John the Baptist and the Christmas Story
[John 1: 1-28]
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on December 14, 2008
You never see John the Baptist in the Christmas carols or on the Christmas cards. (Imagine John in his scruffy camel’s hair coat, standing with the shepherds as they hear the angels sing!) Yet John and what he stands for is part of the Christmas story. The Light coming into the world – the Light of peace, the Light of love – is also the Light of justice.
The first Christians seemed to understand this better than we do. All four Gospels include John the Baptist in the story – and place his message at the very beginning. The Gospel writers knew that John was not only part of Jesus’ history, but the justice John called for was part of Jesus’ Gospel.
The writer of today’s Gospel begins his story with words which may have been part of an early Christian hymn, and into this hymn he intertwines the story of John the Baptist: In the beginning was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, and apart from him not a thing came to be.
That which had come to be in him was life, and this life was the light of humankind. The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it.
There was sent by God a man named John who came as a witness to testify to the light so that through him all might be believe... He himself was not the light. The real light which gives light to everyone was coming into the world. [from a translation by Fr. Raymond Brown]
See how John the Baptist’s story is woven into the cosmic story: the healing Light of God is coming into the world through Jesus, and the messenger who announces his coming is John, who proclaimed God’s call for justice. Peace on earth, the lion lying down with the lamb – the light of God shining on and through the whole earth – will not come until justice becomes the rule all humans live by.
And what is justice?
The prophet Isaiah’s vision, heard in today’s first lesson [Isaiah 61:1-11] was that God’s great day of justice would bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, comfort all who mourn. (These words from Isaiah were also the text for Jesus’ first sermon.)
I believe that Christian history is also the history of the slowly dawning recognition that God’s justice is for all people – for Jews and Greeks, for slaves and free, for males and females. [Galatians 3:27f]
Our own American history reveals the slowly dawning recognition that God’s justice is for blacks as well as whites, women as well as men, gays as well as heterosexuals, the poor as well as the rich, the day laborers as well as the bankers.
Christian history also reveals that those who begin to work for justice for one class of people – blacks, women, gays – soon learn they must also fight for justice for all. As long as one class of people, as long as one person, is left out of the sphere of justice, God’s justice will not have reached its preordained limits.
Jesus’ call for justice was so clear to the first Christians that they included John the Baptist – and his message – at the very beginning of the story
To everyone who had more than enough, John said: “You must share your clothing and your food with those who have none.”
To those who served the government as tax collectors, John said: “Collect only what you are entitled to.”
To those who were soldiers, whether Romans or fighters in the resistance movement against the Romans, John said: “Be content with your rations. Don’t force the people to share their food or their homes with you.”
John’s calls for repentance were challenges not only to the individuals in the crowd; they were also challenges to whole societies, the Jewish and the Roman cultures of Jesus’ time. For the well-off to share what they had with others less fortunate wasn’t just a call to practice charity: John meant that the rich couldn’t keep getting richer as long as others suffered. For the tax gatherers to collect only what they were entitled to would mean a radical reduction in their standard of living. For resistance fighters to be content with their rations, when they had the power to force citizens to give them food and shelter, was a radical ethical demand. His was a call to change the system – his was a call for justice for all.
John’s demands are no less radical for us today. John’s words strike at the heart of our acquisitive society; they strike at the heart of all societies still organized by power, societies still divided between those who have and those who have not, those who are in and those who are out, those who matter and those who don’t.
We believe that Jesus Christ came to bring God’s presence, love and forgiveness to our broken world. We must also believe that Christ came to bring God’s justice to the world as well as love and peace. The love of God is meant for all of us, not some of us, and there will be no peace without justice for all.
And so Christians must be seen as agents of justice. Today the “Christianity” we hear about in the news and too often from our neighbors, is a narrow moral righteousness, preoccupied with the personal sins, real or imagined, of ourselves and others. But in Jesus’ Christianity, righteousness means justice for all, social as well as personal. Jesus’ Christianity is a Christianity which proclaims – and works for – justice for all.
So what can we do this Advent to proclaim the full meaning of Christ’s coming at Christmas?
Understanding that every Advent is just the beginning of a new year of being Christian, this Advent let’s begin a new year by praying for justice. By prayer, I don’t mean pleading with God to establish peace on earth this Christmas – although that would indeed be the Day of the Lord that John the Baptist prophesied. I mean that we can begin by asking God to change us so we can work to make justice more of a reality on this earth.
Make one (or all) of these petitions your own prayer this coming week of Advent:That we may reverently offer in service to the world the ministry of light which we hold in fragile human hands, let us pray to the Lord.
That we may accept with courage God’s call to share in the divine mission of rescue for the world, bringing justice and joy to all peoples, let us pray to the Lord.
That the mercy of God may stir up in us the bold courage to be its faithful prophets in our world, let us pray to the Lord.