December 14th, 2014
Advent 3, Year B
The Rev. Rob Fisher
St. Dunstan’s, Carmel Valley
Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; John 1:6-8, 19-28
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Last week I spoke about darkness.
In spite of the bright lights everywhere, we are in the midst of the darkest time of the year in terms of what nature is doing. Because darkness tends to get a bad rap, in last week’s sermon I said some words in defense of darkness.
Later on in the week, however—when the big storm came—I found it hard to practice what I’d preached. It was hard to feel good about the darkness, because it was very, very dark!
I was in my office one day after everyone else had left. It was in the middle of the worst of the storm. Even though it was only about 5:15pm, it was felt like the middle of the night. Before leaving, I needed to walk through the parish hall to do something. I was not going to bother turning all the lights on just for myself to see. Instead, I got my cell phone out and used my favorite application: the “flashlight app.” It gave me just enough light to see as I poked around the room. I felt a bit like a miner poking around in a cave.
A little bit later I got into my car to drive home, and I found that along the twisting and turning of Carmel Valley Road there was nothing but absolute blackness all around me. There was rain coming down, and a pretty serious amount of wind, and out of my window I could see nothing but the yellow reflectors in the middle of the road.
Those little reflectors were important. Without them, I would not have been able to see where the road was going. I knew I could trust them to get me home, where there would be light, warmth and safety.
Hearing the account of John the Baptist crying out in the darkness, testifying to the light, seems to me a little like those helpful reflectors showing the way on the road home.
In the King James Version, the words of this passage describing John say that he “came for a witness, to bear witness to the light.”
I love how it repeats the word “witness.”
John was not the light itself, but he was the witness. He was the reflector of the light. He pointed the eyes of the people to the light.
That is what I think religion is meant to do—to witness, to point, to reveal.
Organized religion is suspect when all it does is point to itself. Religion, when it is being what it is supposed to be, points away from itself—it points away from earthly things and raises our eyes to things heavenly.
One of the great words that gets lost in translation is the word that we hear in this very passage: “believe.”
We read this word where it says that John the Baptist was a witness to the light so that through him all people might believe.
When we hear the word “believe” what do we think of?
Let me put it like this: what part of your body do you use when you believe?
Most people would say that you believe with your head, with your brain. If someone tells you something, and you think it is true, you say, “Yes, I believe it.” To believe is something intellectual.
But the meaning of believe as it was originally used was the word “credo,” like the word “creed,” which means to give one’s heart to something.
You don’t believe with your head, but with your heart—with all of your heart.
John was witnessing, we are told, and his witness was not about causing people to change their minds, but to turn their hearts
He pointed the way for them to turn their hearts to the light.
Obviously, John the Baptist’s big activity was baptizing the people.
I wonder what his baptisms looked like.
Baptism is a mysterious sacrament with some of its origins in the ritual of washing and making clean with water. In Christianity it has taken on the very deep meaning of traveling sacramentally through the journey that Christ traveled, which is to say, passing through death and into new life.
Put very simply, God has already said “yes” to each one of us. And there’s nothing we can do to take that “yes” away. We have all been accepted.
By being baptized, it’s a way for us to respond to God’s “yes.”
In other words, we accept that we are accepted. We get to respond to God’s “yes” with our own.
And to do this right, we do this by means of the heart.
One of the most memorable baptisms I had the privilege to do came a few years ago when I was living in Santa Barbara.
I used to go to a retirement home once a month to do a communion service, and a woman that often attended came up to me after the service. She told me that her husband was not mobile enough to come to the services, and wanted to get baptized.
The two of them met when they worked on Hollywood pictures in the 1930s. She described their job as B-movie screenwriters.
She was baptized as a child in the Greek Orthodox Church, and although he used to go to church with her, he’d never been baptized. Now, as they were both in their mid-90s, something had clicked for him, and he wanted to be baptized.
I said yes, of course, but as soon as we made a plan, his wife fell and broke her hip. So when the day came, I arrived to her hospital room where he was waiting. I brought some witnesses from the church to be there, too, and some water and a few prayer books.
Now I love the Episcopal tradition, but we have a tendency of being a little attached to our words. The prayer book gives us great words to guide us, but we can get a bit attached to them.
I bring this up because in the baptismal service, which is very rich in its language, there is a part of the service where the priest asks a number of questions and the person to be baptized answers with standard words of response. But when I handed this man a copy of the prayer book, it turned out that his eyes could not make out the words. We decided to not worry about it, because he was ready to ad lib his part.
When we come to the point where I asked the question, “Will you turn from all thing that draw you from the love of God?” he said in a whisper of a voice, and with great passion, “Yes I will!”
When I asked “Do you turn to Christ and put your whole trust in his grace and love,” he responded, “With all my heart!”
I will never forget how touching it was.
It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences of worship that I have ever had, as we sat on the foot of his wife’s hospital bed, and the love and light of God bathed us all.
The longer I live and the more I observe, the more I am convinced that the life of faith is not something that you achieve out of thinking and understanding. But rather, faith is something that you catch.
And we can spread faith to others with words, but only so much.
In actuality we are called to be holy reflectors, sacramental people, letting our lives point towards something higher and more wonderful than the world alone has to offer.
John himself was not the light.
He was a witness to the light, as each of us is called to be.