Summary: A SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT - Continuing with our preparations to welcome Jesus afresh at Christmas
John 1:6-8; 19-28 ‘Ready – or Not? #3’
I may share with many of you a love of pictures – of looking at, and perhaps making paintings, drawings and photographs. And while I admire, and have often tried to emulate, the composition, colour and depth achieved by the greatest artists (whoever we may think these might – or might not – be!) I never cease to be drawn (forgive the pun!) into representations of the world as young children see it through THEIR artwork.
In young children’s drawing and painting, we may see vivid green skies, orange grass, multi-coloured flowers and birds, and purple people! And why not indeed! We also see people as big as – if not bigger than – a house and we look down upon a back-view of a tortoise on the ground at the same time as we look at the front-view of ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!
Children’s pictures, we might say, do not show us (as so-called ‘grown-up’s) the world as we see it – or rather, as we have LEARNED to see it in drawings and paintings, through the use of perspective. For, through the conventions of perspective, we are allowed the illusion of depth, of three-dimensional space, on a flat painted surface.
Now, through the history of art since the invention of perspective, artists have discovered ways by which our eyes can be led around a picture, from one person or object to another. Also, the most important people / objects can be made more prominent to our attention, placing them at the ‘front’ of the painting, rather that further away in the ‘distance’. Hence our eye is ‘drawn’ to the most important people and ‘action’ in a painting and what they represent.
I invite you to keep this in mind as we come to consider the opening verses of John’s Gospel, where we see that we are presented with a great, cosmic picture of the Creative Word of God, drawing as John does from the incredible imagery conjured-up by the creation stories of Genesis. Yet in the midst of all this power and creative energy, our attention is soon drawn to the (very) human messenger, John the Baptist. From the vast, unimaginable cosmological event of God’s creation, our attention is drawn inwardly to what is, by comparison, a tiny, insignificant, human being. A human being, however, that demands our attention on ‘centre-stage’, at the fore-front of this great picture.
Now, remembering what I said about artists’ showing the most important people in the ‘front’ of their pictures and, the further back someone appears, the less important they are, we can see that, for the writer of this Gospel, John the Baptist is of UTMOST importance at this time. Yet just listen to John the Baptist’s words as he belittles himself in comparison to the One who will follow him! The One who is GREATER, more POWERFUL, ‘BIGGER’ than he! The Baptiser says he’s not even ‘good enough’ to untie the thongs of his sandals. Jesus, the Baptiser says, will soon be at the fore-front of the picture – Jesus is GREATER, ‘BIGGER’, MORE IMPORTANT. He is the LIGHT in the darkness, “The LIGHT of all people”, coming into the world to “ENLIGHTEN” everyone. In the grand scheme of things, the Baptiser considers himself to be an insignificant messenger, deserving only of a place in this picture some way back in the distance.
But, as we have seen, the Levites and Jews who have come to question the Baptiser on behalf of the Pharisees are not entirely sure how important he is. “Who are you?” they ask. “Oh, I’M not the Messiah (the Christ); I’M not Elijah, I’M not the Prophet, John the Baptist responds to their questions. The Baptiser says he’s only a messenger, as spoken about by Isaiah calling people from the wilderness to “Make straight the way of the Lord”(ch 40). John the Baptist considers himself to be tiny, insignificant, in relation to the greatness of Jesus – the Christ – who comes, yet who already stands among them, but do not recognise.
Yet it is true that the Pharisees, whose representatives and questioning John the Baptist, think of themselves as being the powerful, the great, because they are (or consider themselves to be) the foremost advocates and upholders of God’s Law. As far as they are concerned, they are the ones who should occupy the prominent space in the picture, there at the front centre-stage. Perhaps they feel threatened by John the Baptist’s popularity, drawing all these people – as we can see they ‘process’ from the upper-left background to the mid-ground of the picture – to the River Jordan where he is baptising them. John the Baptist must be considered a great man by these people – important at least. Yet more disturbing for the Pharisees must have been the words of the Baptiser, as he announces that someone else would come – indeed was already among them – who is even greater – more powerful – than the people consider John the Baptist to be. Someone who would (no doubt) try to usurp the power and place of the Pharisees, and their rightful (as they saw it) prominence in that great picture of the created world.