Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Sunday 17th December 2023 – Third Sunday of Advent: John the Baptist, the Witness, the Negater and the Warner

One more week to go!  And so we have the third Sunday in Advent, when we remember John the Baptist by lighting the third candle.

John the Baptist does three things: he puts himself down to raise Jesus up. He gives us evidence. He cautions us to not get lazy.

He raises Jesus up. He gives us evidence. He cautions us to not get lazy.

But let’s backtrack to the candles: we’ve had the first candle for the Patriarchs – the men and women in the Old Testament who first grasped for God, the few righteous people who God thought “I can work with these people”. He made a special promise, a covenant, to be with them and bring salvation to all if they would be his people.

Being God’s people meant showing what God was like to the world around them. Unfortunately, they “loved” being God’s people to the exclusion of everyone else. The nation that formed was inward looking, proud of its special relationship, and often had the haughty attitude of “I am glad that I am not a pagan!” Not the humility or passion to show in our actions and love what God is like to the rest of the world. Instead, the self-righteous comfort of a nation that is lazy.

To this proud, stiff-necked people, God sent the Prophets, those we remember with the Second Candle. The prophets of God, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc, warned Israel that God did not save them to congratulate themselves. They were saved for a purpose – to show God to all the nations of the world. To be his ambassadors, and show the world how to live rightly.

That’s a lesson for us to. We are called to be ambassadors to this world, we are called to show God’s love and sacrifice for those around us – and yes that is a life of constant giving.

And today we’ve had the third candle, we remember the final prophet, John the Baptist. Our reading from the gospel makes a few simple but emphatic points for us about John.

  1. John raises Jesus up. John the Baptist turns attention away from himself, and on to Jesus. John said “I am not…” He emphatically says that he is not Elijah revived (though he is in Spirit). He emphatically says he is not the Messiah. He emphatically says he is not the Prophet promised in Deuteronomy.

Compare that to Jesus, who says I AM. John is not worthy to untie the sandals. John is not the messiah. John is not the prophet. John is not Elijah. But Jesus IS.

Jesus is the vine. He is the bread. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life.

John is negating himself, turning attention from him, and raising up Jesus in comparison. John is not. Jesus is. Isn’t this how we should all be?  

  • Secondly, John gives testimony. He says he was sent to testify. He gives us evidence. Why do you obtain a testimony? When you need witness evidence. Evidence is used to convince people.

John the Baptist is providing for us evidence to make a case. In fact, the whole gospel of John is about making a case – it is explicitly trying to give you evidence to help you understand that Jesus is God’s chosen one; that Jesus took your punishment on the cross; and that because of Jesus, you have forgiveness. And if you stay in Jesus, and obey him, and humbly seek to live as a follower of Jesus, then he promises to be with you, and that you are in his kingdom, under his protection.

So the gospel gives us evidence of the miracles Jesus did and the teachings Jesus gave, and then the death and resurrection, all for the purpose that we might believe, and by believing have everlasting life.

Because if you are among the billions of people who never met Jesus during the 30 years he was around on earth, 2000 years ago – and I am old but not that old – then we need witnesses and evidence to know whether Jesus was who he said he was.

So John the Baptist is giving us the evidence, and telling us “now, you have a choice. Believe and be loyal to this Jesus, and walk in the way of light, which places you in the right with God. Or disbelieve, and remain in darkness”.

  • For the third message of John is that among the religious leaders questioning him is one that they do not know. The people and leaders who should know Jesus are the very ones in confusion – a warning shot to all of us. We come to church and hear the gospel … but do we really know and understand Jesus? Or would we be among the ones who are upset that our nice world view is being upset…?

John the Baptist challenges us to move deeper, to not get too comfortable in our nice little worldviews. God always has more for us, always is ready to lead us deeper.

When I was about 12, we went on a family holiday to the Yorkshire Dales. One day we climbed up a steep hill to get a better look, only to discover it was just the foothill of a much greater hill. We carried on to the top, only to discover it was just the foothill of a much higher set of mountains. Christian life is like that – the further you trust God, the more he will show you his love and glory.

So there we have John the Baptist and the third candle. John is the one who is not emphasising the one who is, he is deemphasising himself in order to emphasise Jesus.

And John is the one giving us evidence, calling us to believe and to walk in light.

And John is pointing to one who unsettles us and challenges us from our comfort zones.

As the last great prophet, John stands in the line of the great prophets who came before him, like Isaiah, who in chapter 61 today gave us some very famous words – words that were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. But at the time they were written, God’s people were being gathered together after a period of exile, and having a ‘pep’ talk to not mess up again.

This time they would not ignore the prophets that God sends. They would be holy. And so the nation would be able to truly say “The Spirit of God is on me, is on us!”

But why is the Spirit of God on them?

Because God chose to! He anointed them!

But why did he anoint them?

Because anointing is what happens when you are set aside for a special role. Who saw the Coronation of King Charles? He was anointed at his coronation with oils, to mark him out for his role. To set him aside and mark him for a ministry.

Ancient Israel was anointed to mark them out as God’s ambassadors on earth.

They were chosen to be Ambassadors who bring good news to oppressed, captive, people. People in despair and people in fear. News that said the day of God is coming, and on that day there will be vengeance and judgement, but comfort and security for those who are true.

Isaiah says the Spirit is to help those in God’s city become oaks of righteousness, which means strong trees living in a right way before God.

Why would God need people to live good lives?

To show the rest of the world what He is like, to help us (because when we obey God, we actually do the things that are healthy for ourselves), and to show God’s glory in this dark world.

We know that Israel never achieved this level of holiness, but then that last prophet came, John the Baptist, and he no longer pointed at the people to be the solution, he pointed at someone else. The true ambassador of God.

And so it was and is in Jesus that Isaiah is fulfilled. In Jesus the day of vengeance and comfort of God happens. For in Jesus, as John the Baptist points out, we are forced to make a decision, to make a choice, and that choice leads to paths, and one path is in light, and the other gets darker.

So that is where we land: John show us how to live, show us our mission: raise Jesus up, and downplay ourselves. To live as God’s ambassadors, showing in our lives and in our behaviour what our Lord is like.

As we approach Christmas, are you an ambassador? You are confronted with the evidence for Jesus, and a decision is required. One path is to light, the other remains in the dark.

Choosing Jesus is a path of pointing forever to him, of raising him up at your expense. It’s not easy, yet it is. It’s a life of tension, but with the peace that God will solve things.

So this Christmas, have you heard the testimony of John? Have you made your decision for Jesus? Are you going to learn to walk in the light no longer as an ambassador for yourself, but as an ambassador of Jesus?