John 1:6-8, 19-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he 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?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 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.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
The phrase -- “there’s light at the end of the tunnel” – would seem self-explanatory. If you’ve traveled through an especially long tunnel, when you see a point of light on the horizon, you know that soon you will be returning to a land where light is present. For many of us, that phrase is a word of hope, though Barbara Brown Taylor has recently reminded us that all this talk about light shining in the darkness can be discouraging to those whose spirituality is more in tune with the light of the moon than the light of the sun [Learning to Walk in the Dark]. The Gospel of John is written by an early Christian who valued light, and who understood Jesus to be the light shining in the darkness. The Gospel writer suggests that the people of Israel were looking for light. They wondered about John – was he the prophet or the Messiah? Was he the light they were looking for? But John said no, he wasn’t the light. Instead, he was called upon to testify to the light that was coming into the world.
Light shining in the darkness is a constant theme present during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, that is not surprising. This is the season in which the days grow short and the nights grow longer. We long for the light to return. We look forward to the time in which we can enjoy the warmth of the sun shining on us early in the morning or as the evening wears on. Those Christians living in the Southern Hemisphere might see things differently, but the metaphor is a good one, for it speaks of our longing for the coming of the one who will reveal the fullness of God’s glory to all creation.
During this Advent season we light candles to mark the time of preparation. First we light the candle of hope, then peace, joy, and finally love. These are the qualities that we deem important to us, they are the qualities that we expect to be revealed in the Christ child. Yes, on Christmas Eve, when we finally light the Christ candle, we will see the light of Christ shining into our lives, pointing the way to the realm of God.
John comes to testify to the Light. The verses we read interrupt and then follow the hymn sung about the Word made Flesh. In the prologue to John’s Gospel we hear the news that the Word (Logos) that is God has been revealed and made flesh so that we might see the Glory of God’s only son (John 1:14). We’re not supposed to read these words at quite this stage, because we’re in Advent, and the way still needs to be prepared. The one who is preparing the way is the “one crying in the wilderness.” The Gospel writer reaches back to Isaiah 40 for the description of John the Baptist and his ministry. In that chapter of Isaiah, when the pathway is laid out and the valleys and mountains are made level, then “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). That light that shines into our darkness is the glory of the Lord that has been revealed in our midst.
Like John we are called to testify to the light. We’re not the light itself, but we are light bearers. As the children’s song reminds us – “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Or will I?
Mainline Protestants find it difficult to testify. We have had a tendency to adopt the principle that religion is meant to be kept private. After all, didn’t Jesus instruct his disciples to pray in the closet and not display their piety before the world? Of course, Jesus was concerned about empty forms of religiosity, where people offered expansive prayers designed to lead others to believe there were especially pious. Jesus had little use for such piety. But I doubt he expected people to keep quiet about their faith. After all, if you’ve experienced a life altering encounter with the Living God, wouldn’t you want to share the news? After all, we love sharing about our lives – about our children, our spouses, our homes, our vacations, our favorite sports teams. What about God? Why do we put our light under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15)?