Preached December 16, 2012
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
St. Matthew 11:2-12
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, often known by the Latin name, Gaudete Sunday. The word gaudete means rejoice, and it comes from the beginning of the Introit for the Day which we heard at the very beginning of the Mass, REJOICE in the Lord, O ye righteous; for it becometh well the just to be thankful. … We notice also the other changes in our worship today, the restoration of flowers on the altar and the organ accompaniment that has been absent for the first two weeks of Advent. The violet color of the vestments and paraments is changed to rose, lightening our mood and lifting our spirits, consistent with the command to Rejoice as heard in the Introit. Just for today, the heavy, penitential mood of Advent is lifted to give us encouragement and refreshment as we continue our preparation to meet the coming Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this time of Advent, we are preparing, but we are also simply waiting and watching. Waiting for the time when our Lord will choose for His Second Coming, and watching that we may be alert and prepared to meet Him when He comes. As St. Paul has written in the Epistle lesson, 1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. All of us who have been entrusted with the message of Jesus Christ, and most especially the clergy, are required to be faithful stewards, such as St. Paul describes.
Our Gospel lesson presents to us a prime example of such a faithful steward, St. John Baptist. We do not have a lot of details of the life of St. John Baptist. We know that when the pregnant Blessed Virgin visited her cousin Elizabeth carrying St. John, John leaped within the womb of Elizabeth in response to the nearness of the unborn Christ (Luke 1:41). We read brief descriptions of John living wild near the River Jordan, and preaching in the wilderness, as described in St. Matthew 3, St. Mark 1, and St. Luke 3. There is modern speculation that St. John Baptist may have belonged to one of the more radical sects of Judaism, such as the community at Qumran, that produced the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” The Qumran community was a group who had separated themselves from the main stream of Jewish life, and had gone to live in caves by the Dead Sea, awaiting the coming of the Messiah with intense expectation. In short, we are lacking a lot of details about the life of St. John Baptist, but we can say without hesitation that he was a faithful steward, watching and waiting for the Messiah, and at the same time, preparing the world to receive the Messiah.
The Gospel lesson itself is the story of St. John Baptist, sitting in prison for having crossed Herod over the matter of his illicit sexual relationship with Herodias, the wife of his brother. He sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask: Matthew 11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Now this raises a bit of a problem for us in terms of interpretation. Does John actually not know the answer, and thus this is a sincere question, asked to get information? Or, has John long since recognized the Christ, and is using this as a mechanism to shift his disciples over to follow Jesus, since John knows that it is proper for him to diminish and fade away now that the Messiah has appeared? This is a difficult question, and it can be argued either way. Fortunately for us, the answer does not make a lot of difference. The important part is in the answer that Jesus gives to the two questioners.
Matthew 11:4-5 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. In these words, Jesus has implicitly referenced Isaiah 35:6 Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert, and thus his claim to be the Messiah. Word of all of these miracles that He had done was already common knowledge around the countryside, so these things could be verified simply by asking around. In this way, He tells both St. John Baptist and also John’s disciples that He is in fact the Messiah that they have been waiting for these many years.
St. John Baptist, the Forerunner, was the herald prophet, acting as a witness to the promise of God, faithful to his calling to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. He did not know exactly who or where, but he did know what his work was, and he did it admirably. The Apostles saw the fulfillment of that promise, and carried on the witness in the spreading of the Church. We continue that process today, as St. Paul writes: Colossians 1:26 Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: This is indeed an ongoing process from age to age, entrusted anew to each succeeding generation to continue spreading the Gospel to all people that all may hear and know Jesus Christ. This is how He comes to us today, not waiting until the end of time, but coming to receive new hearts into His Kingdom day by day right now. This is the mystery of His presence with us right now, and the reminder of our hope of glory, as we make witness to the indwelling Word within us. Happy are those servants, who no matter what time the master returns, finds them faithful!
In the chapter before today’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul says: 1 Corinthians 3:5 Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? Paul is saying that it does not matter who brought the Gospel to the Corinthian Christians, whether he did it, or another evangelist named Apollos who often seemed to work the same area as Paul, provided, of course, that they received a faithful witness. The point is that they are only messengers, and that it is the message, Jesus Christ, that is the matter of importance, not who brought it. The messenger did not invent the message, they have no claim to it; they must be seen simply as God’s messenger. This brings us back to his opening statement in today’s lesson: 1 Corinthians 4:1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
The Apostles were simply ministers and stewards, and their task was to be faithful to that revelation. In the same way, it the responsibility of the Bishops and other church leaders today to remain faithful to what has been received, remembering that they are simply ministers and stewards of the mysteries of God. In no way are they judges of that mystery, to pick and choose, redesigning and improving, deciding what works best, and so on; rather, they are its stewards who must be found faithful. Judgement belongs to the Lord.
St. John the Baptist stands as our example: 1 Corinthians 4:1 Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. We too are called to watch and wait. And in our time, as much as ever, perhaps even more than ever, it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.
Faithfulness to the mystery of faith is no easy matter. The world is always ready with other ideas: ideas for modernization and improvement, ideas about what works best, ideas about what is more relevant to our times and customs. It is not easy for us, really, who think of ourselves as modern people, to remain servants of a truth revealed so long ago. Even some of our theologians tell us that we have reached maturity now, and have no need of the old authority; that we have grown up and can judge for ourselves now. Well, it’s an appealing notion, perhaps; but surely the evidence of our religious maturity is less than overwhelming.
There are many within our own Communion who would persuade us that the old forms of Christian belief and life are antiquated and irrelevant: we must keep up with the times, and redesign our creeds and institutions in accord with current fashions. There are those who claim that a new spirit is abroad, and that we must move with it. And no doubt there is a new spirit abroad (or maybe it’s not really so new), but the advice of St. John is good, when he says, 1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
It would be nice to have the self assurance to say with St. Paul: 1 Corinthians 4:3a But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: In truth, however, it is rather uncomfortable to be completely out of step with society around us, out of step with the times. That is when we have to remind ourselves that the critical matter is 1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful, faithful to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.