Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 December 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Today we observe the second Sunday of Advent, the season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Fr. Charles explained in his sermon last Sunday, our waiting is three-fold: we wait for Jesus to come to us as a infant in Bethlehem, we wait for him to come to us through His Presence in the Holy Eucharist, and we wait for him to come in all his glory at the end of time.
In today’s Gospel we join the Jews in first-century Palestine who are waiting for their Messiah. And out of the wilderness appears the strange and mysterious figure of John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He identifies himself as a prophet announcing the imminent coming of the Messiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3). In his preaching, John urgently calls on the people to repent of their sins and be baptized as they wait for the appearance of the Messiah.
Although John saw his role as only a messenger, someone who was sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, he acquired quite a following of his own. We are told in the Gospel that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). His fame drew the attention of the religious authorities as well as the king. Prior to John’s birth, the angel Gabriel had appeared to his father Zechariah and foretold that John would become a mighty prophet like Elijah (Luke 1:13-17). And the greatest compliment that John received came from Jesus himself, who told his disciples: “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28).
Yet for all the accolades and popularity, John never lost sight of his focus, to point to the Messiah, and he repeatedly humbled himself before Jesus. John called himself “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.” Furthermore, he explained that Jesus “must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). And in today’s Gospel he states that he is not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11).
It couldn’t have been easy, however, for John to play second fiddle, especially considering the fact that Jesus was his younger cousin. John was a great prophet, but he was also a human being, after all. He must have struggled with his ego. John had begun his ministry before Jesus and had a larger following. But then some of his disciples started to leave him for Jesus. Although he graciously accepted this as part of God’s grand plan, it is difficult to imagine that he wasn’t personally affected in some way – even hurt – to see his loyal disciples and long-time companions abandon him. And it seems that John occasionally had doubts and questions about Jesus. At one point he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you really the one?” (Matthew 11:3). Yet, in spite of the blows to his ego and his doubts, John remained faithful to the end. The Church remembers and honors him as the prophet who paved the way for Jesus, the last of the great prophets.
Moreover, John sets an example for us of how to live the Christian life. He takes the focus away from himself and turns it on Jesus. This is no easy task. I don’t know about you, but for me, the self – my ego – constantly intrudes no matter how noble and lofty my intentions may be. As you know, I was ordained priest this past May, but the process for ordination began about three years ago. We have several parishioners at St. Mary’s who are currently Postulants for Holy Orders – Lynda, Richard, Isaac, and David – and you can probably relate to what I’m about to share – or rather, confess.
For me, parts of the ordination process were rather narcissistic. I lost count of how many psychological tests I took to learn more about myself and how many times I had to articulate my faith journey, my calling, and my vision for ministry. On the one hand, this was a wonderful process of self-discovery, but, at the same time, I also struggled to keep the focus away from myself to the reason why I began the process in the first place – to serve Christ and His Church. And the struggle with my ego has not stopped. As you know, I’m a bi-vocational priest, and in addition to serving at St. Mary’s, I also teach history at the University of Central Missouri. There are several of you in our parish who are also teachers. And we all know that we get into teaching for the big money. As a clergy friend who used to be an academic once observed, we teachers may not make a lot of money, but we do tend to become obsessed with status. Academics measure their self-worth in terms of their degrees, the numbers of publications, the schools they attended, and official titles.
Unfortunately, the Christian ministry is not immune from the game of status and recognition. I’m sure you have encountered ambitious clergy who can barely hide the fact that they aspire to wear the purple shirt of a bishop someday or at least become rector of a large, well-heeled parish with a substantial salary. The Church is no stranger to power and money.
In this penitential season of Advent, let us examine and reflect on those areas of our lives in which our egos stand in the way of our faith. Where in our lives do we encounter the temptations of power, status, and wealth? When do pride and self-centeredness get in the way of serving God and those around us? How do we orient our lives so that it is not about us but about Jesus?
One of my favorite theologians is Karl Barth. Never mind the fact that he is a Reformed theologian, coming out of the Calvinist tradition, and I’m an Anglo-Catholic, and, of course, the two sides don’t always see eye to eye. I still like what Barth has to say. Well, Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grunewald hung above the desk in his study. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, who is standing off to the side and pointing his finger to the cross of Jesus in the center. Of course, this is not historically accurate. John the Baptist had died long before the crucifixion, but this image comes from the artist’s imagination. The story goes that whenever Barth would have discussions with visitors about his theological writings, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, and he would say, “I want to be that finger." Barth did indeed become a finger pointing to Christ both in word and deed. Barth’s theology is firmly grounded in Christ as the revealed Word of God, and in his personal life as well, his focus on Christ never wavered. At a time when most of the clergy and theologians in Germany, threw their support behind the Nazis, Barth wrote a personal letter to Hitler proclaiming that he has no lord except Jesus Christ. He paid for this act of defiance by getting fired from his position at the University of Bonn.
Dear friends, in this holy season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus, we give thanks for the witness and example of John the Baptist, herald of the Messiah. Let us listen to his voice calling us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and live not for ourselves but for Jesus. Let us also take a moment to visualize John the Baptist’s finger. It points to our crucified and risen Lord. And today that finger points to none other than our own Altar at St. Mary’s. For it is here that Christ will soon come to us in the Holy Eucharist. Come, Lord Jesus!
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.