Preached December 12, 2010
1 Corinthians 4:1–5
St. Matthew 11:2–10
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson began with Luke 21:25-27 And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. This is a description of the end times, but specifically, it is a description of the signs of the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. He does not come into the world unannounced, but rather with unmistakable signs telling of His coming. At His first coming, there were signs then also, but they were seen only by the Wise Men, by the Shepherd in the fields, and a few others; most people missed the signs of the First Coming of the Savior.
The closing words of our Gospel lesson for today have Jesus saying about John the Baptist Matthew 11:10 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 reference to “of whom it is written” refers to Malachi 3:1 which is partially quoted in the rest of the sentence. Thus Jesus is saying that John the Baptist is the messenger prophesied by Malachi some 400 years earlier. This does two things: (1) it makes Jesus claim to be the Messiah, and (2) it establishes John in the role of the Forerunner, the one who would announce the coming of the Messiah. Those who knew them both were in a position to see where John did indeed fill the mission of the Forerunner, just as Jesus was also the Messiah, although most people saw neither.
Before a prophecy is fulfilled, it is necessarily somewhat vague, and this makes it seem ambiguous. There are many different interpretations on the fulfillment of the prophecy, depending on the thinking of the various people hearing the prophecy. In the time before Jesus, the Jews had accepted the idea that the Prophet Elijah would return to precede the Messiah. This is why the committee from the Sanhedrin asked John if he was Elijah, and of course, John said that he was not Elijah. He meant that he was not literally Elijah returned from the dead. But just past the end of our Gospel lesson for today, we have Jesus Himself telling His hearers Matthew 11:14 And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. Thus, in spiritual terms, John the Baptist has fulfilled the spiritual role of Elijah, even though no resurrection from the dead was involved. It was definitely true that John the Baptist came in the same strict religious spirit and popular power of Elijah, and so Jesus could say that the Jewish expectations had been fulfilled.
Two particular qualities are required for the role of the Forerunner: Courage and Lack of Self–Interest.
Telling the truth is frequently not a popular thing; it is often a matter requiring great courage. Depending on the particular truth and the circumstances of the times, telling the truth can be extremely dangerous. We have only to think for a moment to recall instances when this has been true, in Nazi Germany, in Soviet Russia, and even in some places in America today such as in airport security inspections today or such as the case of Lt. Col. Terry Lakin who has challenged the legitimacy of the Barack Obama as Commander–in–Chief of the Armed Forces. Many a man has known the truth and decided that it would be safer, better for his own well–being, to simply deny it. In some cases, he might be facing bodily harm or torture; in other cases it is public denunciation and ridicule. The truth is very often not welcome at all.
There is certainly no doubt that St. John Baptist had courage. When the most scrupulously religious Jews, the Scribes and Pharisees, came out to hear him preach in the wilderness, he told them that they needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. This was hard to hear for people who thought of themselves as being without sin! They prided themselves on their descent from Abraham, but he told them that God could raise up new descendants from the very stones of the ground (St. Matthew 3:7–9). This was challenging all of their assumptions about themselves, and it took a lot of courage to throw this in their faces.
It was not just the general public that John criticized, but also the local royalty as well. Herod Antipas, Tetrach of Galilee was involved with Herodias, wife of his own brother Philip. John spoke out bluntly against this, condemning it squarely, for which Herod threw John into prison. When Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced for seductively for Herod, he wanted to reward Salome. Herodias had told Salome to ask for John’s head on a silver platter, so Herod was between a rock and a hard place. He was a weak, venal man and he naturally made the bad choice. He had John executed and the head presented to Salome who gave it to her mother.
For the courage of the Forerunner, two things are required: (1) It is necessary to be absolutely convinced that the cause is true and worth dying to support. This is the foundation of all higher moral life. When this is missing, men will not suffer and die for a vague, ill–defined, will–of–the–wisp sort of idea or belief. One of the greatest evils of the modern skeptical spirit is that it has impoverished our moral life. By depriving people of their convictions regarding the Creed, the Holy Scriptures, the mission of the Church, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Ghost, and the power of the Sacraments, it has depleted the very heart of Christian courage.
(2) The second thing required for courage such as that of John the Baptist is independence. I do not mean to suggest that John was not considerate of other people, but simply that he was dependent on no one. He lived alone, in the desert, providing for himself by what he found in the desert. Thus he was never put in a position where personal need would cause him to slant the truth in a particular way. He was not dependent on anyone for money, clothing, or anything else. With this independence came the freedom to be completely honest with the truth, which was all he owed to his listeners. This combination of courage and independence made John the Baptist completely free to spread the message of the coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, without fear for livelihood.
The second quality required for the work of the Forerunner was lack of self–interest. With his strict teaching and ascetic personal life, John drew quite a large following, many people coming out from the cities to the desert to hear him preach. He became something of a phenomenon in himself. He could easily have established a new sect with himself as leader if he had held any ambitions in that direction. But John the Baptist saw clearly his mission to prepare the way for the Messiah and nothing else. He denied being the returned Elijah, he denied being “that Prophet” that was to precede the Messiah because John was fixed on doing the work he was sent to do, not on claiming a position for himself.
What was John then? John was simply a message from God, John 1:23 He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. He sees clearly that he, himself, is not important, but that the message is the matter of extreme importance. In a very interesting example of bridal imagery coming from St. John Baptist, he describes himself as the friend of the Bridegroom who has helped with the wedding preparations, but must now disappear: John 3:28-30 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He is directing the attention of all to Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, even as he withdraws from the scene. At that point, his work was done.
In our Gospel lesson, our Lord reviews the reasons men went out into the desert to hear John. Was it because he said whatever was the popular opinion of the day? Such a speaker is not worth listening too because you know his words lack conviction. Was it to see a well dressed man, such as you might see at the king’s court? To see the well dressed, the king’s court is indeed the place to go to see them. Indeed, John the Baptist had some relations with the king’s court, but they were when he went there to proclaim the painful truth. Had they gone to see a prophet? Oh, yes, they had found a prophet, one who would foretell Christ, but one even greater than that. Because of his role as the Forerunner, he was not only to foretell, but also to point to the visible, physically present Messiah. In his character and in his death, John the Baptist was the proper messenger to prepare the way in the hearts of men for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The work of John the Baptist was to prepare the world for the First Coming of Jesus Christ. That work of preparation continues today with each new generation that must hear the words of Christ and be brought to Him anew. The goal of this preparation is that all may be found faithful at the end. This continuing preparation is the work of the Christian ministry, carried on in countless Churches around the world. Each one relies on having a priest or other ordained minister to teach and administer the sacraments in order to continue the Christian faith. This coming week includes the Advent Ember Days, times of solemn prayer and preparation, times often chosen for ordination of new priests to continue the work of preparing Christ’s people. Let us remember to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood. This was the motivation for the first sentence of the Collect which said:
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.
Thus it is evident that the preparation of the people of God continues, even in the present day because there are always new people to be told, people who have not previously heard of Jesus. The job is never complete until the last day. Let us continue to prepare ourselves, and to spread the word that we may be found busy at our work when the Master comes.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.