Sunday, December 16, 2012

3rd Sunday in Advent - John the Baptist

The Collect.
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever,* one God, world without end. Amen.

The Gospel. St. Matt. xi. 2.
NOW when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he whoso-ever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The Gospel lessons for the next two Sundays focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. This morning I would like to talk about 1) who John Baptist was; 2) what was his ministry about; 3) and why his type of ministry is still significant today. John the Baptist holds a unique and important place in the economy of salvation, God's unfolding plan to draw mankind into fellowship with him. That plan existed in the Mind of God before the creation and will find its fulfillment in the perfect adoration and enjoyment of God in heaven. The Bible posits that the central turning point that history is the first coming of the Lord Jesus in the flesh. For the Christian, all history, sacred and even secular, is either a pointing forward to this man, or a looking backwards at him. There is something superlative about this man that becomes evident when we see his life and see it in the context of the history of humanity in general and the history of Israel in particular. For this reason, Pilate's declaration on Good Friday--'behold the man'--is pregnant with meaning—he says more than he understands. Jesus is the man, the perfection of our nature.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus says of himself, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I like to say that he is also the Genesis to the Revelation. The whole Bible is a witness to this one. In the New Testament, this witness is direct and transparent. In the Old Testament, this witness is opaque and suggestive. John the Baptist comes at the end of all those who pointed forward in the Old Testament. He is the crown of the Old Testament prophets because he was able to point directly and tangibly to Jesus while the Old Testament communicated the mystery of the messiah's advent in images, symbols and visions. For example the prophet Ezekiel described a future state in which the people of God would be in perfect and unbroken fellowship with God. He conveyed this idea by describing an ideal and well-ordered temple, but the description of this temple is only in two dimensions—a fact that gives the reader pause. In the end, the description's artificiality suggests that this temple is really a symbol for the messiah Jesus who will establish the union of God and man in the temple of his own body. He is our fellowship with God. John the Baptist did not need to communicate the mystery of the messiah with images like that of Ezekiel. He simply had to point to the man. And that is precisely of what his ministry consisted.
There is an ongoing and immediate relevance of John the Baptist's ministry in the church today. For it is true that John prepared the way for the Word's first advent, but we also believe that Jesus will come again in a second advent to judge the quick and dead. Further there is a third advent, a third coming, that of the Word into our souls. Every time we have a conscious awareness of the holiness, mercy and love of our Lord Jesus, this advent occurs in our souls. Some times this advent takes a form like that of his cleansing of the temple; he makes us aware of the sin to which we are clinging and demands that we release it. Other times, he comes unto us like unto the Samaritan woman, restoring us to God by his gentle prodding. Still other times, he comes to us in order to send us out like his apostles so the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit may overflow to others.
The collect today suggest that there is still a John the Baptist-type ministry to be had, as the way is prepared for the Lord's return and for his coming into our souls. We entreat God with this petition: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight. The collect primarily has in mind ordained ministry—bishops, priests and deacons, but the ministry of the church does not belong solely to its ordained ministers. The ministry of the church does not belong to priests, anymore than the church itself belongs to a bishop or any other human being. We are all ministers of the church. That is why in the Anglican church there can be no such thing as a mass celebrated alone with just a priest, as is the practice in the Roman Church. Holy Communion is necessarily a corporate act—those present represent the entire church. It is critical that these prayers are yours even though they are said by one as our representative.
I would suggest that all of us then have a John the Baptist-type ministry to fulfill, as we prepare the way of the Lord for his coming into souls and his final return. I want to draw your attention to two points that Jesus makes about John the Baptist's ministry at the end of the the lesson: Jesus said “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” Concisely put John was not a reed shaken by the wind nor a man clothed in soft clothing. A reed is a very lightweight plant; even a slight wind will point it in a different direction. Our Lord is saying that John stood firm amidst all the political, religious and social trends of his era. If people came to hear his message, it was not because he had anything particularly pleasant to say. His most frequent subject seemed to be repentance, literally changing your mind, which consists of turning away from sin and turning to God. In every period, there are always those who positively claim to hear the winds of change. Much of this so-called change belongs to the world of the trendy and ephemeral. In the 50's and 60's, there was a major change in the theological world with the death of God theology. These thinkers posited that a traditional belief in God was no longer tenable—they were understandably jaded by the horrors of the second world war. Death of God theologians advocated maintaining the form of Christian worship and practice while understanding the articles of the creed as metaphors and symbols. This was no small, minority movement, but one that found real traction in the Churches. However, by the time I went through seminary, death of God theology was rightly treated as an historic relic. Death of God theology had no future because frankly, who wants to go to church if it is all a fiction? The winds of change supposedly blow today as well. As Christians and like John the Baptist, we are called not to be weather vanes that simply point in whatever direction the wind blows. That does not mean fearing or rejecting all change, but having the wisdom to know the difference between the merely trendy and that which represents an unfolding of God's unchanging truth.
Secondly, John was also not clothed in soft clothing. We are told he wore a camel's hair garment and ate locusts and wild honey. In other words, John renounced the skewed values of this world, which place greater emphasis on material belongings than on love, joy and peace. It is entirely possible and even common for a man to have no love, no joy, no peace but abundant possessions and have a completely miserable life. The holiday culture around us provides no lack of opportunity to renounce the world's values in its base materialism. Dare I say that as Christians we need to fight a holy war on Christmas, that the war on Christmas might actually belong to us? By Christmas I don't of course mean the feast of the Nativity which is celebrated on the 25th but the torrent of consumerism that rages for two months. We all need to be reminded including myself that material goods will never alone bring us true and lasting happiness. Nor to our children. Further, mere accumulation usually brings greater unhappiness. The soul's food, the soul's delight is God. The Psalms remind us of this fact again and again. In closing listen to these verses from Psalms that speak of the basis human hunger for God and the contentment we may find in him. “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh also longeth after thee, * in a barren and dry land where no water is.” (Ps.63); “The Lord shall feed me in a green pasture, * and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.” (Ps.23); “thy loving-kindness is better than life itself.” (Ps.63); “My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness, * when my mouth praiseth thee with joyful lips.” (Ps.63); “Thou shalt show me the path of life: in thy presence is the fulness of joy, * and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.” (Ps.16). 

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