December 14, 2014

Helen Jacobi

Year B Advent 3     Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11     Psalm 126     1 Thessalonians 5:16-24     John 1:6-8, 19-28

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


The Light Show which is on at the Auckland Art Gallery has all sorts of amazing light installations; some are beautiful, some are puzzling, some are clever. They are all designed to make us think differently about what we see, and how we see and perceive it. Last Sunday Richard Randerson and I were on a panel with Jim Mora from Radio NZ about light in Christianity. It was interesting enough but I think at the end Jim was a bit frustrated with Richard and me. I think he wanted or expected us to say that “the light” of Christianity was “the truth” that would save the world and if only the world all saw “the light” then all would be well. So we ended up talking past each other a bit I think. I was more interested in talking about how many religions can give us light; and yes light is a central concept in Christianity, but we don’t have ownership of it.


In our conversation recorded for us in John’s gospel today John the Baptist and the priests and the Levites rather talk past each other too. John says that he is not the light but has come to testify to the light. Well that makes no sense, so they ask him – who are you? He is not the Messiah he says; nor is he Elijah – although the other gospel writers describe John as being dressed exactly like Elijah would have been – in camel’s hair, and eating wild locusts and honey. Nor is he the prophet – a Moses like figure who was also expected before the Messiah. “Who are you then?” they ask in frustration. John refuses to be categorized or pigeon holed. Barbara Brown Taylor says “Here is a stunning refusal to place the coming one into any of the theological boxes prepared for him, along with an equally emphatic rejection of the religious authorities sent to vet John.” [1] John will not humour the authorities but continues to talk in seeming riddles “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” “I baptize with water but the one coming after me is much greater”.


John the gospel writer says John the Baptist has come as a “witness” to testify to the light. The Greek word for witness is martyria from which we get the word martyr. Later, many of those who were witnesses for Jesus became martyrs. At this time, a martyria was either a witness in a legal proceeding or a prophet who named the truth of events as they unfolded. [2]


(Testify is simple the verb martyreo or bear witness). So John is naming it or calling it as he sees it, he is being a witness to what he has seen. And so he tells people that there is one who is coming who will be the light. Light, like the light of creation “God said, let there be light and there was light” (Gen 1:3); or the pillar of light that led the people of Israel to freedom (Ex 13:21); or the psalmist praying that the “light of God’s face will shine upon us” (Ps 4:6) Or the prophet Isaiah who said “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. (Is 9:2)


At the art gallery on Sunday we talked about darkness too; and how we do not want to be trapped in a dichotomy of light = good and dark = bad. In the dark times of our lives we can learn and grow. In biblical terms God is seen as creating the light and the dark and the psalmist says “the darkness and the light are both alike to you” (Psalm 139:11).


Richard said he thought while there are some actions and even people who we would consider as “evil”, most people want to act for good in the world. But people do sometimes get caught up in institutions that end up acting in a way that has evil consequences. He cited the banking policies that led to the financial crisis of 2007-8 as an example. And this week the report about torture at the CIA would be another. There are times when darkness is not helpful and positive, when it is downright evil and then light does need to shine upon it. John the gospel writer develops his theology of light and sees “judgment” as being like light that is shone on evil deeds so they can be seen for what they are:


“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)


This week I attended the book launch for a book called “It’s life Jim” written by local man Jim Marjoram about his life and being gay in the church and finally coming out and stopping denying who he is[3]. You may have seen the media coverage of a hateful and despicable email he was sent by someone calling themselves a “church pastor”. I will not repeat the hateful words. When the media began calling me for comment last Sunday my first reaction was not to comment because I did not want to give a megaphone to the hateful views. But the media were clearly going to run the story anyway so I and others weighed in. It was important that this self proclaimed “pastor” did not get to speak for the rest of the church. And it was important that the “judgement of light” exposed his actions for what they were. At the book launch Jim Marjoram said he actually felt very sad for the “pastor” who had in turn been vilified – more darkness.


Advent is a time of watching and waiting and being alert and standing up for what we believe. John the Baptist calls us to testify, to bear witness to the truth. When the CIA confess to torture; when people vilify others with hate, it is clear enough what we are called to say, to testify. We say that is wrong, it must stop. But what about the less clear times in our lives: what about the family gatherings for Christmas coming up where we sometimes have to put up with our relatives who we see once a year and who tend to be racist or sexist. Do we stay silent? What about our workplaces where someone might be bullied, or put down, or exploited. Do we stay silent? What about when someone challenges us about something we have done or said that has offended them? Do we listen?


In the letter of John (written by the community formed by John the gospel writer) we read “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.” (1 John 2:9) Our actions as well as our words show whether we are “children of the light”. (1 Thess 5:5) Those actions define us as people of faith. In our passage from Isaiah we heard the classic summary of the call of the prophet, which becomes the call of Jesus.


“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Is 61:1-2)


Who do we know who is broken hearted this Christmas time? Who is a prisoner in their job or their family? Who needs us to reach out to them; to notice; to bear witness? We can’t fix everything, we can’t help with everything.


But we can do one thing or two. We can bear witness. We can testify to love and truth. We can shine a light. We can #occupy advent.



[1] BBT p71 Feasting on the Word Year B volume 1





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