Dec. 11, 2011 Advent 3: John the Baptist

There are four weeks in the season of Advent, and every year two of the gospel readings for Advent focus on the witness of John the Baptist. That is a clue to us that he is a very important person. Not to mention that all four of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – though each of these tells the story of the life of Jesus in its own unique way, every one of them gives John the Baptist a place of primary importance in the story. So we get the idea – John the Baptist was a very, very significant person. But I don’t think we can always remember why he was so significant. And we might wonder, too, how significant he is to us today.

First of all, there are a number of men named John in the New Testament, so it’s good to be clear exactly which John we are talking about. The man John whose gospel we read today is not John the Baptist – he is the John who was one of the twelve disciples, the young disciple who reclined beside Jesus at the Last Supper, the John who is sometimes referred to as “the disciple Jesus loved”. That is John the Evangelist, who wrote this gospel.

John the Baptist, on the other hand, was Jesus’s cousin. He was born to be a priest because his father, Zechariah, belonged to the family of Levi. And his mother, Elizabeth, was the relative that Mary ran to visit to tell her about her meeting with the Angel Gabriel and his unbelievable announcement to her. If you remember, this John – John who would be John the Baptist – recognized Jesus even while he was in his mother’s womb. As soon as Mary came into the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the unborn baby John, filled with the Holy Spirit, leapt for joy inside of his mother, sensing the presence of the Incarnate God even though he was no more than a tiny fetus in Mary’s womb.

So this John was a remarkable man, right from the beginning. And God gave him an even more remarkable calling. Though he was born to be a priest, to serve in the Temple and offer sacrifices year after year, God called him instead to be a prophet, and not just any prophet. He was called to be the first prophet of God in Israel in four centuries. After 400 years of silence, it was John’s solitary voice that would cry out to God’s people, calling them out into the wilderness to prepare their hearts, to let them know that God himself was coming to live among them. That was a call to the Jews of first century Palestine, so it might not seem to have much to do with us, living in the North Country in the 21st century.  But John’s voice cries out to us as well, because Jesus comes to us, too, and we, just as much as those Jews long ago, need to prepare our hearts for his coming.

That’s what the collect was about last week. If you spent some time this week meditating on that collect, letting it soak in, you may, as I did, have found yourself more than usually aware of your shortcomings and failings. We were called to heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, but have you noticed that generally speaking the more you try to forsake sins the deeper you find yourself falling into it? Nothing entices us into pride like striving to be more humble. Nothing arouses our appetite for self-indulgence like vowing to be self-controlled – just try starting a diet. And so often my efforts at forgiveness degenerate into an unhelpful focus on my grievances. It turns out, forsaking our sins is a harder business that we had hoped.

Have you ever dug in dry sand? No matter how much you dig, the sand keeps slipping back into the hole you’ve made, filling it up as fast as you empty it. Sometimes trying to prepare our hearts for Christ feels a lot like that. We make resolutions, we set goals for ourselves, but one moment’s relaxation finds us slipping back into our old habits, resuming our old attitudes; we find thoughts slipping into our minds and words slipping out of our mouths that reveal that all that we had hoped was gone from our hearts is still there – that we are right back where we started, or worse.

But every child knows what you need to do to if you want to make a road in the sand. You have to go down to the river and fill your pail with water, maybe you have to gather pails and pails-ful of water, and you pour all that water on the sand, and then when you dig the sand stays put and you can build your road, and castles, and towers and walls. The collect for today prayed for the very thing we need if we are to forsake our sins and prepare the way for the coming of Christ. “Because we are sorely hindered by our sins” we prayed a few minutes ago, because no matter what we do to cleanse our hearts the old anger and selfishness and bitterness just keeps slipping back in, “let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” Without the grace and mercy of God, we are helpless and hopeless. But when God pours his grace and mercy out on us we are cleansed and strengthened, just as the people of Israel were cleansed of their sins and strengthened to begin their lives afresh when they came to John at the Jordan River to be baptized. If you meditate on the collect for this week, that will be the joyful truth you will be letting sink into your mind and heart. (card in bulletin)

We can hear the voice of John calling us to get our hearts ready to receive Jesus, but it is not something we can obey by our own power. We can only obey by the power and great might of our God, who is always ready to help us when we call out to him. By his love he came to us, becoming one of us. By his grace and mercy he strengthens us and makes us ready to receive him. And by his Spirit he draws us close and makes his home with us. And then, filled with his love and grace, we become bearers of Christ ourselves, bearers of Christ’s image to the world around us: like John, who was the first witness to the light that was coming into the world, like the Virgin Mary, who carried that light in her own body, like Paul, who carried the light of Christ all around the Roman Empire by proclaiming the gospel.

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote:

“What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, and not to us.”

John the Baptist, who was only a man, was given the unthinkable task of preparing the whole world for the coming of its Creator. Here, on the road between the first coming of the Christ at Bethlehem, and the final coming of the Christ in glory, we are given an unthinkable task as well – the task of being Christ-bearers in the world. When the world – and that isn’t some shadowy or generic collection of people, it’s your next-door neighbor, and your cousin, and the student who sits in the desk next to you, and the woman who stands behind you in the checkout line at Perry’s, and the man who picks up your trash – it is when they look at us, the body of Christ, his church, that they see the face of Jesus Christ – however imperfectly that might be (and we know that it is generally very, very imperfect).

 And that is the purpose for all this preparation of our hearts, all this crying out for grace and mercy, all this weary work of forsaking those sins and attitudes that want to cling to us so persistently –because we, who are no more than jars of clay, have the task of being filled day by day with the glory that shone out into the darkness at the dawn of time. We are being filled with the one who is love so powerful that in the end all hurts will be healed by it and all wrongs will be put right by it. But that light and that love is in you, not at the end of time, or when you get your act together, it’s in you now, today. It is unthinkable, to me at least, that God gave that task to children like me, because I know I am so very undependable. But he did – he entrusted his perfect image to us, his very imperfect children. And even more incredible is this: that as we – we who are so unlike him now – bear his image now, he is in the process of transforming us by his grace and mercy, moment by moment and day by day, so that one day we will truly be like him, we will truly bear his image, unbroken and complete.

And we can take comfort in this, that we bear this treasure in these jars of clay, we carry the glory of God within these flawed and imperfect selves that we know we are, to show that the surpassing power belongs – not to us, thank God – but to him alone. If God gives us a task – however unthinkable – he always gives us the power to carry it out. And so we can pray confidently, as Paul prayed for the church at Thessalonica,

 “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify us completely, and may our whole spirit and soul and body – may every last bit of us – be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls us is faithful; he will surely do it.”

By the bountiful grace and mercy of God, let us be Christ-bearers this week, as the family of God here at St. Philip’s, and each in our own little part of this world, letting his light shine from us into the darkness of our neighbor’s lives, letting his healing power through us touch those who are wounded, letting the people around us who are lonely or sad or discouraged see his face of love in us, as the Spirit of Christ in our hearts gives us the grace to bear witness to him, just as John bore witness to the light that was coming into the world, so that the world may know that the One whose coming we celebrate this Christmas is the God who “loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have everlasting life.” Let all those around you know that the One who was born in Bethlehem, the One who will come again in glory, the One who comes daily to us in our need, “did not come into the world to condemn the world, but came so that the whole world might be saved through him.”

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