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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon, Dean of the Chapel, preaching on a summer Sunday
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12/12/1999 - Hoping for Christmas

Dean William Willimon

John 1:6-8, 19-28

I can’t stand it when people ask that favorite pre-Christmas question, usually addressed to some child, “What are you getting for Christmas?” Or, if we are more polite we say to the child, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” Such a question plays right into the hands of the commercialism and materialism that mars the Christmas season. As Christians, we know that Christmas is more than greed or gifts. Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child, that one to whom “The hopes and fears of all the years are met,” as we sing in our Christmas carol.

And yet one could learn a great deal from the question, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” For if you know our hopes, you fairly well know us. If you want to know who a person really is, and plans to be, inquire into what that person is hoping for.

What are you hoping for?

I expect that is what most of us think religion is about, the fulfillment of our hopes. We hope to find peace in our anxious lives. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping that the music of the hymns, the words of scripture and preaching may fill us with a sense of peace.

We hope for thoughtful, reflective lives. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping for an interesting sermon, something that will help us to use our minds, something that will test our intellects, make us think about things in a way we haven’t thought before.

Or maybe we hope for beauty. There is much ugliness in this world. Sunday therefore becomes a haven, an island of beauty amid a great deal of unloveliness.

What are you hoping for? Church is where we get our hopes met, where our yearning is fulfilled. I dare say that is the major reason why people keep coming to church. Though their hopes are often disappointed by what we do here on Sunday morning, there are enough Sundays where you are able to emerge from the service saying, “Why, that service really did something for me.” What you are saying is that that service fulfilled some of your expectations for what “good” worship ought to be. Your hopes were met.

And surely all of that is as it should be. So maybe I ought to prepare my sermon, perhaps we ought to plan any service of worship by first conducting a poll, by meeting you at the door with a questionnaire, by asking you, “What is your hope for this service?” That seems to be the major point of religion — that our hopes are fulfilled.

The trouble is that the Gospels seem to engage in a continual debate with people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus came, light into our darkness. But the problem with Jesus was he was not the sort of light that we expected. That is where the trouble started. Jesus was the hope of the world. But he was not the hope for which the world was hoping!

And thus the church in its wisdom confronts us with John the Baptist here on this Sunday in Advent. We are here, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, hoping for Christmas. But here comes John the Baptist, a rather strange figure, an odd preacher, who doesn’t really match up with anybody’s hope. And what does that tell us?

We are not, on this Sunday, just meeting John the Baptist. We are meeting John the Baptist as he is presented in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel paints a peculiar picture of John the Baptist. Unlike some of the other Gospels (And John the Baptist appears in all the Gospels) the Fourth Gospel cares nothing for how John was dressed. Luke says that John had a very peculiar diet and lived out in the wilderness. John tells us nothing of this. Luke also says that John called people to repent of their sins, to set their lives right. When people asked John what they ought to do, John told them to straighten up and live right.

But not in the Gospel of John. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is not even called John the Baptist. Instead, he is called a “witness,” a witness to the light.

John the Baptist may be the church’s way of saying that, whatever we happen to be hoping for, as we are hoping for Christmas, what we actually get, in the arrival of Jesus, is at some distance from that for which we were hoping.

At this time of year, one the aspects of our pre-Christmas celebration is the stringing of lights all over town. We string lights in trees, up lamp-poles, down town, over our streets, framing our windows, twirling around our trees. But you can hear John telling us that when he speaks of the light that is coming into the world, the true light that is lighting our darkness, it is a very different light from the light which is an expected part of our Christmas Spirit.

When John began preaching, he did not stand on a city street corner and preach to people. He went out into the wilderness. He called people out into the desert.

There, according to today’s Gospel, the religious establishment of Jerusalem, the University Department of Religion, came out to examine John. Frankly, they didn’t know what to make of him. These religious experts shined a bright flashlight into the face of John and demanded, “Who are you?” He certainly did not act, or dress, or eat like anyone religious whom they had encountered before. “Who are you?” (verse 19) They demand. What is your denomination? Are you Calvinist? Pre-Millinarian, Armenian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian? Are you high church or low?

Interestingly, John answers them, by not really saying who he is, but by telling him whom he is not. “I am not the Messiah” (verse 20). John’s popular answer is curious because that isn’t what his questioners asked him.

His interrogators regroup and ask, “What then? Are you Elijah?”

“No I am not.”

“Are you a new prophet?”

“No. I am not.” (verse 21). They want to put him in some pigeonhole. They are determined to place John within their pre-conception of what religion ought to be and how a religious person ought to act. Furthermore, they want to place John within the context of their conventional expectation. They want to see John as either fitting into, or greatly disappointing, their hopes for the future of Israel.

But no matter what they suggest, John says, “No.”:

Some of them were hoping that he might be the great Prophet Elijah, come back from the dead. When Elijah was on the earth, God showed great power to do good through Elijah. Others hoped that while he might not be a prophet so great as Elijah, he might be one of the Minor Prophets. Maybe somebody like Micah or Obadiah. These people didn’t do all that many powerful works, but they certainly had powerful words. And who needed powerful works and words more than Israel? An occupied people, with the heel of Rome on their necks? What hope had they other than for some sort of divine deliverance?

“Who are you?” They attempt again.

“Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (verse 22).

John refuses to say anything concerning himself. He is Dr. No. We’re given no details, nothing about his dress, nothing about his message, other than his message as one of negation. John says No.

The only positive thing John says about himself is that “I am the voice.” That is all that he calls himself. I am the voice of one crying out of the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ (verse 23). I am God’s megaphone. I am the smell of the coffee that wakes you up in the morning; I am that dern alarm clock that so shatters your sleep. I am that annoying voice that you can’t get away from no matter how far away you move your table in the restaurant.

Furthermore, I am the voice that has only one thing to say, “the Light is coming.” John did not say of Jesus, he is the one who is coming to take away your sins, to preach righteousness, to tell you what you ought to do.” Jesus would do some of that. But right now, he calls Jesus “Mr. Light.”

If we do not know what to make of somebody who says that he is nothing but a voice, what do we make of someone who is nothing but light? Light. It is so difficult to define, to limit, to keep out. In the mornings about this time of year, when all the leaves are off the trees in our yards, the light comes streaming in at too early an hour. We pull our curtains as closed as we can, but still, there is light, streaming in to the bedroom, and at the most inopportune time.

John said he is not the light. He is a witness to the light. He is someone who receives the light, someone who points to the light, but isn’t the light.

To those religious experts, who wanted to define, and classify, and characterize and pigeonhole and know, John simply says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (verse 26).

Out in the wilderness, at some distance from Western civilization, and the places of power, the city with its walls and boundaries, John tells them, tells us, that we do not understand, we do not define, do not know the light that is coming into our darkness. All he has to say is to negate our present definitions and expectations. At this point, we are given no substance, no defining content. Rather we are told that our hopes are not necessarily going to be fulfilled by as we expected by the one who comes among us. Our expectations may not be met. The light dawns upon us.

John does not tell his questioners that he does not know who the light is. He tells us simply that we do not know the light.

For now, they are not to define, or to characterize. They are simply to do what the human being naturally does when light streams into our darkness. We are to open our eyes to the light. We are to allow our eyes to become adjusted to the light that dawns among us.

It’s enough to make each of us ask, “What am I hoping for this Christmas?” It is an important question, because like some of those people that questioned John, we are apt to miss something so fragile and miraculous as Mr. Light if we are too full of our explanations and definitions and expectations.

What are you hoping for today? If you are like many people around here, maybe you are not sure. What brought you to church this morning, this Third Sunday of Advent? Maybe you didn’t even know it was the Third Sunday of Advent. You may have been called here by some strange, indefinable pull, some tug on your heart, that you would find difficult to describe. And maybe John is saying that’s alright. An open heart may be better than one that is filled with definitions and preconceptions and preconditions.

Later, in this Gospel, Jesus makes many statements, “I am….” and then “I am….” I am the light, and the vine. I am bread. I am the way, the truth, the light.

But right now, here at the beginning, before we meet Jesus, John simply introduces him as light. John says, “I am not the light. I am only a witness to the light.

At times you may have heard me say that I am bothered by some of the spiritual renaissance that is going on in our country. There seems to be a great resurgence of interest in something called spirituality.” Most of this strikes me as rather thin stuff, a kind of free-floating, vague openness to something or someone who is infinite, spiritual. “Spirituality” becomes simply a great basket into which we toss all of our expectations and desires, calling that “Spirit.”

But this Sunday, listening to the denials of John, I am wondering if maybe this is not a bad place to begin. Later, during the course of the church’s year, there will be occasions for us to find out more about Jesus. There will be opportunity for us to give more substance to the shining of the light. But this Sunday, let us attempt simply to lay aside our hopes and expectations, and let the light dawn upon us. Let’s allow the light to enter into our darkness. Let’s simply admit that we are in the dark, that there is much that we don’t know.

One of Jesus’ great problems, when his ministry got going, after this encounter between the authorities and John, was people who thought they knew exactly how the Messiah was supposed to act, how a Messiah was supposed to look. The people decided that what they needed was a good (general to raise an army and run out the Romans. And when Jesus didn’t do that, they rejected him. They decided that they needed someone who spoke cool, soothing words of conventionality. And when Jesus didn’t do that, we turned against him with murderous intensity.

Thus, John says that sometimes Jesus will be known, by knowing that which he is not before me knew that which he is. Therefore we must be receptive for surprise, and wonder, and the shock of a God who is not the God we thought we knew.

That is the light coming into our darkness. Today I stand among you as witness to that light, the light coming into the world, the light that the darkness of the world has, over a couple of thousand years later, thank God, not overcome. In him was light, and the light was the light of all. Amen.

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