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Someone to Point

Many years ago, as part of my training for ordained ministry, I had an internship in the Seychelles Islands. The Seychelles are a cluster of small islands off the coast of Africa, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a special place, and the ocean around the islands is teeming with life. Among the amazing creatures that are found in the waters of the Seychelles are giant sea turtles. And I wanted to see them.

So one day while I was there, I asked one of the locals to take me out in his boat. It was a windy day, big waves with whitecaps all around. As we were motoring along, the driver said to me all of a sudden, “Look a turtle!” He pointed, and I looked in the direction he was pointing, and all I could see were waves. The waves were easy to see, they were big enough to rock the boat. But I couldn’t see any turtles. He kept pointing, and he turned the boat in that direction, and sure enough, when we got close enough, and I mean almost right on top of it, I saw the turtle that he had spotted. We watched it for a bit, then it went under, and we kept going. A few minutes later it happened again. “Look, a turtle!” cried my friend, and I looked and I saw nothing but miles of ocean flecked with whitecaps. But he kept pointing, and I kept looking, and sure enough when we got close enough, I saw another turtle. And it happened over and over again. By the end of our boat trip we’d seen many turtles, but the only reason that I’d seen any of them was because of my friend who kept pointing.

Sometimes in order to see things, we need someone to point, someone to let us know where to look.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.”

Do you remember our gospel from last week? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We talked about how the good news begins in the wilderness. How the wilderness can be the place where we learn to be God’s people. The place where we can learn to see the divine in our midst, the God who is with us.

There’s a problem however. Often we don’t see it. God might indeed be with us, in our midst, but we can’t see it. Kind of like those turtles. Sometimes all we see are the waves that rock our boat.

I went hiking once in the Lake District of northern England, a mountainous, remote area. I was on my own and one day I followed a path right up to the top of one of the mountains. These are old mountains, and so they’re rounded on top, and on the summit of this particular mountain was a beautiful meadow. When I reached the meadow, the path that I’d been following up the mountain side disappeared, because in the grassy area the hikers whose feet had made the path were free to wander anywhere they wanted. Not to worry, it would be easy enough to find the path again on the other side of the meadow.

Or so I thought. But just as I was in the middle of that grassy meadow, this big cloud rolled in and covered the mountain top, reducing the visibility to zero. And even though I made my way to the edge of the meadow on the other side, and I looked and looked, and I walked back and forth and around in circles, I couldn’t see the way down the mountain that would take me home.

What I really needed in that moment was a guide, someone who could see the way and point to it for me. The path was there, I knew it, but I couldn’t see it, and there was no one there to point it out to me.

Sometimes we need someone to point.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light.”

That problem of hiddenness is also present in today’s gospel reading. Out in the wilderness, by the River Jordan, the atmosphere around John is electric. There’s this air of excitement, an air of expectancy. Crowds have surged into the wilderness to see John. Is this where the good news begins? Who is this John? Could he be the One? Could he be the Messiah that we’ve been waiting for all these years, the one who will save us from Roman occupation, the one whom God promised to send?

Who are you?

I am not the Messiah.

Are you Elijah then, the one who is to come just before the Messiah?


Are you the prophet, the one that Moses said was coming?

I am not.

Who are you then?

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” I am a witness. The one who testifies. The one who points.

The one who points to what his questioners cannot see. Because at that very moment, in that very place, there is in the crowd the one whom they seek, the one they’ve been waiting for. The divine presence is in their midst and yet remains hidden.

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

Can you imagine the crowds looking around at each other, trying to figure out who John is talking about, waiting for John to point?

That day, he makes them wait. But then, the next day, when he sees Jesus coming towards him, he points and declares,

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

John’s calling, even more important than baptizing, was to point to Jesus.

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came to point to the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.”

The people in that crowd had a problem. God had come into their very midst in the person of Jesus, and they couldn’t see it. It was hidden from them. He stood among them and they did not know it. They needed a guide. They needed a witness, someone who could point to Jesus. That’s what John did. That’s why he was sent.

I think that we have the same problem today that the crowd had in today’s gospel. God is with us. God is active and present in our world and in our lives and yet, we don’t see it. We miss it. We aren’t aware of it. We sleep through it. The divine presence is here but it’s hidden from us. And that’s a problem. It’s like we’re on a mountain top in the fog, and there is a way that takes us home, but we just can’t find it.

We need someone to point. To point to Jesus, to point to the divine in our midst, to show us the way home from the wilderness, to point to the light.

Two thousand years ago, God sent a man named John to do the pointing, to be the witness.

Three years later, in his last words to his disciples, Jesus said to them, and through them to us, now, you are to be my witnesses.

Often the world is opaque to us. Our sight is limited. We are oblivious to the spiritual dimension of our lives. God remains hidden. God is in our midst but we don’t know it.

One of my favourite writers, Henri Nouwen, writes that the first movement of the spiritual life is from opaqueness to transparency. The movement from the place where “things are dark, thick, impenetrable and closed, to the place where these same things are translucent, open and offer vision far beyond themselves. . . . To live spiritually in the world is to unmask the illusion, to dispel the darkness and to walk in the light.”

John came to point to the light. He did that by pointing to Jesus.

We in our time are called to do this same thing for each other. Last week we talked about the wilderness that we’re in, and the darkness that is part of our world. That’s where the good news begins. The light comes into the darkness, and the darkness does not, cannot overcome it. But we need people to point to the light. We are called to be those witnesses, to look for the divine presence in our world, and when we see it, to point it out for each other. To name and articulate God’s activity in our lives. And if we can do this for each other, we become a community that moves from opaqueness to transparency, a people who are alive to the spiritual dimension of their lives.

And we will know that God is with us.


Homily: Yr B Advent 3, Dec 17 2017, St. Albans

Readings: Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Ps 126; 1 Thess 5.16-24; John 1.6-9, 19-29

Image by Shawn, Creative Commons



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