being. For like others I’ve known who have experienced such dark times, he spoke of how the light, fragile and flickering at times, burns brightest in the deepest darkness, for in those times, only the hope of God remains; there is little else to cling to.
I know that there are people here in this church who have experienced dark times: bereavement, isolation and loneliness, relationship break-down, unemployment, feeling desperately let down. The social isolation of this year has perhaps added further to that darkness.
But hear John’s words: There is light, a light that gives light to every person, and that is Christ. And John’s own father, Zechariah, proclaimed, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
As we come to the end of this turbulent year, we too may long to have our feet guided into the way of peace. We too may long for a sure source of hope. Well, let us turn to Christ.
Christ is the light in our darkness, and our darkness cannot overcome him. He is our hope, our salvation, our rock, our fortress, our strength, our light.
Take a moment to invite the light of Christ into your darkness. Take a moment to acknowledge before him your struggles, your places of darkness, and ask him to bring his light of hope. And now do the same for someone else who you know is struggling in darkness at this time. Offer them up to God – ask that they too may know God’s light.