Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Each Friday evening for the past several months, PBS Newshour has ended its show with an “In Memoriam” segment that pays tribute to just a few of the people who have lost their lives to COVID-19. As a slideshow of photos is displayed on the screen, the anchor takes a few moments to give us a glimpse into each of these people’s lives: the black World War II veteran who was given a less-than-honorable and discriminatory “blue discharge,” who fought for decades to right that wrong and at age 96 was granted an upgrade by the army; the immigrant from Fiji who opened a restaurant in Seattle, where customers felt like part of the family and called her “auntie,” and whose three children and seven grandchildren said she would do anything for them; the 45-year-old with cerebral palsy who was never able to walk or talk but would often laugh a deep belly laugh, sometimes for no reason, and who was adored by the caregivers in the nursing home where he lived. Each week Oby and I sit in silence, usually with tears streaming down our cheeks, as we take in these brief tributes.
I was equally captivated a couple weeks ago by a story in the StarTribune with a series of photos taken much closer to home, here in St. Paul at Regions Hospital. One patient was pictured taking supplemental oxygen while lying on his stomach in the prone position to increase oxygenation, his hand pressed against his forehead. Another photo showed shelves full of cleaned, reused masks in white paper bags ready for staff to wear for yet another shift. There was another photo of the glass door of one COVID patient’s room where the staff had written in dry erase marker: “Likes classical music: Jean Sibelius, Dmitri Shostakovich, Beethoven.” These photos provided a glimpse behind the scenes that most of us have been fortunate enough not to see firsthand.
These segments on PBS Newshour and stories like this one in the StarTribune have had a profound impact on me. Our nation has been embroiled in arguments about mask-wearing and the legitimacy of shutdowns and stay-home orders. Many of us have even experienced divisions in our own families over the politics of COVID-19. The one thing too few of us are talking enough about—what has been overshadowed by all the political wrangling over the virus—is the fact that real people are dying. Even when we do turn our attention to those who have died—now it’s around 290,000 people—we too seldom stop to consider the people behind the numbers. That each person who has died was a three-dimensional human being who experienced hardships and overcame challenges, whose life made a difference to someone else, who has left behind people who now mourn and are on a journey of grief. I’m grateful for those who share the stories of the real-life impact of this pandemic because they turn my attention away from the petty squabbles that only serve to distract us, and point me toward what actually matters. Those whose lives have been turned upside down by this virus bear witness to the reality of our current situation, which neutralizes the nonsense and focuses us on what’s most true and real.
In the Gospel of John’s telling of the story, that’s who John the Baptist is: Someone who bears witness to the truth and focuses our attention on what is most real.
Last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Mark introduced us to John the Baptist, a prophet in the wilderness who wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and called for repentance. He baptized the people who came to him in droves confessing their sins and announced that one greater than he was coming.
Today’s Gospel reading paints another picture of John. It describes him as “a man sent from God… who came as a witness to testify to the light.” The Gospel writer takes pains not to get things confused, saying that John “himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” “Let’s be very clear,” the gospel writer wants to say, “this man John is not the one you’ve been waiting for. But his witness will point you to the one who is to be your light and salvation.” The John we meet today is not so much John “the Baptist” crying out for repentance in the wilderness, but John “the Witness” who sees the truth and takes it upon himself to help us see it, too.
A witness is someone who tells the truth. Witnesses show up in places where the truth is in question. Think about it: When the truth is readily apparent for everyone to see, there’s no need for witnesses. Witnesses show up when truth is obscured by alternate accounts or distractions that draw our attention away. Being a witness and telling the truth about the way things are isn’t always easy or safe. Sometimes being a witness is an act of courage, because telling the truth often disrupts people’s lives and causes discomfort. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word we translate as “witness” is “martyria”—the same word from which we get our English word “martyr.” Being a witness can be dangerous. It can even pose a threat to one’s life.
John’s witness was dangerous because he revealed the hypocrisy and corruption of the religious establishment. The religious leaders in Jerusalem claimed to represent their people but were actually conspiring with the Roman Empire to maintain their grip on power and amass wealth for themselves. John pulled back the curtain and revealed the truth. He went into the wilderness, fleeing the swirl of lies and deception in Jerusalem, and invited others to join him. It was only there in the wilderness—far removed from Jerusalem, where the establishment held total power—that he could help others see the truth.
With his strange message, John prepared the way for Jesus, the one who would come onto the scene and turn convention on its head, whose message would be strange and radical and more true than anything. Turn the other cheek, Jesus will say. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Take up your cross and follow me. Those who want to be great must become a servant. Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Blessed are the poor. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Death is the way to life. The truth Jesus will offer is truth that can only be grasped when we are turned away from competing truths that do not bring us life or salvation, when a witness stands up, demands our attention, and helps us find clarity. John is the one who cries out in the wilderness and draws our attention away from those who peddle competing narratives so we will be ready for Jesus when he appears.
The public ministry of Jesus will begin when he stands up in the synagogue, picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads aloud the passage we heard as our first reading this morning. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, sending me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; the proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus rolls up the scroll and tells the people, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It turns out that Jesus is also a witness. Jesus is a witness who tells the truth about God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy. Born in a stable among cattle and in the presence of lowly shepherds, Jesus witnesses to God’s determination to be in solidarity with common people. From the synagogues of Galilee to the halls of power in Jerusalem, Jesus witnesses to God’s promises to the marginalized and oppressed. On the cross, Jesus witnesses to the truth that God so desperately longs to be in relationship with us that God will endure the worst we humans have to offer. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection testify that there is nothing we can do to escape God’s love.
The world bombards us with alternative stories about us and about our neighbors, trying to distract us from what really matters, trying to turn us against one another, trying to convince us that we are unworthy ourselves. The good news—the truth to which Jesus is a witness—is that God’s love is relentless and inescapable; that God’s love has the power to transform us from the inside out, to create new opportunities for life together, with one another and with God. May our own lives bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. Amen.
Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
Jeremy Olson and Leila Navidi, “‘No beds anywhere’: Minnesota hospitals strained to limit by COVID-19,” published November 22, 2020, accessed December 9, 2020, https://www.startribune.com/no-beds-anywhere-minnesota-hospitals-strained-to-limit-by-covid-19/573157441/.
PBS NewsHour, “In Memoriam,” accessed December 9, 2020, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/tag/in-memoriam.
The featured image for this post, “The Witness of John the Baptist” is copyright (c) 2012 Thomas Hawk and made available under an Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. Image has been adapted.