Can God Get a Witness?

Gospel According to John 1:6-8, 19-28

December 17, 2017: Advent III

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA


There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but ki came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’* 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ Ki said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ Ki answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,* nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.


A reminder that in this season of Advent, the Parish of St. Paul is refraining from any third person singular pronouns and gendered references to God as an act of radical inclusivity. The third person singular pronoun that we are using this season is Ki, an indigenous word that indicates a life force rather than a gender.    

If we were to write a catchy slogan describing the four consecutive Sundays in Advent, the bumper sticker might say: Awake! Arise! Anoint! Announce! This Sunday is the third Sunday on the bumper sticker, the Anoint Sunday, as it were. Liturgically, it has been known as Gaudete Sunday. In Latin, Gaudete means “rejoice!” The liturgical color of this season of solemn reflection and penitence is purple or navy blue, but the candle that we lit today on our Advent wreath is rose colored. It’s a tradition that stems from the tradition of the ancient church. It is meant to punctuate this season of penitence and solemn self-reflection with a glimpse of the joy to come; an oasis; a moment of relief and rejoicing in the stretch of the darkness that is Advent. And so today our theme is hope.

Like every third Sunday in Advent, in every year of our lectionary cycle, we hear about John the Baptist. According to our readings, John is our ray of hope in the midst of this dark season. In year A we hear about Matthew’s John in prison, asking Jesus: Are you the one or should we wait for another? In year C we hear Luke’s John, admonishing the crowds and warning the brood of vipers that they must repent before the coming of God, for the ax is waiting at the root of every tree that does not bear good fruit. But this is Year B. And year B belongs to Mark. The one synoptic Gospel that has no birth narrative. Mark’s Gospel begins not with the coming of Jesus, as Matthew and Luke’s encounters with John foretell, but rather with the baptism of Jesus. When Mark’s Gospel begins, Jesus is already among us. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the One of God.

And so this year, because there is no story of Joseph and Mary to tell, we hear from John the Baptist, not once but twice.

Last week we heard Mark’s account of John. Mark’s account is short and sweet and presents John as the bridge between the Jewish tradition as it lives in the Older Testament and the New Creation as it lives in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament. Like the other synoptic Gospels, Mark legitimizes John as foretold in the Book of Isaiah:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,* who will prepare your way; 
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness….

 Mark’s John is identified not by the title, The Baptist, but by the descriptor, The Baptizer; it is who John is, not just what John does. But in that place and that time, baptizing was a rite that was normally done in or near the Temple, and by priests who were officially ordained by the religious establishment; just as it is done in this place and this time. And like today in most Christian churches, there were two primary reasons for baptism in the Jewish community of the first century of the common era: one was to purify those who had been defiled, made impure by some action that would have precluded them from entering the Temple. And second, baptism was a rite of initiation into the Jewish community for those who were not, at least yet, Jewish. Baptism was the third step of the process of initiation that followed an oral exam and circumcision. And so baptism was primarily the rite of the Jewish priests to prepare Jewish men for entrance into the Temple.

So John the baptizer, as ki is presented in all four Gospels, is something of a puzzlement; somewhat countercultural. First, John is not a priest. Second, the place where John is baptizing is nowhere near a Temple. And third, John is baptizing not for purity from impurity, but for forgiveness from sin. Now, that concept of forgiveness from sin is not unfamiliar in the Older Testament. It comes from Book of the prophet Jeremiah….in fact, it comes from the same chapter that introduces the concept of the New Covenant; the title that we use for Jesus. And so John may be foretold by the prophet Isaiah, but John’s message is straight out of Jeremiah. Chapter 31 verse 31:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…..[and] they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

A new covenant for the forgiveness of sin. Isaiah may have predicted John, but Jeremiah provided John’s material…at least in Mark’s Gospel.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, John is called the Baptizer, and ki is a sort of a holy being of the outback. Ki wears a hair shirt and a leather belt and eats locusts and honey. Very Crocodile Dundee. And ki baptizes all of the people of the Judean countryside, not just the men for entrance into the Temple. Everyone, it can be assumed, at least in my own hearing of this story, of every gender identification. And in Mark’s Gospel, John baptizes Jesus.

This story of John’s indiscriminate baptism of all manner of human life in the River Jordan would have been thought to be thoroughly outrageous in John’s day. The Gospel stories of John transform the traditional Jewish rite of baptism into…..something thoroughly unorthodox. And so from the very get go, with the very introduction of John the Baptizer, Mark tells us that this New Creation is going to turn the old creation and all of its norms upside down.

But in this week’s Gospel, we get a very different John. In today’s passage from the Gospel according to John the Evangelist, we meet John who is indeed baptizing, but that is not John’s main attraction. Because John’s John has a different role altogether. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John’s John does not appear from out of the wilderness, is not just a regular renegade prefacing the coming of Jesus. The Gospel reads:

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

In this Gospel, John is not just roaming around the countryside baptizing willy-nilly, as it were. This John is not from this place. This John is from God…. “one sent from God.” Not one sent as a bridge between the older tradition and the emerging tradition, as in Mark and Matthew and Luke. In John’s Gospel, this one is specifically and particularly sent straight from God. Not like Abraham or Sarah or Moses or even Mary …..not one who was called by God. Not called. Sent.

And the difference might seem slight, but called by God suggests that one is approached by God…maybe  while minding one’s own business with no awareness even of God’s presence….but when one is called one has not yet been formally recruited. One can still say no.

Sent, however, is another matter. Sent is what comes after we accept God’s call. It implies a much more intimate relationship with God and God’s mission; and much more accountability. Because we cannot be sent to do the work until we answer the call.  Once we accept the call, it’s on us. The difference between called and sent is the difference between going to God and coming from God; between responding to God and representing God. It is not an insignificant distinction. As Jesus came from God, so too did John. And so John, in John’s Gospel, is accorded the status of almost…an angel of the Lord. When we encounter John in this Gospel, we are encountering God’s own voice, God’s own mission. Almost, in my hearing, the equivalent of the angel Gabriel who spoke to Mary in Luke’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel John is fully human, and yet fully sent by God.

But sent by God is not the only difference in John the Evangelist’s account of John the Baptist. The second unique feature of John in this Gospel is that baptizer is not John’s identity, as it is in the three synoptic Gospels. In John’s Gospel, baptizing is just John’s vocation. Witness is John’s identity.

There was one sent from God, whose name was John. 7Ki came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through the witness…John was not the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

And so in this morning’s reading, the religious authorities press John for a statement of identity. Are you the one who is violating our terms and conditions? But John gives them almost nothing, except the assurance that ki is not the one they should fear. John does not identify Jesus; does not hand over Jesus as Judas will do at the end of our story. Instead, John taunts the priests and Levites from Jerusalem who object to John’s unorthodox ministry: if you think what I am doing is problematic, wait until you see the one standing among you, the one whom you do not know, whom you cannot yet identify. Because that one is going to rock the Casbah!

In this season when we discern and lift up words that matter, today’s theme is hope, and today’s word is witness. They go together. John who baptizes in all four Gospels, is, in John’s Gospel, the consummate witness and beacon of hope. Because my friends, let me tell you, there is little in this world that is more hopeful than a dedicated witness to the light.

A witness to the light is not by itself the antidote to the darkness. A witness is not the light. But without a witness the light has no path, no conduit, no exposure. And so a witness to the light is the most dangerous threat to the darkness. Witness, as in one who testifies. The truth cannot be known without a witness.  A witness is to the light as a word is to an idea. Revelatory. Like words, witnesses matter. So much so, that they can utterly change the world. A witness is evidence that there is hope.

You might have seen Friday’s article in the Washington Post[1] about the list of seven words that the Trump administration has forbidden the Center for Disease Control from using in documents they will submit for next year’s federal budget. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” Forbidden. Like George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words that were forbidden on television, when I was a kid. But the nation’s health and welfare is not a comedy act. And the CDC is not a nightclub. This, without trying to sound too melodramatic, is truly a life and death matter……for transgender teenagers, for Matthew Shepherd’s successors, for abortion doctors, for the most vulnerable (oh sorry, that word is forbidden!) the most marginalized among us, and absolutely, positively for the health and sustainability of the planet, our fragile island home. In fact, I can think of few more serious assaults to the light that leads us to inclusive justice love than this sort of authoritarian censorship.

The article goes on to say that “In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of ‘science-based’ or ­‘evidence-based,’ the suggested phrase is ‘CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes…’” What community are they referring to? Clearly and explicitly not the “transgender” community. And not any community of those who are “vulnerable” or dependent on any so-called “entitlements.” So the whims and wishes of “the community” (apparently a community of those who are not in any way connected to these seven politically deadly words) are to be factored into the official recommendations of the agency that is entrusted with the health of our republic. Talk about turning the world on it head….but so not for love.

And, according to the Washington Post, the Department of Health and Human Services has just removed all information about LGBTQ issues and Americans from its website.

Words matter.  And this news makes me know that our Advent practice of refraining from third person singular pronouns and gendered references to God could not be more important or better timed. This is our small witness to the light in this dark season of Advent. And our witness has never been needed more than it is at this dark moment in the life of our nation and our world. John the Baptist has arrived on the scene at just the right moment. Sent by God to serve as a witness to God’s light.

John’s Good News is that the darkness cannot overcome the light. But equally true is that the light cannot be known without a witness. The deepest hope of The Light is the courage of a witness.

So let us rest assured that we do not need to make the light, the light is already here. But it is our witness is to insist that it shine!




© December, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw



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