Witnesses of Hope
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:6-8,19-28
Today’s gospel suggests that there are two ways of approaching life and of approaching the presence of God in our world. One way is demonstrated by the priests and the Levites. The other way is demonstrated by John. We can be questioning doubters like the former. Or we can be witnesses as was John the Baptist. Questioners or Witness.
John was a witness sent by God. The priests and the Levites were interrogators sent by the religious authorities. “Who are you?”, they ask John. “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet?” “Why are you baptizing?” They know neither themselves nor the one who stands among them. They are in the dark. That is how it is with interrogators. Witnesses, however, are different. They talk about light. They know the light. They endeavor to live in the light.
John knows who his is and who he is not. And so, he claims for himself neither too much nor too little. He speaks the truth, but he is not the truth. He is illumined but he is not the light. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, but he is not the Word of God. Everything about John points to the light, and the life of both the One who stands among us and the One who is coming. John will bet his life on that One.
That is how it is with witnesses. They live and die based on what they have seen, and heard, and experienced and, more important than anything else, on what they have embraced as the answer to life’s deepest questions.
To question is a good thing. But to live one’s life never having embraced or simply refusing to embrace any answer to the awesome mystery of transcendence at work in our world and in our lives can only leave the largest void as to life’s purpose, meaning and direction. Perennial questioning doubters end up knowing neither themselves nor the God who stands among them. They live in the dark. Witnesses, on the other hand, speak about and enjoy bathing in the light they know and have made a choice to embrace.
The real difference between witnesses and interrogators is this. Interrogators demand answers. Witness also seek answers. But because they have taken the leap and have embraced an answer, witnesses are thereby empowered, quite unlike questioners, to offer sometime terribly precious and in short supply. They are empowered to offer hope.
Today more than ever we need witnesses of hope. We do not need more questions. We have more than enough uncertainly. We need rather to hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord. Prepare highway for your God.”
John’s voice is the voice of hope. His words echo through the wilderness of our world and the wilderness of our lives. We need, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness. But John’s was not the first voice of hope. Before John, Mary was proclaiming the greatness of the Lord. She spoke of the One who shows favor to the lowly, the One offers mercy, the One who lends the strength of his arm, the One who fills the hungry with good things, the One who comes to the help of His people.
Before Mary, there was Isaiah. The Lord anointed him to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners. He spoke about a God who comforts those who grieve and rebuilds the ruins of their lives. Like Mary, he spoke of a God who loves justice.
John, Mary, Isaiah. Each one is a witness of hope. They look at the circumstances of their life and the world, and from the deepest experience of wilderness, see a greater reality. They each testify to a life and a presence beyond their own.
Within each of their voices is the Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word that became flesh and dwells among us, and the Word that enables us to become children of God. Everything that needs to be said was spoken in that one Word. That Word is our ultimate hope.
Think about the tragedies and difficulties of our lives: the death of a loved one, a serious or life-threatening illness, an addiction, a broken relationship, guilt, the sin that would separate us from God, others and ourselves. When such as these strike, do questions and answers sustain us? How, when, what, or why was not what we need to hear. It is the Word of hope that gets us through it all.
Think about the pain of the world. The contradicts that confront us each day. Last week the poster children for avarice and greed bought a thirty one million dollar building lot in Florida, as millions wait on food lines and face eviction from their homes. It was reported this week that wealthy nations have overpurchased Covid-19 vaccines such there will not be enough to supply the needs of poor nations. The most pressing questions go unanswered as elected officials take no action or excuse their responsibility by saying there is no money. There is more than enough money. It is simply not distributed justly. There is apparently enough money for the Senate to pass a $740 billion dollar military budget but not enough to keep the poor and the unemployed fed and in their homes.
Hope doesn’t make life easy. But it does make life possible. Hope reminds us that it won’t always be like this. There is light and life coming to us. And the light is already here among us. The questioners of the world make it difficult to hear the witness of hope. The questioners clamor for our attention. They often speak the loudest. But the voice of hope has never been and cannot be silenced. And the actions we take to engender and sustain hope can make all the difference.
Which voice do we listen to? Which voice do we follow? What actions do we engage? What actions do we advance? Those are questions we must answer every day. Speaking words of hope and taking actions that sustain hope in the face of so many unanswered questions make life worth living.
The reality of humanity is that we are a people of the wilderness. The reality of God is that God is the God of hope for those who journey in the wilderness.
Do we trust the questioning voice of the wilderness or do we trust the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness? The voice we listen to is the voice with which we will speak. We will become either witnesses or forever remain questioners? It is our choice. We choose who we want to be.
Hope is not easy. As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians, we must practice hope by rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances. These practices enable us to both hear and become the voice of hope and agents of a new tomorrow.
Interrogators question the circumstances of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. Are the circumstances right for rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks? Is there reason for these things? They want answers, justifications, and reasons.
Witnesses, however, look beyond the circumstances to the God who fills those circumstances. That is hope. It opens our eyes to see the one who is coming. It prepares our hearts to welcome the one who is already among us. It makes straight the way of the Lord.
Hope is not a feeling but an orientation and attitude of our life. It is a way of seeing. It allows us to recognize and know the Christ, already here and not yet here. Hope does not change the circumstances of our life. Rather it changes us and that changes everything and empowers us to be part of that change.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
December 13, 2020