Sermon: Testifying to the Light

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

John 1:6-8, 19-28

It’s the third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally the Sunday to rejoice in our waiting, and a pink candle is often lit to symbolize this. So far this advent we have talked about what it means to live in kairos time, which is the new age of liberation. This new age is always at odds with the old age of domination. We’ve also reflected on how we’re not just waiting for a baby to be born, but we’re expecting a spirit-filled movement of liberation, and we’re a part of it! We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. 

The question this Sunday is about how we’re witnessing or testifying to that movement. Later in the sermon I will actually make space for us to share out where we see the new age of liberation breaking forth right now. So you can be thinking of examples. 

Our gospel text this morning begins thus, “Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through this testimony everyone might believe.” In this telling of the story John is not emphasized as the baptizer, instead he is the witness. He is testifying to the Light.

And his testimony was significant enough that he garnered the attention of the established religious authorities. As we’ve talked about before, in our commitment to recognize and undo anti-Semitic readings of the text, the point is not that the religious leaders were Jewish, everyone in the story was Jewish, but instead that this was a confrontation between the religious establishment and a movement taking shape outside the center of power. 

Last Sunday we talked about power reversals and how they are an ongoing theme in our scriptures. This story continues that theme as the religious leaders travel to the wilderness to question John. They are concerned enough about his testifying that they make a trip outside their comfort zone. 

They ask John a series of questions about his identity, trying to pin him into one category or another: Messiah, no. Elijah, no. The prophet, no. Well then, who are you? On what authority are you testifying? John says, I am just a messenger. I am preparing the way for something bigger that is about to happen. Maybe the underlying message is… if you find me disconcerting, well hold on to your hats! There’s something much more revolutionary on the way!

He says, “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, the voice of someone crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight our God’s road.”

Making straight the path, or making straight the road, was a reference to preparing the way for royalty. The Roman imperial roads of John’s day were constructed to allow the military force to travel easily throughout the empire. So this declaration by John, this invoking of the prophet Isaiah, was pointing to a movement of Spirit that was coming. To a different kind of leadership that was on its way. 

Movement theologian, Rev. Lynice Pinkard put it this way in her Advent teaching, “this new messianic figure will be filled with the Spirit and will pour it on others (not keep it to themself). This transforms the concept of messiah, as someone endowing the people with Spirit. The only true power is shared power.” 

John is testifying in kairos time and the leaders from the establishment are not there with him… “Explain yourself,” they say, “on whose authority do you speak?” John is witnessing an in-breaking of Spirit into the world, and it doesn’t make sense to the established order. 

They are talking past each other in this exchange, which is the case when the old age and new age collide. As Sheri shared in her sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, “when we’re talking about this old age-new age metaphor, we’re in kairos time — we’re in archetypal time, in mythical time. In kairos time, these two ages coexist in human history, each with their own respective pasts and potential futures. There’s the old order, the old age, which is a metaphor for a social order and a social vision built on domination. And then there’s the new order, the new age, which is a metaphor for a social order and a social vision built on liberation.”

The gospel texts during Advent continue to return to this theme, reminding us that the choice is before us too. John speaks of the One who is coming that the establishment leaders don’t recognize, who won’t come through the proper channels. 

John said “Among you stands someone whom you don’t recognize–the One who is to come after me–the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy even to untie.”

I think this exchange is also an interesting commentary on the limits of dialogue between those living into kairos time and those who are not. I don’t think the in-breaking of the Spirit can make sense to the domination system. However we know that imperial Christianity is part of the domination system and it has deeply impacted our ability to connect with Spirit. The history of Western Christianity is a story of co-option by empire after empire, beginning with Constantine in the 4th century and continuing through today. 

Throughout history there were always people and communities who resisted, like the desert monastics, and St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, the Beguines, the Anabaptists, and the Diggers. In more recent history we have the example of Black churches leading freedom struggles in this country and Latin American Liberation theology catalyzing revolutionary movements. 

As people related to the Christian tradition part of our work is to know both the history of domination and also the history of resistance. It is about confessing our complicity and believing that the Spirit is at work in the world to make all things new. This allows us to see the old age and the new age as they have coexisted through history. Our calling is to be faithful in this present time, to prepare ourselves to join the in-breaking of God into our reality. 

This orientation is not at all to instill in ourselves a sense of superiority to other Christians or even a responsibility to convert them. But rather it is so that we can join the liberating movement of the Spirit. It is about aligning our solidarity with those who are most impacted by the domination system and throwing down for liberation together. The only true power is shared power. “We are the tender shoots, we are the pockets of new creation,” Rev. Lynice says. It is a joyful thing to live in the flow of kairos time. 

I truly want to hear your responses to these questions… they aren’t rhetorical. Let’s take a few moments for reflection and then I would love for people to unmute themselves and share how you are witnessing the new age of liberation. I’ll put the questions in the chat box, and you are welcome to chat your responses as well. 

[Moms for Housing, the Movement for Black Lives, serious conversation and actions taken to defund the police, people all over the country coming together to act related to election outcomes, and to reclaim democracy, water protectors resisting the Minnesota Tar Sands pipeline, Phil McGarvey and his community working to protect a redwood forest watershed home to an important coho salmon population in the Cahto Tribe’s traditional territory from a proposed logging project.]

One way I have witnessed the in-breaking of Spirit in the world is through the effort to create the Marvel in the Mission, which will be affordable housing and a community center in SF. Some of you will remember efforts in the last couple years to stop what was called the Monster in the Mission, a luxury condo development at the 16th Street/Mission BART plaza. 

Since 2014, the Plaza 16 Coalition, a collective of over 100 community organizations, businesses, and groups came together to oppose this building–the largest market rate development in the history of the Mission. And no joke, the developer’s name was Maximus. It was truly a David vs. Goliath scenario. 

After 6 years of organized community opposition through informational meetings, rallies, hearings, marches, actions, community led visioning, and celebrations on Plaza 16, Maximus Real Estate Partners and its Monster were defeated. Pat and myself were able to participate in the tail end of the Plaza 16 effort, including a march led by clergy through the Mission. In September of 2020 the developer Crescent Heights, agreed to purchase the site and donated it to the city for affordable housing!!

This coming Tuesday at 6pm Plaza 16 is holding a town hall meeting to begin envisioning what the Marvel in the Mission will be. Just as the effort to defeat the Monster was community led, so also will the effort to create the Marvel. It’s one example to me of how the only true power is shared power. 

May we rejoice in the stories we’ve shared that witness to the way of liberation. May we continue to join with the Spirit in testifying to the light! A light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it! May it be so. Amen.