John 1:6-9, 19-23.
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.
As a child, I was frightened of the dark. I grew up in a rural area and, when it was dark, it was really dark — no street lamps, no passing automobiles. Dark. How well I remember that long walk, which I would have to make, down our winding drive through the pine trees from the highway to our house. At the end of the drive though, as I came in sight of the house lights, there was often my mother’s reassuring, “Is that you?”
Nothing so tames the terrors of the darkness like a light, a voice.
John’s gospel opens by saying, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Israel was in darkness, the dark of political oppression. Judea was occupied by Rome. These are the people upon whom light has shined, says John.
But before there was light, there was a voice. A voice in the darkness. That voice belonged to John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the voice who proclaims a light coming into the darkness.
All the gospels tell about John. And yet we get most of our detailed information about John from Matthew and Luke. They tell that he ate insects, lived in the dessert, wore camel hair. Strange. John’s gospel tells us none of this. All John tells us was that John the Baptist was “a voice.” We have got to figure out who he is and what he is up to by what John says.
People ask, “Who are you?”
John tells them that he is a mere forerunner. John also waits. He says that this one for whom he is preparing, is one who is great. But John doesn’t seem to know many details. He only knows that his coming will be light in the darkness, that great advent for which people are expecting.
We have song advent hymns of waiting, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Waiting is not easy for us. Waiting is particularly difficult, when we are waiting in the dark, when we can’t see the way forward, and there is no reassuring light, and we do not know whether we are going forward, or backward.
One feels so vulnerable in the dark. We like to be in control. We like to know that we are taking sure steps forward, meeting our goals, getting somewhere. But in the dark, one is unsure. One stumbles. And I don’t like to stumble.
Odd, sometimes people speak of the Christian life as fulfillment. “Now I have found Jesus.” “Now I have gotten my life together.” “Now I have turned myself over to God and I am saved.” It sounds like it’s all finished, done, complete, fulfilled.
But so much of the Christian life is spent waiting, yearning, leaning forward to that which we need, but do not yet have.
What are you waiting for? We speak too negatively of waiting. Show me a person who is not waiting, not yearning, not leaning forward, not standing on tiptoes hoping for something better, and I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better. Someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements.
And that’s part of the message of John the Baptist. His was a voice, a voice speaking into our darkness, telling us that there is dawn. He was a watchman, standing on the starlit hill, looking east, telling others that it was almost day.
Beyond, behind our deepest longing and yearning, that is really what we want. Our times of darkness are vivid reminders that we are, in truth, frail, vulnerable, and needy. We really are those who need deliverance. And our deliverance has got to be something beyond ourselves, someone greater than our own abilities to deliver.
John did not know the complete shape of that hope. John was a voice, a voice into the darkness, telling people not to give up hope, telling people that their yearning was not mere wishful thinking, that their longing was an act of faith, a deep and abiding belief that God cared, that God would come and deliver.
You may have read Victor Frankl’s classic account of his experiences in a Nazi death camp, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl had been a successful therapist. While in the camp, he spent his time observing himself and his fellow inmates.
Frankl noted that some of the prisoners just wasted away and died quickly, even though they had no discernable physical ailments. He recalls one man who was doing reasonably well, considering the deplorable conditions of the camp. The man often talked of his dream to get out of the camp and to be united with his dear wife. Then the man received word that his wife had died in another prison camp. And in just a couple of days, the man died. Frankl concluded that the man died, not because of some bodily ailment, not because he lacked food or water, but because he lacked hope. He lacked hope that there was anything to be had beyond the darkness of the bleak prison, that there was anything beyond the present anguish of Nazis brutality. We can live, said Frankl, longer without bread than we can live without hope.
Hope that the light shines in the darkness.
We gather on this night as those who yearn, who desire, who are not yet fulfilled, but who are confident that light breaks into the darkness, and we shall see, and we shall know, and we shall be filled.
The light, the world’s light, our light, has a face, a name, Emmanuel.