Whenever we experience anything, things that we hear or see or read, we experience them through our own experiences: our education, our expectations, our hopes, our dreams. Two people can see the same thing, or read the same story, and they can understand it quite differently from one another because of their different backgrounds and different contexts through which that experience is filtered. It is the same with scripture. Two people can hear or read the same piece of scripture, and understand it differently based on what it is they are bringing to it. So we, as 21st century Christians, hear and read scripture differently than they did nearly 2000 years ago when the events took place, or when they were written down a few decades later and heard for the very first time.
As 21st century Christians who grew up hearing these stories, hearing the Gospels, we understand that the main character in this story, the protagonist, as it were, is Jesus. John the Baptist is a supporting role, he’s a side character. But in 1st century Palestine, John the Baptist was actually the famous one, not Jesus. For us, not knowing who John is outside of the context of Jesus, when we hear John say, “I am the one to prepare the way of the Lord”, we can imagine John as more like a sous chef, the one who will chop up the vegetables and get the meat ready so Jesus can work that magic and prepare a feast for us. But if you heard this in 1st century Palestine, or heard it for the very first time after it had been written down, those roles would have been reversed. John the Baptist would have been the head chef. He’s saying, “I’m preparing the way for this guy who is down there, way down the line, the one who has to chop the onions”. John is saying, “Don’t look at me anymore. Look at that guy over there. That little sous chef is the one you should be paying attention to. That’s the one that I am unworthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. That’s the one you should follow”. For us, knowing how important Jesus is, it changes our perspective on what this story is about.
This story is about a witness. John the Baptist is a witness. In order to be a reliable witness, John the Baptist has to have credibility. I think that credibility has been diminished for us because we understand that John the Baptist is Jesus’s cousin. That’s what Luke tells us; John the Baptist is a family member. But John the Baptist was famous in his own right. John the Baptist had a following. What we know about 1st century Palestine is that decades after John had died, people were still following him and understanding the events of the world through him. One of the most important documents we have about Judaism in the 1st century gives at least twice the space to John than it gives to Jesus. John was a credible witness because he was so popular and had so many followers. So when John the Baptist says to pay attention to this guy, it would have some urgency.
John the Baptist doesn’t have that strength as a witness to us anymore. In our familiarity with the story of him as the one to prepare the way, and our lack of familiarity of him as a strong leader in his own right, he does not provide that testimony in the same way. So throughout the generations, we’ve always needed new witnesses to Jesus Christ. Some of those witnesses remain witnesses for us today, like St. Lucy, St. Claire, St. Teresa, Dr. King, folks who have continued to testify about the light of Christ throughout the generations. There are also those lesser witnesses whose strength is known only to a few people. They are a witness for perhaps a generation or two, like Grandma Susie or Uncle Fred, but those witnesses are just as important. Even though their witness might not be remembered, their witness was passed on through the generation, and has created new witnesses to succeed them. We need both of these witnesses in order to witness and testify to the light. They are just as important as John the Baptist, in fact they are probably more important within their generations because of the way we do not fully grasp or understand the credibility of John that they had in the 1st century.
There are witnesses to the light of Christ in this generation. Some of them are sitting in the pews next to you. The truth is, you are a witness to the light, as well. The darkness Isaiah speaks about in our first reading today, the darkness of a world that is unsteady, a world full of violence and oppression and imprisonment is still with us. But just as John testified, the light of Christ is shining to lead us forward, to lead us through the dark path. You can be a witness to that light for this generation. In the pain and grief and sorrow and unsteadiness of this world, you can be the light of Christ. In the personal darkness, the death of a child, a friend’s cancer, major surgery looming on the horizon, you can be a witness to the light of Christ to someone. In those great communal darknesses, like war or the specter of war, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes, you can be a witness to the light of Christ that is shining a path forward through the darkness.
The Gospel of John says the light of Christ came into the world and the darkness can not overcome it. That light of Christ will continue to shine forth in this world. So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, witness to that light so that we can see the path that God has provided us.