Light Testimony

For Sunday, 13 December 2020: John 1:6-8,19-28

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.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 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.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

I have lived in the northern tier states of North Dakota and Minnesota for twenty-six years. On occasion the northern lights of the aurora borealisare visible from this latitude. They appear as a white glow on the northern horizon; sometimes the colors red or green can be seen faintly in the night sky. It was not until I visited an Indigenous community within the Arctic Circle in Alaska, however, that my eyes were truly opened to the wonders of this phenomenon of creation.

We were awakened in the middle of the night by our hosts to come outside and witness the northern lights. I could not believe what I was seeing! There before my very eyes in the cold air, I witnessed what I can only describe as clouds of rainbows moving in slow motion across the sky, ever expanding and contracting, illuminating the dark of night. I was mesmerized, experiencing what was like a Celtic “thin place” where the veil between heaven and earth is reduced.

The Algonquin, a First Nations people of Quebec, tell a story about the aurora borealisas light from a fire made by the Creator. They understand the fire to be the Creator’s way of telling the people that he remembers them and is watching over them. My impulse that night was to bow down in worship. In retrospect, I realized I had merely caught a glimpse of the northern lights in the lower forty-eight. The full glory and brilliance of the aurora borealiswas within the Arctic Circle!

In today’s gospel story, people are curious about who this prophetic baptizer named John truly is. Could he be Elijah, the prophet who had been taken from this world in the whirlwind of a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11) and was to return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5)? Might he even be the Messiah himself? Is John the Light?

John is clear with his interrogators. He is neither Elijah nor the Messiah. Rather, he quotes the prophet Isaiah to describe himself, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). Furthermore, John says, “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.” According to the text, John was a man sent from God to testify to the light that was coming after him so that all might believe through that light. Who is the Light, then? According to John, the light is standing among us, but people are not able to see it. Perhaps they are only catching a glimpse of that light and not its full glory and brilliance.

Of course, John the baptizer is pointing to Jesus as “the light.” In this same chapter of the Gospel of John, the narrator declares about Jesus: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-5). During this season of preparation, may we grow from glimpses of God’s light in Jesus to apprehension of his true brilliance. Kindle the light of Christ so that it burns brightly in our hearts until the day of his return.



The Rt. Rev. Michael Smith is an Assistant Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, an Assisting Bishop in Navajoland and a former bishop of North Dakota. He is in an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.