By David Perril
Today’s gospel reading from the first chapter of John suggests two ways of approaching life and God’s presence in the world. One way is demonstrated by John the Baptist. The other way is demonstrated by the priests and Levites. In Matthews Gospel there is a parable about separating sheep from goats, and it occurs to me that today in John’s Gospel we have another separation of people into groups, because in this reading we are either witnesses or interrogators, people who persistently ask questions, but don’t accept the answers – until of course, they hear what they want to hear. Looking a little deeper at this reading John the Baptist was a witness who had been sent from God. The priests and Levites were sent by the religious authorities of their day to question John – They asked him “Who are you,” “ Are you the Messiah?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet?” “Why are you baptizing if you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet?” “What do you say about yourself?” repeatedly asking questions until they thought they would get the answer that they wanted to hear, maybe waiting for the answer that would incriminate him.
They didn’t know who John was, they didn’t understand what he was doing, they were in the dark & they were not really listening to what he said. Witnesses, however, are very different. When we understand something we often talk about having shed light on it, things become clear in the light don’t they, Witnesses can talk about light. They know about the light, and John was a witness, sent from God to testify to the light. And for sure John knew who he was and who he was not. He made no claim to be anything other than a witness – That’s what makes him credible. He spoke the truth but he was not the truth. He was illuminated by light but he was not the light. He was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness but he was not the Word of God. Everything about John the Baptist pointed to the light and the life of the one who both stands among us and the one who is yet to come. John was prepared to stake his life on that belief,
That’s how it is and that is how it should be with true witnesses. True witnesses live and die based on what they have seen, and on what they have heard and experienced. They have listened and heard, they have seen the light, and believed. There is an enormous difference between witnesses and those who persistently ask questions & repeatedly demand answers until they hear what they want to hear. Witnesses offer hope, and as the history of the world continues to unfold, more than ever it does need witnesses of hope. We do not need more answers or explanations or theories, there are enough people asking questions and supplying their own answers.
What we need is to hear the voice of John, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, saying ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s voice is the voice of hope, echoing through the wildernesses of our world and our lives. Of course, John’s voice was by no means the first voice of hope. Before John, Mary was proclaiming the greatness of the Lord. She spoke of the one who shows favour to the lowly, the one who offers mercy, and lends the strength of his arm. The one who fills the hungry with good things and comes to the help of his people. And before Mary, there was Isaiah. The Lord anointed Isaiah to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.
He spoke about God comforting those who mourn and rebuilding the ruins of their lives. They will be clothed in garments of salvation and wear robes of righteousness he said. John, Mary, Isaiah. Each one of them was a witness, a witness of hope. They looked at their lives and the world around them and they saw a much bigger picture, and they testified to a life and presence way beyond their own. They saw the light.
Within each of them was the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word that became flesh and dwells among us, the Word that enables us to become children of God (John 1). Everything that needs to be said, everything that needs to be heard, was spoken in that Word. That Word is our ultimate hope. I’m sure that we can all point to difficulties or tragedies in our lives – I don’t need to list them, but certainly times when we have felt a great distance between God and ourselves.
Times when we didn’t want to be interrogated, times when we didn’t need to hear those persistent questions – how, when, what, why. The Word of hope is what we needed to hear, because it is hope that gets us through those times. Hope doesn’t make life easy, but it does make life possible. It reminds us that it won’t always be like this. that there is light and life coming to us, and indeed It is already here among us. Those who persistently demand answers and expect evidence sometimes make it difficult for us to hear that other voice, the witness of hope. They compete for our attention, and often they have the loudest voice, but the voice of hope has never really been silenced it has always been there, and will always be there. John described himself as “ the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, and he used the words of Isaiah ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” The world is a wilderness, and we are a people of the wilderness, the question for us is can we become “the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness ?”Will we remain in the wilderness, asking more and more questions – or will we witness to the God of hope, will we testify to the light.
Witnessing is not always easy, Hope is not always easy. We need to work at it, As St Paul said in the Epistle reading for today, It means we rejoice always, we pray without ceasing, we give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). so that we can hear and become the voice of hope. Some people will always question what we do – why are you rejoicing, why are you praying, why are you giving thanks? what is your reason for doing those things? They will want answers, justifications, and reasons. As Witnesses we must look beyond the questions to the true hope that opens our eyes to see the one who is coming and prepares us to welcome into our hearts the one who is already among us. Hope is not just another feeling, it is a way of life, a way of seeing that allows us to know the Christ who is already here and not yet here.
Those with the strongest belief are those with strongest hope – those with the strongest hope are those with the strongest belief. Amen