Harrowing Of Hell
January 19, 2020

Reflecting the Light of Christ

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends!

How are you doing this morning? I have been thinking about how much we like to win—how much we like to be the star in our own show – especially as we enter the awards season. Even the ceremonies themselves are all about the spotlight – the red carpet moments and how funny or not funny the host might be. On those kinds of shows, they have signs and teleprompters that let people know what we want them to do, right? So, for example, if I want you to clap — I just hold up a sign that says “Applause” … Or, I ask, “How are you?” and you would answer “Great!” And if I would walk up here with grand music playing in the background and announce  with incredible enthusiasm, “I won second place and lost to so- and so ! ” you would clap loudly until you realize that there’s obviously been a mistake—because everyone knows that we don’t get all excited about or make grand entrances about things we haven’t quote/unquote “won.” We have unspoken rules about being the winner – the star – including the fact that we aren’t supposed to value the best supporting actor as much as the leading actor.

This kind of thinking is well illustrated during award season. The Golden Globes were just on TV and everyone’s attention was centered on who won for best lead actor and actress. Awkafina, who made history being the first Asian American actress to win the prize for best actress in a movie comedy, said when she was nominated, “I would never have expected something like this to happen. We just wanted to tell the story. So, to see…it… getting recognition … is really awesome.” And yet after her win she said, “It feels incredible, but I think there’s also this other feeling that you want there to be more. I hope this is just the beginning.” We want to win.

I can almost imagine the discomfort folks would feel if John the Baptist were to be nominated for his role in the 1st chapter of John. Because while we are clear who has starring role – Jesus—chapter one features John. The first chapter begins with a prologue centered on the Son of God, with the following sentences inserted in the midst of it: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” So, while the point is clearly made that John is not the light, oddly enough, it is the work and words of John and the other supporting cast members rather than Jesus, the star at the center of all that led shepherds and wisemen to him at Christmas, that are primarily featured in this  chapter. Directly after the prologue the story cuts back to John, in Bethany, in the midst of baptizing when he is approached by priests and Levites from Jerusalem who ask him, “Who are you?” And we are told, “[John] confessed…[he]…did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And when they ask him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He answers, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answers “No.” And when they finally ask him, “Who [then] are you… What do you say about yourself?” He answers quoting the prophet Isaiah “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” He then goes on to state: “[Look] I baptize with water. [But] among you stands one whom you do not know … [and] I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

“I am not worthy to untie his sandals” is definitely not something any self-respecting actor would say if they hoped to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar. Nor is what he says on the following day. John, when he sees Jesus coming says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

But while these words are inappropriate for those seeking the spotlight, John sees them as an integral part of his role. He says, “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel. He says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen [this] and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 

Up until this point, we have heard a lot about Jesus. The Johannine author has helped us understand Jesus as the Word of God. In beautiful, poetic words the author tells us of what Jesus had done and will do in the world—of his starring role, if you will. But Jesus hasn’t yet had a chance to speak. In this first chapter Jesus isn’t given many lines because, not only is the author trying to set the scene for all that he will tell us about Jesus and his work in the world, he is also illuminating the important work of John, of the disciples, of each one of us.

I want to take a moment to think about this work that John – that we—have been given to do. During this season of Epiphany it is fitting to think about our role in Jesus’ ministry because while the season of Epiphany’s gospel stories highlight the various events that clearly manifest the divinity of Jesus: the coming of the Magi; the Baptism of our Lord; the calling of the disciples; the wedding at Cana; and the Transfiguration. Epiphany is also about the light of Christ that has come into the world and shines in the darkness. Jesus as the spotlight. And John – and we—have been called to testify to that light – to share that light with others so that it might illuminate and lead people to their own discovery of and realization about the importance of Jesus in their own lives. In John’s gospel, then, it is John’s testimony about Jesus that the Johannine author holds to be John’s most important role. Notice how  in John’s gospel, while John does baptize, he is not referred to as the Baptist. Instead, John testifies to Jesus’ role because while Jesus, the Word, “…. was in the world, and the world came into being through him… the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” John, a trusted teacher and leader, testifies… [to Jesus’ credentials as the star—the Messiah] and cries out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” It’s the ultimate show of support for the lead…by a supporting role.

During this season of Epiphany we, too, are called to renew our witness to Jesus– called to be, as Doyt reminded us on the Feast of the Epiphany, “clear-eyed champions of Jesus Christ in the Age of the Holy Spirit.” What might this look like in the age of self-promotion, selfies, and tooting one’s own horn? Well, it probably has something to do with what a guy who was hanging out by a bodega deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn once asked Jeremy and me – he asked, “Hey, do you want to take an us-ie? I remember that we were in a bit of a hurry and I remember being perplexed and looking at Jeremy like  “What is an us-ie?” until it hit me oh – it is like a selfie except it includes others—me and you and that guy at the bodega—or the guy standing by the water baptizing folks in Bethany and Jesus.  Or maybe it is like posting a good news story that features someone else – features Jesus.  Or maybe it is about when we have the spotlight, when we are called up to accept our accolades as the best of whatever –we, like John, take the opportunity to say “It is not about me” with true humility and use the opportunity to point to the ones who helped us get there and who deserves the credit. Or when we lose or are feeling unimportant because we aren’t the ‘winners’ that the peanut gallery says we should be– refuse to belittle our supporting role and instead rejoice in our opportunity to TESTIFY to the truth and the light of Jesus.

The greatest of human leaders from Moses to John the Baptist and Peter in the Bible to the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – whose life we will recall and celebrate tomorrow– rejoiced in their leadership in raising up the children of God while knowing full well that they did not and would not have a role, starring or otherwise, in the promised land. On his final day on earth, Martin Luther King Jr. found strength in the example of Moses who, while seeing the promised land from the top of Mount Nebo knew he would not enter into it. Dr. King at this point had already survived an attempt on his life. He had seen the deaths of fellow leaders Medgar Evers in 1963 and Malcom X in 1965 but he preached that night, “….I left Atlanta this morning……the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane, and…we had to check out everything carefully, and we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

King continues: “And then I got into Memphis, and some began to talk about the threats that were out of what would happen to me…. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So, I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

While we may not be called to the same path of leadership, as Christians we are called to, as theologian Karoline Lewis puts it, embody Epiphany –to dare to testify not to who we are but to who Jesus is – to who Jesus, the great “I am” in the world is calling us to be.  Our supporting roles are important to the prophets, to John the Baptist and to our brave earthly leaders like Dr. King. We are called to testify to the truth–to reflect God’s light to a world in darkness knowing as John tells us in his prologue that The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not and will not overcome it.” Children of God we have no need to seek the spotlight or the red carpet, because the light of Christ is big enough to hold us all in the specific roles we have been given to play – just put on your own sandals and walk in the light of God.