John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,” (Jn 1.26)
Preached at All Saints, King City, ON, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on December 13, 2020, the Third Sunday of Advent.
Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28
My first parish included a few of those legendary bachelor farmers that Garrison Keillor loved to write about. These men were soft spoken and gentle, in their eighties and still hard-muscled and lean from lifetimes of work. I wasn’t expecting one of them to turn into John the Baptist.
One Sunday in summertime, Bill wasn’t in church, which was unheard of, so his nephew drove to his farm and noticed uncle Bill’s truck by the woodlot out back. There he found his uncle, lying on the ground, barely alive. The Friday before, Bill had taken his ladder and his chainsaw to go limb some trees. Of course, the ladder slipped and thankfully, he and the chainsaw went their separate ways as they fell quite a distance.
Bill broke his hip and some ribs in the fall, and lay on the ground for three days. A few times it showered, which saved him from dehydration. Sunday afternoon his nephew called me and I met them at the hospital. Bill was well medicated by then and dreamily spoke of seeing guardian angels in the sky above him. His nephew looked at my sideways. “Those were buzzards”.
Uncle Bill fully recovered, and the taciturn farmer was transformed into a loud and enthusiastic evangelist. Bill had prayed constantly lying in that wood, and he firmly believed that Jesus had saved him. Bill’s story became his testimony, and he testified in churches, in the community, and in his family. After a while, many hoped that he would settle down and lose his enthusiasm. Why was that?
In many churches, especially African-American ones, giving testimony is a common part of worship. As Prof. Courtney Buggs writes, in these churches, “congregants can’t keep it to themselves just how good God has been”. I saw the same thing with the young Christians I taught in Ethiopia earlier this year. They would joyfully speak, sing, and clap, saying how good and powerful Jesus is, and how much they loved him. They believed that Jesus was the most powerful, most wonderful thing in they lives, and they weren’t afraid to say so. These are Christians who fully identify with John the Baptist.
We think of John as “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”, but he should really be thought of as “John the Witness”. His job in the gospels to tell people about Jesus, the Messiah, the one promised by prophets like Isaiah. In today’s gospel reading, John denies being anything but a witness, a herald, the voice crying in the wilderness. Hence the tradition in medieval and Renaissance art of depicting John as literally pointing to Jesus, as in the famous Eisenheim altarpiece. The theologian Karl Barth kept a reproduction of this work on his desk, and said that John and the church shared the same role – both exist only to point to Jesus and see “he is the one, the Saviour”.
Why were my parishioners reluctant to witness to Jesus like Bill? Why did they seem to find it awkward to listen to his testimony and why didn’t they want to share their own stories? As I think about it years later, I think there was also another reason for their discomfort. I think they were held back by a lack of confidence in the idea of God being active among us. Did God answer Bill’s prayer? Did Jesus save Bill in that wood, or was that going too far? After all, there were other non-religious explanations – an atheist might well say that Bill survived because he had a strong constitution for an older man, he was lucky it rained, and lucky that his nephew arrived in the nick of time.
As Christians in the 21st century, Anglicans who value reason and critical thinking, we kind of straddle a fence between faith and science. We may well be more comfortable speaking about coincidence than providence. We may be reluctant to say that God answers prayer because how can you find evidence for that claim? We may be reluctant to be thought of as credulous or superstitious in a society that prizes education and rationality. We’re reluctant to say that Jesus saves people, because our age is pretty secular and we don’t want to sound too crazy and whacky Christian. It might seem nervy to say “God saved Uncle Bill” without being able to prove it.
In C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles, he writes that that there are two ways of seeing the world, which he calls Naturalism and Supernaturalism. Naturalists see the world as a closed system, where every action and every thought can be explained as a process using disciplines such as physics, chemistry, or biology. If we accept that Naturalism is everything, then as Lewis says, there are no doors into this world because none are needed. There is no reason for the Supernatural, in our case God, to get in and nothing for God to do even should God exist (and naturalists would say God doesn’t exist).
To believe in miracles is to believe that there are doors into the natural world, that there is a transcendent or supernatural reality that can get into our natural world and work there. I actually believe that many do believe this, which is why we have a category of persons who are “spiritual but not religious”. I see lots of people on social media who say things like “I’m having a rough time, please send kind thoughts and good vibes”. What do they believe when they say things like this? How is this different from Uncle Bill lying broken on the ground? The only difference, it seems to me, is that Bill knew who he was praying to.
John the Baptist tells the Pharisees that “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (Jn 1.26). The same is true today. We live in an age when many people are dissatisfied, even despairing, of a world that is just mechanical process or even worse, just meaningless chaos. They want something more, they want hope and meaningful life, but can’t see or can’t make the connection with Jesus. The church’s job as always is to point to Jesus and say “He is the one, the Messiah, who brings life and light and hope and meaning”.
Last Friday night, a bunch of parishioners and a few neighbours stood outside the church and sang carols through our masks. We didn’t sing well, it wasn’t pretty, but we were there as a witness. We weren’t just trying to keep some old carols alive, though it was fun to sing them, fun to sing anything together. In fact we were witnessing, we were pointing with our bodes and our voices to the Messiah who comes.
Witness is not just about miracles or answered prayers. I’ve seen Christians with terminal illnesses witness about God’s love and faithfulness. Witness for them was a kind of steady and visible faith that God was with them, that Jesus loved them, and that they would get to a good place on Jesus’ love and care. In the Christmas season our witness is of the presence of God, Emmanuel, God with us.
Christmas to be sure is also about miracle. We are two weeks from Christmas Eve, the time when the doors between world open, when Jesus comes, when the Word of God takes flesh and lives in the world. Jesus comes, as he always does, to save us, just as he saved Uncle Bill in that wood. My prayer and hope for All Saints is that, like Bill, we never lose our faith and hope in miracles, for what greater miracle is there but the coming into the world of the God who loves and save us? May we witnesses to this God of Christmas and God of miracle.