The gospel lesson for Advent 3B from John 1 shows us another side of John the Baptist. Here, John is a witness who points to Jesus the Light. The church is called to point people to Jesus. But do we have to “wow” them in order to do that? And if we think we have to “wow” the people we’re trying to reach, to whom are we really pointing?
John the Witness
A Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-34, 3:22-30, with Allusions to Isaiah 40:1-11
John the Baptist attracted attention. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe John’s distinctive appearance, unusual diet, and fiery preaching style, and no doubt that was part of what drew attention. People came from miles around and lined up to see him and be baptized. But John also had a following and disciples of his own. He didn’t just have spectators. If John were in ministry today, he could have a successful organization all his own. It might even have an interesting name, such as Wild Honey Ministries. People might line up to buy John’s books and DVDs as well as to be baptized by him. He would get lots of hits on his website. John the Baptist attracted attention.
The Gospel of John reports that the religious authorities took note of this and sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to investigate. They wanted to know more. Who was John? What was this all about?
John was quick to say in a number of ways, “This is not about me!” He immediately and decisively pointed the questioners’ attention elsewhere—namely, to Jesus. “It’s all about him,” John declared.
Before John even walks on the stage in today’s gospel reading, the gospel writer is calling him a witness, one who points to the light. “No, I’m not the Messiah,” John declared. “I’m not Elijah, and I’m not the prophet. No, this isn’t about me.
“I’m a voice, pointing to the one who is on his way. I’m the voice of one crying out in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah said. This is about the one coming after me. I’m not even worthy to unbuckle his sandals.”
John quoted Isaiah 40 because he does the same thing that the voice in Isaiah 40 does. The message is the same: behold your God! Those words of Isaiah were first addressed to God’s people in exile, in Babylon, who thought God was finished with them, who thought all hope was gone. God said: I need a witness. I need a voice. I need somebody to tell the people that I am on the way. I need somebody to be the voice of glad tidings. Tell the people: Be on the lookout for your God! God is on the way to make a new life for you. And God proceeded to do just that.
“I’m the voice,” John declared. “I’m not the message. I’m the voice. Here comes the message. Here comes the Lamb! Here comes the Son of God. I’m baptizing so people can see him.”
John pointed his own disciples to Jesus. “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Here’s the one I was talking about when I said ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me,” John announced, and then those disciples started following Jesus. There was no jealousy there. No competition between Jesus and John. John was okay with his disciples leaving to follow Jesus. That was well and good, because it wasn’t about John. It was all about Jesus.
Two chapters later when the issue came up again, John said, “It’s good that people are going to Jesus. He is the bridegroom. I’m just the groom’s friend. It’s not about me. It’s about him. He must increase, and I must decrease.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message: “This is the moment for him to move to the center while I slip off to the sidelines.”
In the early 1500s an artist named Matthias Grünewald captured this idea visually in a work known as the Isenheim Altarpiece. Its central image contains a crucifixion scene, and off to the side there stands John the Baptist. The artist shows him holding the open book of the scriptures in his left hand, and his right hand, which is unusually large, is pointing to Jesus. And above John’s arm are the words, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The meaning is clear: it’s all about Jesus. John the Witness points everybody to Jesus.
The season of Advent is about getting ready to receive Jesus. Most of the time we talk about preparing the way of the Lord inwardly, opening a road into our hearts, and one way we do that is to heed John the Baptist’s call to repent. Yes, that is important.
But in today’s scripture, the focus is not inward. John isn’t pointing to what’s going on in our hearts. He is pointing straight at Jesus. The focus is outward. Preparing the way of the Lord here means clearing the way so others can see Jesus. John the Baptist is calling us to join him in being witnesses, people who point the way to Jesus.
The Advent question we’re focusing on today is not how can we get our own hearts ready, but how can we be the voice the calls attention to Jesus, and the hand that points the way to Jesus, and the people who clear a path so that others can see Jesus heading this way.
The One who loves us and the One who loves them more than any words can say is on the way. How do we call people’s attention to him? The call to be his witnesses is a year around call. But what we’ve seen happening around us lately shows the need in a fresh and urgent way. The pain and darkness are ever real as Christmas approaches again, and here folks are fighting over the items on sale in store, even using pepper spray on each other in order to get what they want. A voice needs to cry out, “No, that’s not the way! No, don’t look over there. Don’t go that way. Look here! Behold the Lamb of God!”
How can we help people see Jesus? Often the question congregations pose is “How can we attract more people to church, and in particular, to our church?”
Churches are urgently asking that question. I’ve noticed that one of the most frequently viewed posts on my website is one called “Getting Young People in Church,” and it contains links to some articles on that subject. Happy to get any new people in church, most churches are asking, “How can we get people of any age into church?” Thoughts about the church’s future aren’t far from their minds.
But then the question tends to morph into another question, “How do we make ourselves attractive? What do we need to do to attract attention?” Then the church starts feeling pressure to show the world how dynamic and exciting our worship is and how interesting our programs are and what a great experience people would have if they joined us. If you look at church websites and brochures, you often see words like dynamic, exciting, growing. In the background there’s a a feeling of competition. The church is in competition with lots of other things that people could be doing with their time. And congregations sometimes feel that they are in competition with each other, especially in a community like ours with so many, many churches.
Sometimes congregations do gimmicky things to try to get attention. One of the first examples of this that I remember seeing as a kid was when a church a few miles over from us advertised a big all-day event, and one of the main attractions was going to be the world’s longest submarine sandwich. Come and see and eat this sandwich! Another that stands out in my mind is the time a church in Rocky Mount offered chances to win money if people visited. Come to worship and maybe win some extra cash! It’s easy to dismiss gimmicky things like that—no, we wouldn’t do something like that.
But it’s not so easy to dismiss voices that promise that your church will be attractive and draw people’s attention, and get bigger if you do x, y, and z. You need to clothe yourself in a particular style if you want to attract people. Sometimes, for example, it is said that a praise band is a must and projecting words for singing on a screen is a must.
But whatever the congregation’s style, there’s a deeper question: where is the focus? Who and what is all this pointing to? Who are we promoting? Even if we do have a good church—and I certainly think we do—it’s not about getting across how great the church is, but getting across how great God is. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. Come and see Jesus! The message is not, “behold how exciting life in the church is” even if it is exciting and fun at times and we love it. The message is, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Come and see Jesus! He must increase and we must decrease!
Yes, there is pressure to get trendy, to try to do what seems popular in order to be more attractive. But interestingly enough, I have read article after article that calls into question this idea that a congregation can only attract new people if it adopts a particular style. These articles stress that it’s not trendiness and hip-ness that draws people to Jesus. It’s honest, down to earth, ordinary people who know and love and serve Jesus, who in their own humble, authentic, way point to him. They don’t try to be somebody they’re not. They just live out this simple message: Jesus loves us, and he loves you, too, and he always will. He gave himself for us all. No putting on of airs needed. Souls of all ages are longing for worship that points them to the living Lord Jesus. Souls of all ages are longing for a community that truly loves them, cherishes them, cherishes what they have to say and what they have to give.
Younger people are speaking up and asking for this. Sure different people enjoy different styles of worship and music. But people want and need something deeper. One particularly powerful article that I read, written by a young adult put it this way, “Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, be proud of it! (See Tamie Fields Harkins, http://www.azdiocese.org/dfc/newsdetail_2/1039.) To put that another way, if you are a congregation of quiet people, just be yourself.
“Don’t shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music,” this young writer adds. “By ‘extraordinary music’ I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music.” And she points to organ music and more: Hymns. Chants. Guitar. Bluegrass. Gospel. The church has all kinds of amazing music to draw from.
I think she’s right. We don’t have to wow people. We’re not called to wow people. Our call is to point to Jesus Christ. Our call is to help them see him.
That same young author has good suggestions for doing that, including this one: “Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go and be with them.” And I would add two things: Take young people along. Take people of all ages along and work together to show people that the Lord who loves them is on his way to them.
We call attention to Jesus. He is the way we declare with hearts and hands as well as voices. Love is this way—and it’s Jesus. Look! He is love! Healing is this way—and it’s Jesus. Meaning is this way—and it’s Jesus. Purpose is this way—and it’s Jesus. Peace is this way—and it’s Jesus. Abundant and eternal life is this way—and it’s Jesus.
Come and see.
Come to Bethlehem and see.