Sunday, December 10, 2017

preparing the way like John the Baptist

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today, as is traditional for the second Sunday in Advent, concerns John the Baptist. It is not surprising that we should think of this saint during this season. Part of what we do during Advent, after all, is look back to the time of Lord's first coming, to his nativity; and in the gospel according to St Luke the story of the birth of St John the Baptist is intimately intertwined with the story of the birth of our Lord.

However, St John is also an appropriate figure to consider at this time because of the other major purpose of Advent, which is to look to the time when our Saviour will come again in great power and majesty, a time when all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will judge the living and the dead, welcoming some into eternal life, and condemning others to eternal darkness.

And another title for the Baptist is the Forerunner; because he was sent to prepare the way for our Lord at his first coming. Naturally we must think in this time, between the first and second comings, to whom does it fall to prepare the way for when he shall come again? And the natural answer to that, I think, is that task falls to the Church that our Lord and Saviour founded. In other words, the task of preparing the world – by which we must understand ourselves, all others within the Church, especially those who are fallen away, and all those who are currently outside it whom it is our solemn duty to try and evangelise, bring to understand the truth of the Christian faith, and the necessity that they believe upon the name of Jesus and be baptised if they are to be saved – that task of preparation falls very much to us.

And it is therefore of great benefit to us who must do this work in relation to the second coming to the look to the example of the one who did the work in relation to the first. So it becomes of particular importance for us to look to the life of the Baptist in this season to see what lessons we can learn from him that will guide us in the work that has been entrusted to us.

So what do we see in the life of St John the Forerunner that will help us? First, let us consider what we learn of the manner of his life that we have set before us in our Gospel reading today from St Mark. Where did St John live? In the desert places. We are not told where he took shelter from the cold of the desert nights or its blazing heat by day, but we can imagine that it was no more than some little cave or some rough booth he had constructed for himself from branches and rocks and earth. What did he wear? A robe of camel hair girt about him with a leather belt. The most basic and simplest of apparel, just enough to cover his body and preserve modesty and decency. And what did he eat? Scripture informs us locusts and wild honey. Much has been written as to what these words signify; but for today it enough to consider that they mean that he lived off the land, eating whatever was to hand. 

Taken together these three elements of the way he lived tell us something very important about St John. He cared not at all for the material comforts of this life. What was needed to keep body and soul together he accepted gratefully from God; but he concerned himself with no more than that. This serves to remind us that neither must we be overly concerned with the good things of this life; like St John our focus must be on doing the work of God. Material things can get in the way and often do; and if we see that happening in our lives we must ruthlessly cut away anything that gets between us and the task we are called to.

Next let us consider what it was that he told those who came to him what role it was the he played in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. He made it clear that he was not the Messiah, as some suspected. He made it clear that someone far greater was coming; someone that he was not worthy so much as to untie the sandals upon his feet. Now think what such words mean. In the culture of the ancient world it was the duty of the most lowly slave in the house to quietly and without saying a word to go to a guest when they arrived, kneel before them, undo their sandals and remove them, and wash their feet. But when it came to the one he prepared the way for, St John saw himself as more lowly than even the lowliest of slaves. His relationship to God, then, was characterised by the greatest of humility. So too must we be humble before our God.

Humility, as so many of the great saints tell us, is the mother of all virtues; from it all others flow; without it we can have no other. This makes it the beginning of holiness; and without personal holiness we can not carry out our task of preparing the way for our Lord and the day when he shall come again.

Finally, let us look at what St John taught. He called people to repent, to confess their sins and be baptised. And while it is not spoken of by St Mark in this passage, we know from the other gospels that people of high standing came to him – Roman soldiers, tax-collectors, the religious leaders of his day – and they heard the same truth from him that the poorest and meanest in society did. All are equal in the eyes of God; and sin remains sin whether it is committed by a peasant or a prince. And even if that sin is sanctioned by all in society it does not transform it into good in the eyes of God.

We know that later that St John’s refusal to speak other than God’s truth was to cost him his life. But he could do nothing else. For he knew full well, as our Lord was to teach, that it matters not if a man gain the whole world if it comes at the price of his soul, if it costs him eternal life. The example of St John sets before us a way of living, a way of humility, a way of fidelity to God that if followed by us will lead to a rich harvest of souls at the last day … a harvest among which all those who follow that way will be included … and it is my prayer that all here will walk in the way that this great saint sets before us and so be found worthy on the day to be numbered among that harvest and welcomed into the eternal kingdom: in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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