In our contemporary society there is much debate about identity. It’s always been a bit confusing – are we British or Scottish or both? The English are very good at confusing the two but I suspect the Scots are better at differentiation; minorities usually are. It can be more confusing in the North of Ireland where those descended from Scottish settlers are more likely to define themselves as British than anything else whereas “Irish” is a natural self-description for those who’d like there to be a united Ireland. If nationality is confusing, then think about how confusing the self-descriptions are around sexuality and gender. Words which were once used are no longer seen as polite and even words which were once seen as rude are now used in a positive fashion – the same happens with race. When I used to teach the black and Pakistani kids would use the N word and P word to describe those from the same ethnic group, but would, rightly, be very insulted if white kids used those words.
Even away from gender and identity politics we often define our identity by what we do. In the mid 1990s I was out of work for a little while and I realised that my self definition as a teacher and minister seemed odd when, for a short time, I wasn’t doing either. I don’t yet know but I suspect that similar things happen at retirement – we might be tempted to define ourselves by what we once were.
John in St John
Given this our Gospel reading from near the start of St John’s Gospel is interesting in how it names, but doesn’t describe, John. In St Mark he is John the Baptiser, in St Matthew the Baptist, in St Luke he is John the son of Zechariah who came from the wilderness. Yet St John doesn’t describe his family background, or names him by his work. He is simply John.
John is the first human mentioned in St John’s Gospel and it’s tempting to name him as John the Baptist – after all that’s what the other Gospel writers do in their own ways but if we do that we obscure what the writer intended. In this Gospel John isn’t introduced by his family, his activities or his geographical location but as a witness. The writer of the Gospel wanted to portray John as a witness to Jesus, a light that pointed to the Light. John’s main vocation in this Gospel is to bear witness – a theme that runs throughout the book but isn’t in the others in any great detail. John’s role is to recognise the true light and then to point to it.
So why this text in the middle of Advent. This isn’t about preparation, decoration or that young family journeying to Bethlehem. John’s role was to point to the Light, to prepare the way of the Lord – as we looked at last week. And, of course, our role is to also to point people to the Light and prepare the way of the Lord. But how do we do that?
Perhaps we can get some ideas from our first reading today from the final part of the book of Isaiah. The first part of the book was written when Judah, the southern state of Israel, was facing attack and conquest by the Babylonians; the second part was written when the Jews were in Exile in Babylon; this last part was written after the return in the fragile newly restored Jewish nation. The passage is famous for Christians as Jesus used it as the text for his first sermon – a text that nearly got him killed.
It’s a powerful text that is about mission – the prophet has been sent to proclaim Good News. The Good News is for the victimized, the imprisoned and the despairing and broken-hearted. The message is one of release – the word used is the same word used in Leviticus to command the freeing of slaves in the Jubilee year – and liberty. It can also mean exemption from taxes. The proclamation is of a holy year, a year of jubilee that marks the return of property to the original owners, the return of slaves to their families, the return of the order as it should be. This isn’t about some nice master giving a slave freedom when she is too old to be useful but a fundamental re-ordering of society, a levelling of the rich and the poor so that the gap between them is lessened. It’s powerful stuff this year of the Lord’s favour. There is comfort here – but comfort in the establishment of a new order where things are fairer than they were.
The fact that Jesus took this obscure passage from Isaiah to make it his text for his first sermon gives us some powerful ideas of what Jesus was about and his understanding of God. For Jesus, God is in the business of liberation for the oppressed and returning society to a state of fairness. That would be the light that Jesus brings to the world.
We love the idea of Jesus as the light in the darkness, the candle as the image of Jesus as the light of the world and, at this time of the year, we hear the reading of the beginning of John’s Gospel where we hear of Jesus as the light that the darkness can neither comprehend nor overpower. We’re used to thinking of the Church, of ourselves, as lights which point to that light. However, we don’t think much further than that about what being light might mean.
We like to think of Christianity as just being about spirituality – saying a prayer, reading the Bible, maybe lighting a candle, being still, looking at a sunset and enjoying God’s beautiful creation. All this is powerful, wonderful, stuff and reminds us that God has made us a little less than a god, put all things under our feet. But that’s not all there is.
We’re here to make a difference.
We’re to be a light to the nations – just as the Jewish people are called to be.
We’re to be small lights that point to Jesus the Light.
The wee play at the beginning gave some examples – a life changed by defeating alcoholism, love shown to a neighbour, the peace found in prayer. All these are the things we do to be lights which point to the Light of the World. We do more – every time we fight for justice we are lights that point to the Light.
Last Thursday I gave evidence in court for two friends who the Home Office wish to deport back to Pakistan despite the law there would not protect them from beatings and death. The first time they came to any church was my induction, they are faithful Muslims but are fascinated by Christianity – at least in how we embody it. Speaking up for them, telling the truth for them is being a light which points to the Light that is truth.
Every time we sign a petition, write to a politician, fight for what is right we are being lights that point to the One Light.
Every time we show love to someone we don’t know or like very much we are being lights which point to the One Light.
Every time we pray for the needs of others, imploring God to change the way things are – and not least to change our hearts to effect change in the world – we are being lights which point to the One Light.
John was sent by God to be a light which pointed to the Light. So are we.
You are the light of the world,
You came into the darkness
But the darkness could not comprehend nor defeat you.
Inspire us by your Holy Spirit,
To shine as lights in our world,
Lights which point to you,
The world’s true light,
To the glory of God,