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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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3rd Sunday of Advent

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Witness to Light

The importance of one small light

What is the most important light in your house? If you have a cathedral entryway, you might nominate that expensive chandelier that hangs from the ceiling. It lights up the entrance of your home to welcome guests and offers a bit of security against unwelcome prowlers. Others might argue that the light over the dining home table serves a more important function. Its tone and brightness highlights both the food and the conversation for the evening meal. If you are a handyman or seamstress, you might argue that a person could eat in the dark but a person would be foolish to sew a dress or cut wood without a well-lit work area. While each of those lights serves a rather useful purpose, for me, the most important light in our house is the small light in the bathroom that enables me to avoid stumbling in the dark when I get up in the middle of the night. Regardless of which light we would select as the most important, the question serves to illustrate the importance of light, without it we would simply be in the dark.

The symbol of light is a powerful image in the Scripture. The creation of light is the first act of God. The story of Genesis tells us that God's first words were, “Let there be light.” The implication is clear, light is more than the radiant glow of a celestial body. It existed before the sun. However, light is not the essence of God; it does not exist independently of God. Light is the creative act of God. Throughout the OT, light is associated exclusively with God. In the book of Daniel we read:

22He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him. (Daniel 2:22)

Light is also seen as a blessing from God. The psalmist writes:

3It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them. (Psalm 44:3)

The apostle John understands the powerful imagery of light. He uses the symbol sixteen times throughout his book; constantly associating it with the mission of Jesus. In the opening verses of this chapter John tells us that in Jesus was life and the life was the light of men...(1:4) We owe our life to the light of Christ.

This light does not naturally abide in the world but is coming. It does not reside within each person. It is alien. Humanity was created to dwell in the light but in exercising our freedom and self-will we fell into darkness. This darkness is marked by doubt, despair and death.

The darkness of doubt plagues humanity's search for meaning. Throughout history philosophers have struggled to answer the questions, why am I here? Is there any meaning to my life? The answers to these questions have always remained elusive to the great thinkers who were either unwilling or unable to consider expanding their search beyond this material world. To fill the void produced by these unanswered questions, people seek to fill their lives with activities that bring them happiness, pleasure or thrills.

The Jewish leaders understood the accusations that John the Baptist leveled against them. By announcing that the light was coming, John was telling them that their entire religious thought and tradition, their social values, their economic practices had fallen into darkness. This stunned the Jewish leaders. They strove each day to obey Torah, the Law. They spent time committing to memory Scripture passages so that each thought, each action was centered in the Word of God. But John told them that they were living in darkness. They did not have a response to John's accusations so they challenged his authority. In asking who are you, they are asking what right do you have in accusing us? Who are you to say that the light of God does not shine upon us? Who are you to claim that God must still send this light?

We are tempted to exclude ourselves from John's accusation. After all the light has come in Christ. We received the light and allow it to shine in our lives. We have studied the Purpose Driven Life. But I wonder if the people of God are so accustom to living in the darkness of the world that we have become blind to the real light of Christ. My claim is supported by surveys taken to measure the spiritual life of America. They indicate that the differences in values between Christians and those who do not profess faith in Christ are minuscule. Patterns of spending, the types of vacations taken, and the amount given to charity are not radically different because of religious beliefs.

The contamination of the church by the darkness of worldly values was evident this week in the announcement by several mega churches to cancel worship services on Christmas morning because they do not want to add to the stress of the holidays. This will allow families to stay home and have time together.

"What's going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community faithful celebrating the birth of the Savior," Fuller Theological Seminary theologian Robert K. Johnston told the Herald-Leader. "There is a risk that we will lose one more of our Christian rituals, one that's at the heart of our faith."

"It's a sign of how totally identified with the culture [evangelicals have] become," Calvin College historian James Bratt told the Tribune. "The church has subordinated to cultural icons, and family is one of them. … The logic of that is you should celebrate the holiday in its true sanctuary, which is the home."

What these churches have forgotten is that historically, churches would always hold a worship service on Christmas morning regardless of the day of the week. Limiting worship to just Sunday morning has been a recent change. I wonder if the church really knows what it means to be in the world but not of it.

Knowing the difference between “in” and “of” is absolutely critical to the witness of the church because the people of God share in John's witness to the light. We are no more worthy to untie the laces of his sandals than John but God has also called us to be a witness to the light. We cannot fulfill this role if we have become so immersed in the cultural values that we cannot ourselves see the light. We also must know the difference between “in” and “of” because when we do stand as a witness to the light we will make the world very uncomfortable. They will

  1. misinterpret our motives,

  2. question our principles, and

  3. deny our success.

This was evident in the comments made by a particularly conservative shock jock about four hostages that are being held in Iraq by the Swords of Justice Brigade.

The hostages are members of Christian Peacemakers Team, an international organization dedicated to fulfilling Christ's calling to serve as peacemakers in countries devastated by conflict and violence. Tom Fox is a Quaker and a youth group leader. Norman Kember is a Baptist, former medical school teacher and volunteers to feed the homeless. Jim Loney is a Catholic, and Harameet Sing Sooden is an electrical engineer studying for a teaching career. They traveled to Iraq to investigate ongoing abuses in prisons because people kept reporting missing relatives.

The militant Iraqi group is demanding the release of over 270 prisoners. They are threatening to kill the four hostages. In his comments about the kidnapping, the conservative radio host announced the “part of me likes it.” He explained that “I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.” Later in reference to the kidnapped activists, “You have met the bad guys, and you tried your technique on them, and now you're blindfolded in a room with guns pointed at you and knives at your throat...” He went on to say that “any time a bunch of people that walk around with their head in the sand practicing a bunch of irresponsible, idiotic theory confront reality, I'm kind of happy about it, because I'm eager for people to see reality...”

I suppose that announcer would have also condemned Jesus for using techniques that were based in irresponsible idiotic theory. Jesus did not take an army with him into Jerusalem. He did not even take a sword or a shield. He confronted the Jewish and Roman leaders unarmed and defenseless. His only weapon was the light of God that shown in him. That cost Jesus his life but the darkness did not overcome him. Through death and resurrection, his light shines more brightly today than ever. That is the light to which Tom Fox, Norman Kember, Jim Loney,and Harmeet Sing Sooden bear witness. It may cost them their lives. They were very much aware of that reality but they are willing risk that sacrifice when they volunteered for their mission. They were willing to risk their lives because the light of Christ had burst into their life.

We gather on this Sunday morning as people who have seen a great light. We gather as people who are confident that that light will break into darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. We are now called to bear witness to that light. Do we believe that the world is really living in darkness? What are we willing to risk to allow that light to shine in our lives

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