December 11, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation….” The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent speaks of a light that will dispel darkness. But this is not the darkness from a lack of sunshine or a failure of the power grid. The darkness spoken of in the prayer is much worse. It is sinister. This darkness is the gloom and shadows that come from death. This darkness is the blindness that sin causes in humanity. This darkness is the curtain that hangs over the world that is frustrated and bound by evil.
But the Gospel Writer tells us of something that has happened to dispel this darkness. A light comes to shine in this world. And a witness has been appointed to make this known: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” This is what John the Baptizer came to do. He was present to bear witness about the light that the Lord was bringing to the darkened world. It was his divinely-appointed role. Even from before his birth, John’s identity had been set. His father, Zechariah, prophesied this at John’s birth: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
So John came bearing witness about this light from the Lord. While bearing witness about the light, John did not confuse his role with that of the Light-Bringer. You heard this from the statements that John gave when he was questioned by the religious leaders of Israel: “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’” When pressed by these leaders, John reveals his identity: “So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 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.’”
John points out that he is a herald, a messenger, a witness. He is present to bring testimony about what the Lord will do when His Christ appears. But he is not the one who accomplishes these actions. No, there is someone greater than he who will fulfill the divine promises. John simply is the one who fulfills the promise of being a messenger: “I baptize with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” The visitation of the Christ was beginning to take place. And John has revealed that the time is now.
John’s role is to bear witness. He is the one who points to Jesus. That is why he has been often depicted in Christian art as a figure with an outstretched arm and an elongated finger. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” But such a role as a witness is not unimportant. Those who suffer from the shadow of death, the blindness of sin, the oppression of Satan and evil must hear about the light that comes to them. They must be directed to the light that visits them from on high. This is stated so well by the Gospel Writer: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.” John’s work brings people to belief. The belief is in him as a witness. But more importantly, the belief is in subject of his testimony—the Promised Christ.
John’s work points people back to what the Lord had promised would occur. You heard one of the great promises about the Christ in the Old Testament Reading for this morning. Hear what was said about the Anointed One, the Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
The Lord’s promise is lengthy. It seems to go on and on and on. But it is so because of the darkness that has befallen upon His creation and His people. He promises that His Christ will dispel this darkness, that He will remove the shadow and gloom. So the Lord speaks of all the different aspects of it: poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. All of these are the results of the darkness that sin has brought. They are what you suffer from as victims of sin—whether it be the wrongful deeds done by other against you or the self-inflicted wounds that your own faults, imperfections, and transgressions have brought. The fullness of the darkness is dealt with by the even greater fullness of the Lord’s light. This is what the Anointed One, He who carries the Spirit of the Lord, the Christ brings. It is the work that the One who came after John accomplishes.
Blow by blow, the results of the Christ’s work are disclosed. The poor hear good news: Christ brings the riches of heaven to them. The brokenhearted are bound up: their wounds of sorrow are bandaged by the joy that Christ brings. The captive and imprisoned are given a declaration of liberty: the Christ sets them free from bondage. Those who suffer wrong have their scores settled: the Christ declares that they shall have the Lord’s favor and that the day of retribution against their enemies is coming. Mourners and grievers are comforted: the Christ removes their ashes and gives them a garment of praise and joy. This is all the Christ’s work, the effect of the light that comes into the world.
So John and others bear witness about the light that the Christ brings. The testimony is not about themselves, but about what He has done. The witness is given, so that all might believe in Christ through what they proclaim about Him. That witness is not just about the results of the Christ’s work, but what His work was. It includes the great message that all the benefits that the Christ brings to those in the darkness is due to His being both victim and conqueror of that same darkness. He has brought reversal of what all the negative things that you endure by Himself suffering through them. He restores the Lord’s order by experiencing the disorder and chaos of sin.
Think again of that list of the promised benefits that the Christ would bring: reversal of poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. This is what Christ experienced. He had no place to lay His head and was dependent on others to supply His earthly needs. Seeing the effects of physical illness and spiritual death, He had His own heartache. To set in motion the great act of atoning for sin, Christ was arrested and bound by the Temple Guard and Roman soldiers. Christ was a Man of sorrows, including His mourning over Lazarus’ death and Jerusalem’s failure to listen to Him. These are all His experiences in this world where His gracious visitation took place. And yet, they are what He reverses through His resurrection, through His perfect life of obedience, through His miraculous deeds, through His assaults on Satan and the demonic. “The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The results of Christ’s work are to be made yours. It is why there are people like John who bear witness about the light that Christ has brought into the world. That witness goes out to you, so that you may receive the benefits that Christ brings. So it was promised of old about the Christ’s work: “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring that the Lord has blessed…. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.” The prophecy speaks of you. You have an everlasting covenant made by the Lord. You are the offspring of the faithful whom the Lord has blessed. Righteousness and praise sprouts up from you, even in this world still plagued by darkness. This is what the Lord’s Christ has wrought in you.
Because you believe in the testimony of John and others, because you believe the promises that have been made by the Lord to you, you make the same statements as the psalmist did: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” You trust the results of what has been done for you by the Christ: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” These statements of faith are made, even as you still see darkness around you. They are made because you know of what awaits in the future that the Christ has secured for you.
This is why you pray the Third Collect of Advent: “Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation….” You wish to have the Christ’s visitation that He brings now: His words of forgiveness and comfort and salvation that are spoken to your souls. They bring what He has accomplished to deal with your poverty, brokenheartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning. And you look forward to what is yet to be: the visitation that comes with the Christ’s glorious return. Then you shall have the fullness of what He has done for you in the age when there will be no darkness, not even one bit of shadow of sin to hover over you.
Until that day, pray that Third Collect of Advent. Receive the testimony of John and others who bear witness of the Christ’s light. Trust in what the Lord’s Christ has done: His suffering the same as you do and His overcoming it. Anticipate the fulfillment of all His promises. The sinister darkness will come to an end. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.