This is the sermon I preached this morning at Barnes Methodist Church. Today is the third Sunday in Advent, the day the Church traditionally remembers the person and ministry of John the Baptist. The set gospel reading was John 1:6-8, 19-28.
Last year, I was lucky enough to travel to Colmar near the French / German border and to visit the Unterlinden Museum there. The undoubted highlight of the museum’s collection is the Isenheim Altarpiece. It was painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in the early sixteenth century, and is generally considered to be his greatest work and a true masterpiece. The altarpiece is in fact made up of several different scenes on a number of wings that were meant to be folded out and viewed on different holy days: the annunciation, the resurrection and scenes from the life of St Anthony. Nowadays, it is possible to wander around and see all of them at the same time.
The best-known scene, and the one that has been most venerated and most reproduced, is that of Christ’s crucifixion. It shows Christ on the cross, with his mother Mary collapsing into the arms of John, the beloved disciple, and another woman weeping at his feet. And on the other side, John the Baptist. The depiction of Christ, writhing in pain from the agony of the nails, is generally considered to be one of the most lifelike in medieval art. The altarpiece was made for the nearby monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim, which specialized in the care of plague sufferers. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Jesus’s body is shown as being covered in plague-like sores, demonstrating to the patients that Christ not only understood but also shared their afflictions.
There is a great deal more that I could say about the altarpiece but, for obvious reasons, it is that figure of John the Baptist which I wish to concentrate on today. Of course, in one sense, it is a completely inaccurate scene because John could not possibly have witnessed the Crucifixion; he had been beheaded by Herod several years earlier (see Mark 6:17-29). However, it is perhaps one of the best-known paintings of ‘the Baptizer’ (as he is more properly known) in existence, and frequently comes out at the top of any Google Image search. He is shown, as he often is in such paintings, with some familiar aspects of his Biblical ministry. He is wearing a camel-hair coat (Mark 1:6). He holds a copy of the Old Testament scriptures that point to his prophetic role (Matt. 3:3). His words to his disciples in John’s gospel appear beside him in Latin: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). And he is accompanied by a physical depiction of ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29), whose blood becomes the ‘cup of salvation’ poured into a communion chalice.
It also features this curious hand pointing to the crucified Christ. If you try to imitate the movement, you will find it is very uncomfortable, and taken out of context it can seem rather bizarre. Arguably, though, what the artist is trying to do here – in this impossible scene – is to sum up that passage from John’s gospel today. John’s mission is not to glorify himself or to attract a cult following, but simply to point to the Messiah who was to come: Jesus Christ. It is as if he were saying to the viewer: ‘Don’t look at me, look at him. Look at what he is doing for you.’
This depiction is very clearly grounded in our passage today, which in many senses is a very negative one. There is a grand total of ten “not”s, “neither”s, and “no”s in these thirteen verses:
- “He himself was not the light” (1:8)
- he is not the Messiah, Elijah or the prophet (1:20-21, 25)
- and he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who is to come (1:27).
Now, in part, John the gospel writer clearly feels it important to stress this negativity as there are some, even in his own time, who followed John’s teaching about repeated baptism (Acts 19:4). (And indeed there are a few distant descendants of these disciples still practising today.) But it also reflected that prophetic tradition in which John so clearly stood: of knowing who you were and who you were not. As Amos told the priest Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14). Or Isaiah, who quaked before God’s call and cried out, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Or Jeremiah, who similarly resisted his prophetic vocation, saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer. 1:6).
John very clearly understood what his role was and was not. Despite pressure from the authorities and even his own disciples to pretend to be something he was not, he never wavered from his prophetic call. As we heard in our reading, John came as a “witness to the light” not to be “the light” (1:7). It is no mistake that the Greek word for witness – martyria, from which we gain our word ‘martyr’ – occurs thirty-three times in John’s gospel and only twice in the entirety of the three others. The evangelist continually stresses that the role of people like John the Baptist and the disciples is not to be the Christ, but to bear faithful witness to the Christ. To recognise the one whom God had sent to dwell among them, and to redeem the world. John rebukes those in authority, who had come out into the desert to question him: “Among you stands one whom you do not know” (1:26). Then and throughout the gospel, Jesus was in plain sight to the people but so many of them refused to recognise him, refused to open their eyes. The role of women and men like John the Baptist was to point and say, “Look! This is the one for whom you are searching.”.
Two thousand years later, that is our role as well. When the church and Christians have failed – as they so often have done and continue to do – it is very often because we have forgotten that vocation. Unlike John the Baptist we have so often failed to understand who we are and who we are not. We are not the judge of all the nations. We do not possess all truth and knowledge. We cannot heal the world and solve all its problems. Our role – like the Baptizer’s – is to point people to the one who is, who does and who can: Jesus.
There is a challenge for all of us today in that gospel reading. To whom or to what do our lives point? As a minister and preacher, there is great deal of temptation to believe that all things point to me. To believe that when people come to me, as they do, with incredibly challenging problems, I can somehow solve them. To believe that my eloquence, or lack thereof, are the most important things about worship. To believe that I have the answers to all the challenges facing the congregations I serve. Many ministers before me have fallen into that trap, and destroyed churches as a result. I have failed if I cannot point people to Jesus as the one who can give them the peace and assurance they deserve, who holds the answer to their questions and who turns bread and wine into something infinitely greater. And God’s church – here and everywhere – is doomed to fail too, unless it grasps that truth. It’s vocation is not to point to itself but to the Christ it serves.
As we wait patiently this Advent for the coming of the Christ child, let us reflect on that challenge. Where do our lives point people? Do they point them to a building of bricks and mortar? Do they point to ourselves, in all our frailty and foolishness? Do they point to the values of this materialistic world, which surrounds us constantly in this season of pre-Christmas consumerism? Or do they, like the angels to the shepherds in the field, or John’s disciples by the banks of the Jordan, point to something infinitely greater? Do they invite one and all: “Come and see” (John 1:46)? Do they point the way to the Christ? Amen.