The focus for this week in Advent is on John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin – who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Messiah. This is how John’s Gospel introduces him (John 1 6-8, 19-23)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 

He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said.

This week we move from the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament and this enigmatic figure of John, who was known for baptising people, something that did not happen- hence he got the name! This is what he did and it was noteworthy. His baptism was like a metaphorical journey through the Red Sea and Jordan for those who wanted to sign up for God (and remember in Hebrew Joshua and Jesus are basically the same name!). And John went on to quote from Isaiah that he was come to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

St John says that John the Baptist “came as a witness to testify to the light”. The theme of witnessing is a key theme in the gospel – witnesses help build a legal case and St John makes the case for Jesus through various witnesses leading to the culmination that people will “believe and know that Jesus is the Messiah and that through believing  we may have life in his name”.

And the challenge to us as we think about this extraordinary man who pointed people to Jesus is whether our lives and our words point others to Jesus (or not). And not just in some vague general way, but in the actual context of our world today in all its confusion, in its structural inequality and the hurts and divisions that people face. John spoke of Jesus, pointed people to Jesus, and challenged Herod in his wrong-doing.

This Christmas we can let the various tinkly sparkly lights give us a warm and happy feeling, though probably this year we will feel so much is missing, or we can also gently, warmly, in word and action, point people to the true Light.

The wilderness of Isaiah was the desert, the empty spaces in the semi-desert; the wilderness in our world is often in the towns, in the busiest places, where the poorest and marginal live, in the homes where people are alone and lonely and sad, in the uncertainty and confusion of the current situation. We are called to be those who, in the wilderness places, speak of God, and help others find God. We are called to learn from John and – like John – testify to the light, and help others discover God’s love in Jesus- the light that shines in darkness and which the darkness cannot overcome.

Born to set your people free

Rev’d Peter Reiss: 13th Dec 2020