Last week I noted the gospel readings in Advent suggest a series of sermons about how each of the four canonical gospels begins. If you followed that suggestion (and even if you did not), you should consider how this week’s gospel differs from last week’s reading from Mark 1. Both Mark and John draw attention to the Baptizer. But what they do with him differs. Mark identifies the Baptizer as the voice foretold by Isaiah. The fourth gospel speaks of John as a witness. He came as a witness to the light.
The light metaphor is strong in the fourth gospel (see 3:18-21, 8:12, 9:5, 11:9-10, 12:34-46). It is also fitting for a hemisphere that, this time of year, is growing darker each day. If you decide to use the light metaphor in your sermon, you may want to adjust the appointed reading. The lectionary suggests beginning at verse 6, but light comes up earlier. Verses 4-5 introduce Jesus as the light. Verses 1-3 connect the light of Christ to the creation of all things. And verse 9 finishes John’s initial thoughts by referring to Jesus as the true light who enlightens everyone. With this context in mind, I suggest establishing the text for this sermon as John 1:1-9.
This brings us back to the light. John bears witness to the light. The counterpart to the light, of course, is darkness (1:5), which is where your sermon might begin.
John bears witness to the light. The counterpart to the light, of course, is darkness (1:5), which is where your sermon might begin.
There are several ways to help your people think about the darkness. Homiletically, it would be wise to choose a single line of thinking and stick to it. One option would be to highlight the wickedness that takes place in the dark. “People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19; see also Ephesians 6:12). This approach would help you call out the sin of your hearers for their participation in wickedness in the shadows.
Another option would be to reflect on the danger of walking in the darkness. C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair comes to mind. As Eustace and Jill journeyed with the Marshwiggle through the darkness of Underland, they found themselves in constant peril. As the old hymn puts it, “I walk in danger all the way” (Lutheran Service Book, 716).
A third option would be to reflect on the darkness in terms of the uncertainty it creates (If I were preaching, I would take this direction). At times we say the future is dark, and not only until the winter solstice. The future is inscrutable, unpredictable, and uncertain. Virginia Woolf seems to have had this in mind in her January 1915 diary entry: “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” We always live in this type of darkness. But the extent of our uncertainty has gained ground this year. Consider all the unknowns which occupy your hearers’ thinking. When will the vaccine be available? Will it be effective? Will it be safe? What about Christmas plans? Will it be wise to gather with family? Will it be socially acceptable? What about the economy? Will my business make it? Will I still have a job after the holidays? Will we ever go back to school full-time? For that matter, you might consider the uncertainties you face personally in your vocation as a pastor. Will your congregation recover from the drop in attendance (and giving)? Will the decline in so many churches and church bodies accelerate as a result? What will ministry look like on the other side of the pandemic?
It is like the blind leading the blind. The future is dark, indeed.
Into this uncertainty, John bears witness to the light. This light, John insists, is eternal. He is the one through whom all things were made. He is one with the Father from all eternity. “Light from light,” as we say in the Creed. He illuminates creation by speaking what He hears from the Father. He reveals the depths of sin and death, but also the gracious will of God. This revelation did not sit well with the people of His day, so they snuffed Him out. But the light eternal would not remain in the darkness of death. Risen from the dead, He shined forth to bring life to all humankind (recall 1:9).
This week, through your enlightened proclamation, Jesus brings light and life to your hearers. That is the promise in your sermon. As He did in the first century, Jesus, the light of the world and the life of humankind, comes into our dark and uncertain times. There is so much we do not know and so much we cannot see. But we do, by faith, see Jesus. We see the crucified and resurrected Lord who has cleaved the darkness of death for us. With Him and His gracious promise of deliverance in view, you and your hearers can endure the darkness ahead. Whatever else may come, however worse it may get, the light has come and will come again. This certain promise sustains us as we grope our way forward.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 1:6-8, 19-20.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 1:6-8, 19-20.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 1:6-8, 19-20.