St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City
Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2023
The Rev. Larry Parrish
No nativity set ever had a figure of John the Baptist. Yet the flesh and blood original is there somewhere at the beginning of all of the Gospels, preparing the way for the appearance of Jesus. And he might not be a part of the Christmas Story as we call it, but he is a “must have” figure for Advent readings. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is the character that provides the introduction of the adult Jesus to a people that are waiting for someone to Make Israel Great Again, to restore the political kingdom that had thrived 500 years before under the great King David, and the great King Solomon.
The writers of these Gospels go into some detail about who this “forerunner” was, what he looked like and what he said. John is found preaching a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 & Luke 3:3)) to those who gathered to hear him, and to amend their ways, telling them to “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt: 3:2) and to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt: 3:8 & Luke 3:8). He tells them that the Messiah is coming to “gather the wheat into his granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Hie is described as one wearing clothes made from camel hair, his pants held up with a leather belt, and dining on locusts and wild honey. (Matt: 3:4 and Mark 1:6)
Perhaps you have noticed over time that each of the four Gospels are unique, no one exactly like the other. This doesn’t invalidate them or make one more, or less, “true” than the others. It simply means that trying to describe who Jesus was and how God showed up in him takes more than one storyteller and one script.
This is especially true of the Gospel of John, from which our Gospel reading came this morning. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, share a lot of similarities. It is why they are called the Synoptic Gospels. They “sync” with each other. The Gospel of John is quite different in style and content than these Gospels. This is true from its very beginning, as it introduces John the Baptizer.
In our Gospel reading from John today, John the Baptizer (NOT the same as John the Gospel Writer!) says nothing about repentance or doing righteous deeds; nor is described as wearing distinctive clothing and eating a distinctive diet. He doesn’t say anything about the restoration of Israel or the “Kingdom of God.” Instead, he is said to be a “witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
As in the other Gospels, John made quite a stir among the people he was preaching to –and baptizing--because some priests and deacons were sent from the Diocesan Office to ask him “WHO are YOU?”
Stop! This isn’t a bad paraphrase, even if I do say so myself. It makes an important point regarding reading, and interpreting, The Gospel of John. The text reads “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem.” John the Gospel writer makes use of the term “Jews” quite often and this has caused all sorts of mischief, feeding the warped perspective of anti-Semites throughout history. Most scholars agree that John’s use of “The Jews”, in its Greek form (hoi-Ioudaioi) doesn’t refer to the ethnicity, nationality, or the religious practices of the Jewish people.” It refers instead to “the religious authorities;” i.e. those in charge of keeping order in the institutional Temple (that can just as easily be read. “The institutional Church!”) That responsibility is not damning in and of itself, unless those holding it use their religion and its structure to have and keep power for very human reasons. Unfortunately, there have been and are many instances throughout history, and in the news today, in which Christian religious authorities have indeed over-used and abused their power. Enough said. Back to John.
So, the emissaries of the religious authorities of the time asked John. “Who are you?”
“I am not the Messiah.”
“We didn’t ask you who you weren’t. Who ARE you? Are you Elijah?”
“Are you the prophet?” (Maybe a reference to Moses cf. Deuteronomy 18:15)
“Look. Whoever you are. We have to take an answer back to the people who sent us. What do you call yourself?”
John answered, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just like the prophet Isaiah said.”
What kind of authority do you have to foretell the coming of the Messiah or the restoration of Israel?! Who ordained YOU!?
“I am not foretelling either of those things. “I simply baptize with water” and tell anyone who will listen that, ‘Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who comes after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’”
This is what I hear: John says he is not a prophet like Isaiah, but he is a voice such as Isaiah spoke of. “A voice crying in the wilderness, making preparation for the coming of God, who already stands among you as one who you do not know.”
In John’s Gospel, God is not about the restoration of a human kingdom, but the restoration of the Cosmos, the Entire Universe, and the redeeming of all in it. What is to appear—in fact has already appeared (!)—is not a “what”, but a “Who,” the one “Who” has shown up in the midst of 1st century Palestine and continues to show up still, everywhere!
I cannot isolate this Advent text about John from the five verses that precede it, or the six verses the follow it. All together they make up the Gospel text for Christmas morning. So on this Advent morning we have a glimpse of Christmas Day: To point out some of them:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”
“What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.”
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .”
I don’t think that John of the Jordan knew this message in full. Whoever he was, he knew of the prophet Isaiah, so it’s a good bet that he knew the Hebrew Scriptures and the things that the people of the former kingdom of Israel longed for. But now, however, it happened, he knew that God was about to take action not to restore an earthly kingdom, but to share His life and “light” with all people—and that his mission was to point out the one who was make this message known through his own earthly body, life, and teaching. “He (John) was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” And to do that pointing out, to testify, he had at his disposal, his voice.
St. Augustine (Or was it St. Francis?) was said to have said. “Preach the Gospel always; and, if necessary, use words.” There is some wisdom to this. Words can be cheap, and no matter how confidently we speak of our beliefs or faith, we can negate our words by actions contrary to what we say we believe. Then, too, people look to our actions to see if they might trust our words. See St. Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (I Corinthians 13:1ff)
We don’t want to be noisy goings! But we don’t want to keep our mouths shut when using our voice can bring enlightenment, comfort, happiness, or even rescue. Or a warning!
There are things we know that the rest of the world can do without knowing. But there are also things we know that can bring blessing or new, and needed, perspective and understanding to others. Sometimes people need to hear wisdom or experience or knowledge or love spoken aloud.
The voice can cut and injure and destroy. But it can also build up and heal. If a touch or an action will do that, great. We don’t have to risk embarrassing ourselves! But sometimes things just need to be said, even if we can’t say them eloquently or the words are hard to form.
Remember, too, that John the Baptist’s mission is ours, too. We are asked to point out the presence of God in the midst of a sometimes dark and cynical world, and that He once entered our world in our shape and form, enjoying the best of human relationships and suffering a tortuous death because of the fears of those who represented both Empire and the religious establishment. We are to use our voices to say that God is for the vulnerable and the outcasts and those who don’t always fit the mold of what some see as a well-ordered society. We are to use our voices to denounce injustice and untruth.
And I suppose I should remind you that using your voice for the above doesn’t always get you reward points with those who like to abuse their power. John the Baptist spoke truth to power and ended up with his head on a platter!
We will get—or we already have-- our energy and courage from that which we know in our deepest beings but cannot prove: That the One who has been before the beginning of the Universe and is behind all created things, is our light and our life. A light that continues to shine in our dark Advent world, that the darkness did not, and will not, overcome. That this One is everywhere in the world, and yet unseen. That this creating energy has become flesh like us and once dwelt among us, and as Resurrected body dwells with us still. We in Him and He in us. Testify to this to others.
People need good deeds. They also need good news voices.
. . . . Can we count on yours?
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.