The gospel of John is an amazing book. There is a profound and unfathomable depth to it, a richness that to my mind is beyond compare. Its beautiful poetic language and rich imagery is wonderful, and beneath it are layers and layers of meaning. There is something new to be discovered every time and there doesnt seem to be an end to possible interpretations and references in a dazzling amount of directions. I find it impossible to preach on because there are always more and different connections to be made and every time I venture into it, it makes me feel utterly inadequate as a preacher. There is just too much!
The gospel does not have a birth story like Luke or Matthew. It starts outside history, in the cosmic beginning of time before all things came into being. It goes back to the very basics of existence: life, light, darkness and the Word of God bringing order into the chaos of nothingness before Creation.
Light comes from that Word of God, and it is light the darkness cannot overcome.
Against that background a man appears. Sent like the prophets to testify and bear witness to the light, a bearer of light, but not the light himself.
The background to that may have been that in the beginning of Christianity, around about the time when the gospel of John was written, there was still a substantial group who followed John the Baptist and believed he was the Messiah, with Jesus, in their writings, featuring as a follower and admirer of John. With those who thought it was the other way round keen to tell the story from their perspective. As recent as the nineteen fifties, in a remote area of Iran, a group of people was found that still hold to the belief that John the Baptist is the Messiah and in whose writings Jesus features as one of his most dedicated and successful disciples.
In the gospel of John, John the Baptist is merely a witness, similar to the prophets, a voice crying in the wilderness, testifying and witnessing, but not the true light.
When, in verse 19 John proceeds to write a little bit more about this man sent from God this is still, of course, featuring in the back ground. "I am not the Messiah" John himself is recorded saying to the religious authorities who have come from Jerusalem to ask, "I am a voice, crying in the wilderness . Nothing more ."
Those of you who were here last week may twig that there is actually a lot more that is being said. Referring back to the words of Isaiah the writer of John conjures up a whole world of promise, of dreams and visions, of salvation approaching and puts an intense sense of expectation and excitement on the text: If John is the voice crying in the wilderness, making straight the way of the Lord, the time where the glory of the Lord will be revealed cannot be far off, the time when the Lord will come to feed his flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in his arms and gently carry them in his bosom close at hand.
The whole religious establishment of the day has come out to see the spectacle of this voice in the wilderness. But who should be "in the know" but wont recognize the light even when it is right in their faces. In the gospel of John faith is a mysterious mix between being sent and having received the Spirit of God, but not, and never, something that comes automatically with the territory of belonging to a certain group or sharing in certain privileges.
"Among you stands one whom you dont know". The knowing is exclusively reserved for those who open their hearts to the Spirit and receive the call to follow Jesus Christ in faith.
If one puts this beginning alongside the well known birth story Luke presents us with in his gospel, one can suddenly see some very interesting parallels.
The light coming in the darkness of the world is not accepted, there is no room for it, not in the inn, and not in the hearts of people.
An angel, a star, a man comes and testifies to the coming of the light. The wilderness, the darkness, being the first place where the voice announcing the revelation of Gods glory in the world is heard.
Gods glory revealing itself in one who is not easily identified as the Messiah from God, but one who, from the beginning raises questions. A child in a manger, a man not accepted by his own people.
This, Christmas according to John, took place in Bethany across the Jordan.
There is no Bethany across the Jordan!
And commentators have racked their brains on how a writer who is so exceedingly precise and intricate in his writing could have made such a mistake!
But perhaps it isnt a mistake at all.
"Beth-any" means house of the poor, and once we see the parallels with the birth story as it is told in Luke we may see another parallel here. In Luke it all starts in a stable, in John it is in the house of the poor, on the other side of Jordan, with Jerusalem, the city of God, on the other side of the water. The one whom John is expecting to come, who he knows is already there in amongst his people, will drown in death before his triumph, and lead his people through the water of the red sea, like Moses to the other shore, to life in the land of Gods promise. The light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
He, the Lords anointed will come and bring good news to the oppressed and comfort to the broken hearted, and liberty to the captives and release to prisoners and proclaim the year of the Lords favour.
And again there is a profound link to the prophets and the promises of God that have been made before. The one who is anointed not only with water, but with the Spirit, will live the light in a way nobody has ever done before or will ever be able to do after. And will proceed through the waters of the flood through to the other side to reveal Gods glory in his city, Jerusalem.
In John, as in Luke and Matthew, where God incarnates, where Gods promise begins to take tangible shape in history is in the house of the poor, among the oppressed and the broken hearted, and despite messengers sent from heaven is not received with joy and thanksgiving, but with murderous thoughts and unbelief.
Who believe in his Name says John, will receive the power to become children of God born of God, not of men, anointed with the same Spirit that descends on him when he ventures into the river Jordan to be baptized.
We, as the followers of Christ, we who are called to live as his resurrected body in the world are those children, anointed with his Spirit, sent out into the world, like the Baptist to testify and witness. And going back to the text in Isaiah sheds light on what that means:
Bring good news to the oppressed, comfort the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, release the prisoners, proclaim the year of Gods favour.
To provide garlands instead of ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning, a mantle of praise instead of a faint Spirit.
There is an uncomfortable practical tinge to the Hebrew that has neatly been lost in translation here. The words used for oppressed, for captives and prisoners all have a distinctly economical and financial ring to them. Its not just any oppressed or any captives who are referred to, it is those suffering financial hardship and are bound by financial debts that are the first focus of this part of the commission given to Gods anointed. From the start, in Scripture, financial hardship is seen as something that needs to be dealt with before the Kingdom of God can even start happening. That large parts of our world live in abject poverty is something that cant be good news.
After the financial hardship there is the emotional suffering, the sadness and the mourning that is bad news and asks for the attention of Gods anointed, of those who become children of God in Spirit and in Truth. Comfort, care, again pictured in very concrete and tangible ways: garlands, oil, mantles, being with others in their misery and actually and physically offering means of comfort and strength that will make a change for the better.
Thats how righteousness starts to happen in the world. Through the relief of material and emotional suffering. Thats where the building up of ruins and the repair of ruined cities begins: With the release from financial debt and the comfort of the sad and the mourning.
(My thoughts seem to wander to Iraq here, and the Middle East. But not only there, there are so many places where hatred and resentment fuel more and more aggression and debt and histories of violence and war wreak havoc and make things go from bad to worse, while millions keep being poured into the machinery of war while little seems to be done about the improvement of the standard of life and the healing of wounds?)
Thats where justice takes shape and the wedding feast of the end of time can begin according to Isaiah, with the release of debt and the comfort of the suffering.
Where the Spirit of God is received and the light of God finds and open heart and mind to take up residence. Where people let themselves be clothed with the garments of salvation and covered with the robes of righteousness.
This is where the feast starts: In Beth-any, on the other side of Jordan, where the poor are, and the oppressed, where the broken hearted seek comfort and the captives release. Thats where the journey starts, a journey that will go through hell and high water to bring the people of God to the other side, to where a garden of righteousness is springing up before all the nations, a new garden of Eden is taking shape around the oaks of righteousness and shoots heralding a new beginning for creation.
In advent that is what should fill our dreams and minds: to be the Lords anointed in this world, in this time, a community bringing tangible and factual good news to the world, providing release from bondage and comfort in suffering wherever we can, making way for the light and receiving it in our own hearts only to give it out to the world and make a change. Amen.