The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
Advent 3B, December 13, 2020
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
One of the interesting things about the fourth gospel is that John, the main character of the reading this morning, is not John the Baptist. It is the same person that some of the other gospels refer to as John the Baptist, but this gospel does not specifically have John baptizing Jesus. Instead, the fourth gospel highlights John’s role as a witness. So for the fourth gospel instead of John the Baptist commenters sometimes refer to him as John the Witness.
John came, so the text says, “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” John’s role as witness is so important in pointing to Jesus that when Jesus begins his ministry following our verse today, it is John that introduces him, that witnesses to him– before Jesus says or does anything! John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”
John’s own witness to Jesus is so powerful that his own disciples leave him and begin following Jesus. What a powerful witness to inspire others to be so willing to make such a big change.
As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, I am thinking about John’s witness and what it meant for our call to be witnesses. 2020 does not stand out to me as a year exceedingly full of hope. And yet, here is John, beckoning us to witness to the light. For most of this year most of us have been in isolation, yet John calls us to witness to the world around us to the transformative power of the gospel, a witness that leads to deep relationships.
What does it mean to witness to the light in the winter of 2020? Who exactly are we called to witness to when we are obediently staying at home? We call ourselves followers of Jesus– but these days it can seem hard to find Jesus much less point to him so that others may walk towards the light.
This week on Wednesday we will hold a Blue Christmas service. Blue Christmas services are sometimes held in churches to create spaces for those who will not have joy at Christmas because of loss or grief associated with the holiday, losses that mean the day brings back painful memories. This year many of us will not be able to participate in family gatherings, or customary celebrations in the cathedral, or bad sweater contests, or other times with friends and family that may make the season bright in other years. The Blue Christmas service we will use this year is a broad service; it is a service created by Episcopal Migration Ministries and marks many of the groans of humanity during this season. We will remember many people, from those seeking political asylum cast adrift during a time of pandemic, to frontline healthcare workers, to those who have lost jobs or family members, to so many others for whom this is not a season full of joy.
Today’s Psalm makes room for that lament and loss as well. The Psalmist speaks for a people who have experienced death and destruction. Communities and families have been divided, isolated. The present mars the future of Israel with uncertainty and fear.
But the Psalmist also offers a witness: the author recalls that Israel has been in this dark place before, and God did not forget them. The first half of the Psalm looks back and remembers how they have been through this before, and God has brought them through. They remember that in another time of darkness, God did not fail them. And coming out of it was like a dream: “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we were like those who dream.”
It is by remembering the dream of God come to life in prior times that Israel held to hope and was able to look forward again, to believe in a future beyond the darkness, to see that the light would still shine and pierce through the haze before them. They kept the dream of God alive.
The dream of God shaped their hope that the arid waste of the desert would be turned into flowing water, and that the seeds planted with tears would be reaped with songs of joy– that the darkness would not overcome.
Isaiah also gives voice to the dream of God and looks to the time when the brokenhearted will be made whole, when captives will be made free, and when those who mourn will be comforted.
What will our witness be, St. Paul’s? Because God has a dream for every person in every place, in every time. How will we remember the dream of God for each person in each place in this world?
How will we give voice to the dream of God, a dream that ends disease and provides healing, that breaks down walls of isolation and unites peoples in laughter and love, that comforts the afflicted and those who struggle with loss, depression, and anxiety in a world full of fear? What is the witness you have of that special dream of rest and nurture, in green pastures of safety, a word to a world that is hurting and scared?
How will you remember the dream of God for those affected by division and hatred, from racism and intolerance, the dream of God for each child of God, a God that respects the dignity of every person? How will you witness that God has a dream, O such a dream – for every single beloved person on this earth: and it is a good dream, where every one of us is beloved and belongs, a full and equal part of this human family?
How will you remember the dream of God for this earth, our fragile island home, the dream of a bountiful garden unblemished by carbon and cared for by its human tenders, a witness of stewardship and balance and beauty?
Can you hear the dream of God, oh people of God? Make straight the paths, and witness to the one who is yet to come. Follow as John the Witness leads us and do not let this hurting world forget. Testify to the light: the light that shines in the darkness, and help the world remember that the darkness shall not overcome it.
Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.