A Sunday school teacher in Kansas reports this conversation in her class:
“If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked the children in her Sunday school class.
“No!” the children all answered.
“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?”
Again, the answer was, “No!”
“Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my neighbor, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked them again.
Again, they all answered, “No!”
“Well,” she continued, “then how can I get into Heaven?”
A five-year-old boy shouted out, “You gotta be dead!”
These Advent lessons lead us to think about such things as salvation and mission. And we may as well admit it, we tend to think in terms of such questions as: From what are we being saved? God’s punishment? The Devil? Our own Sins? Death? All of which tends to make us think of salvation in terms of “getting into heaven.”
Such thinking inevitably leads us to see mission as the work of getting as many people into heaven as possible. Further, such thinking makes us ask questions like “Who will be saved?” Or “Who will be in heaven?” And underneath it all is the little boy’s assumption that the single prerequisite for salvation and heaven is death.
Along come Isaiah and John. Isaiah is a poet. John, in today’s rendering is “a man sent from God” who came “as a witness.” Both Isaiah and John have something to say about salvation. What they both seem to be saying is that salvation is not about another place or time. Both Isaiah and John announce that salvation is the reality of this world as it should be.
Isaiah offers a vision of just what salvation looks like: we are to turn our attention to those named as recipients of God’s Good News – the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, the mournful, and the faint of spirit. Our mission to, with, and among them defines God’s people as those people who exist for the sake of others.
Further, Isaiah the poet says we will know we are involved in God’s saving mission work when others, “the nations of the world,” notice that God’s people live differently – that is, we live for God and for others, all others. Earlier in Isaiah 49:6 the poet says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Enter “The Light” from before time and forever. In the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (which would be John the Evangelist, not John the Baptist) one is immediately struck by the fact that he is not named “John the baptizer” as he is in Mark, or “John the Baptist” as he is in Matthew, or even “John the son of Zechariah” as we find in Luke. John is simply “a man sent from God … as a witness to testify to the Light.”
The Light, of course, is “the Word,” or logos, which has been with God and is God since before creation, and as it says in the first chapter of John, through Him “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This same Word or Light, we are told, “became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched his tent to tent among us.”
As God’s Word, God’s Light grew up and lived in our midst, he would one day read Isaiah chapter 61 in his hometown synagogue and declare, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is, the time is now to begin living out the vision of salvation and mission Isaiah proclaimed. It is time for salvation as the reality of this world as it should be! It is this vision of salvation and mission John was sent to witness. John is a witness, in Greek he is a martyria, from which we get the word “martyr.” Witnesses say what they have seen or heard or attest to the truth of another’s testimony.
John’s role is to recognize the true Light that has come into the world – a light that the darkness has not overcome – and to call attention to this Light so that others might recognize it and believe. Belief in this sense means to recognize, trust, and commit ourselves to the Light – the Light which is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.
This in turn means to commit ourselves to the kind of salvation and mission that Isaiah proclaims, that John recognizes, that Jesus lives, and that both John and Jesus call us to follow so that our lives might become “a light to the nations.”
John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. John did not come to decorate everyone and everything for Christmas. John did not come to announce the beginning of the Christmas sale season. He did not come to stir us into a frenzy of shopping and spending. He came to remind us and to bear witness to all who will listen that the darkest forces of the world are not as powerful as they claim or appear to be.
We begin this Third Sunday of Advent by praying, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with Great Might come among us.” Will we take the time this Advent to allow God to stir things up within us and within our parishes and throughout the Church, so that we might become more like John, “a man sent from God?” For that is, in fact, who we really are – men and women sent from God as witnesses to testify to the Light, so that all might believe through him.
And maybe, just maybe, as we testify, bear witness to, and proclaim the glory of the Light, we will embody the Light and become those who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world – a world that increasingly is desperate to see and know the Light.
As it says in John, in the Light is “life, and the life was the light of all people.” All people look to us to see the Light. When all that we say and all that we do bears witness to the Light, heaven and salvation will be understood not as a time and place after death, but rather the world as it should be, here and now.