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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

John the Witness 12/16/2017

Well here we are this week with a repeat, it would seem, of the same part of Jesus' story we had last week. Last week, you may remember, we heard this from the Gospel of Mark: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

I am not sure, as is sometimes the case, what the creators of this lectionary we use were thinking when they put these two readings back-to-back. And I think one could feel impatient with their choice. I mean, think about it, it's Advent – everything we do is pointing to this Christmas event, the birth of the Messiah. Why do we have to talk about John two weeks in a row? Can't we move on in the story, like we will do in Sunday worship this week when the the kids imagine themselves into the roles of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds and magi, power hungry kings and emperors.

But, no amount of complaining or second guessing is going to change this right now, so we're going to go with it, and I have to admit, I think it is fruitful to do so, even if I'm impatient with the pace of the story.

The reason I think it's fruitful is because it kind of forces us to look at what the differences are between the way John is portrayed in the gospels – differences I believe give us a nicely rounded picture of what this event of God Come Among Us means and how we are to prepare for the birth, how we are to react to it.

So in Mark last week, John serves as a messenger, the forerunner who urges us to repent, be baptized and let the others know. This is why the kids made the little trumpets in Sunday School last week, with banners hanging from them that said “Here Comes Jesus!”

Similarly, Matthew calls us to follow the lead of this messenger and be baptized and cleansed in our repentance. And in Luke, John is not even referred to as the baptizer, but rather the son of Zechariah. This John connects us with our ancestry as children of Abraham and calls us to act differently than others in our Jesus-following ways … to share a coat with someone who is cold and food with another who is hungry. To be fair and just in our jobs and vocations, and to be satisfied with the gifts God has bestowed and not take things from others by force or coercion.

So you can see how the gospel writers use this person we almost always call John the Baptist to show us different aspects of what makes us different as Christian people.

Which brings us to the logical question, I think. What is it that John in our reading from the Gospel of John today can teach us that is so different from the others? It must be pretty good and worthwhile – placed, as it is, right after a similar story about the same person, in the same place, doing basically the same thing.

This John we have today is sometimes called John the Witness. Listen again: “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.” (John 1:6-7)

Those are the primary themes of the Gospel of John – to be a witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and to do that so that others may come to believe too.

I think this John the Witness reminds us of  an essential part of our Christian identities … our roles as witness to what we profess is true about Jesus and what God is up to in Jesus. And I also believe we really need to hear from this John the Witness because being a witness is a role we too often shy away from in this very noisy world of ours with all its other gods and idols.

This identity as a witness is what has followed me all week. I already talked about it on Wednesday night at Holden Evening Prayer, for instance, in a reflection I did on Psalm 126, which we read today. The Psalm is a song of the witness and it tells of joy that rises up out of the most impossible situations … it's surprising and it's always Good News … it is a witness of courage that rises up out of the terrible, unjust situation of exile the Psalmist was addressing, and it may make us think of our own forms of exile – illness, loneliness, worry, grief, hunger, uncertainty, confusion. It is also a witness of joy that rises up as trust that there will be peace, happiness and contentment again – even if we cannot always seem to make it out on the horizon, even when we doubt it.

I looked for evidence of this kind of witness in other places too.

I heard it at a funeral in a condolence letter written by one of our Tanzanian friends for Pastor Marcia Solberg from Negaunee, who died last week. The letter writer said he was very sad about her death and all the things he will miss now that she is gone. And we certainly can relate to that sadness, that sense of loss.

But he also talked about and witnessed to the joy he felt knowing that she was now resting whole in God's home … no more illness, no more pain or suffering and no worries that any sin or brokenness she experienced in life would keep her out of God's home when that last day came, as it will for all of us.

And I heard it in a song. I've been practicing this song since this summer, and I wasn't sure when I would share it. It seems appropriate tonight though, as we consider our John the Witness … as we prepare our hearts and homes for the coming of the Christ Child … as we consider how the light of Christ shines through us despite the often much more noticeable commercial version of Christmas that takes place along with this most holy of Christian feast times.

The song is called the Wexford Carol. It is a song I'd heard before, but didn't really know very well. And it has occurred to me this week, that is a song of the Christian witness.

The lyrics call all us “good people” during this Christmas-time and always to really think about what our good God has done for us in sending Jesus. To consider how that gift changes us and the way we view the world. To live by a different truth and power that so many don't know about and hunger for. To be a witness by letting the light of the coming Christ shine through us so that others may also come to believe.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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