Sermon text: John 1: 6-8, 19-28
On September 9, 1965, Commander Jim Stockdale was shot down while flying a mission over North Vietnam. His ejector seat landed him in a small village where he was immediately captured, beaten, and made a prisoner of war. He spent the next seven and a half years of his life as a POW at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. As the highest-ranking military officer in the prison, he helped organize the men inside and was credited for savings hundreds of lives through his leadership.
How did he do it? How did he save those lives? And how did he survive for seven years through some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable? He developed a way of thinking that is now known as the Stockdale Paradox—and I find it rather prophetic in nature. The Stockdale Paradox acknowledges two things: Ruthless honesty about your situation and unwavering hope about your outcome.
Ruthless honesty. We are prisoners of war. We are tortured, hungry, sick, suffering, and life is very, very bad. Unwavering hope. We have faith that our side will ultimately be victorious and we will be set free and this nightmare will be over. We will prevail against these horrific conditions. In a nutshell, that’s the mindset he helped instill.
This week, we return to the man known as John the Baptist, who may have used the same mindset thousands of years earlier. Last week we looked at him from Mark’s perspective, this week we witness him from the lens of John the Evangelist. And there is one line that I find fascinating, one that is unique to John’s Gospel, in verse 7: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. That verse points us to another line from John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
As a witness who testifies to the light, John must know both sides of the story. John knows light and he knows darkness. And darkness, to borrow a phrase from Jim Stockdale, requires us to be ruthlessly honest in order to name it for what it is.
There’s a lot of darkness in the world, and John the Baptist knows it. Or, to switch metaphors, there’s quite a few obstacles in the way, many mountains and valleys, twists and turns, that are in the way of the Lord’s road. Therefore, make straight the way of the Lord. We hear that in both Mark and John.
There are obstacles of politics; the Romans are harshly ruling the people. There are obstacles of economics; the system is weighted against the people and designed to help the empire and the wealthy. There are obstacles of religion; the temple leadership is corrupt, misguided, and fearful. There are obstacles of basic survival; issues of food, disease, and resources. There are obstacles of sin; the people get in their own way and they have turned from God.
There’s a multitude of obstacles. Deep is the darkness.
John is unwavering in naming the problems of his day. He is even willing to take on the powers that be and this move will ultimately land him in prison. He will lose his head for it. Ruthless honesty comes with a price.
But there is the counterbalance. Unwavering hope. John testifies to the light that will never be overcome. He testifies about the Messiah, being sent by God, who will lead us into a new way of life. He has faith that God is providing what the world needs in the one coming after him, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the source of his unwavering hope, will overcome every honestly named problem that John can list.
I wonder if we could be so bold as to be ruthlessly honest about ourselves and our situation over these past many months, about the perils we are currently facing. Can we honestly recognize the truth of all the darkness we’re peering into?
Right now, we are seeing excess fatalities from COVID, but also from other maladies. Death rates are up. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis as people struggle to cope with all of their stresses. Secondary health problems are becoming more problematic as routine healthcare and elective surgeries are postponed. Unemployment claims continue to yo-yo as our economy teeters on the edge of chaos. We have witnessed social unrest as disenfranchised groups call for justice. We fear for our overtaxed healthcare and education systems. And we feel the weight of our collective social health, especially in this holiday season.
What did I miss? What would you add? Was that brutally honest enough?
Later in life, Jim Stockdale, now an admiral in the US Navy, gave an interview about his seven and a half years as a prisoner of war. And even though we’ve only been at this COVID thing for little under a year, and even though we have far more liberties than he did, I found this quote enlightening.
When asked which prisoners didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied: Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
What are you pinning your hopes on right now? The vaccines? The holidays? Better therapeutics? Better testing? Herd immunity? A cure? A miracle? Normalcy? What light are you seeking? What light are we testifying to? Where is your unwavering hope placed?
I pray that your unwavering hope is found in the same place in December of 2020 as it was in January. I pray that your unwavering hope matches with John the Baptist’s. I pray that Jesus continues to be the source and subject of your hope. We continue to testify to the light, not with blind optimism or illusory hope, but with the light of truth that stands the test of time and circumstance.
As we wander through the darkness of this year may we place our ultimate hope in the one who is to come again. May the steadfast promises and proximity of God be our source of strength as we take on the ruthless truth. Have unwavering hope that, with God’s help, inspiration, and direction, we will prevail. We will overcome all of the conditions that are causing us heartache.
Yes, things are as bad as they seem. But no, this will not be our final chapter. The light of Jesus Christ remains with us, it is what gives us courage and conviction to worship and to serve God. Jesus will ultimately complete the work that he began.
So as we live between the two halves of this paradox—the ruthless truth and the unwavering hope—may the wisdom of the recovery community be our guide as we testify to the light:
God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. AMEN