This is one of my favorite Gospel readings for the year. And yet it is one of the hardest to preach.
John stands as the exemplar preacher in scripture. Paul may have resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. John isn’t even aware it’s a decision one could make. It’s always about Jesus. Medieval artwork often has Mary holding the infant Jesus, with baby John nearby. John is always looking at, pointing to, focused on Jesus. If you made a top ten lists of “Favorite things to do” John’s list would be “Point to Jesus, Preach about Jesus, send people to Jesus, talk about Jesus…” His list of hobbies would be… well, he doesn’t have any. He would get marks off of his PIF form for both grooming and work-life balance. (Although his total ignorance of social media would be a point in his favor…)
He’s sort of a hero of mine.
And yet, it’s hard to preach. The preacher sees in John the reception he himself will likely receive from the world. He has an example of what he should be. And yet, the preacher can’t spend the whole sermon just self-reflecting. One of the best methods of preaching Law and Gospel to your people is to make sure the Law and Gospel hit home with yourself. But today that doesn’t work. Because this Gospel reading deals specifically with the temptations of the preacher. My people are called to confess Christ. They are not called to stand in his stead and forgive sins, knowing they themselves are about half a step from damnation for their hypocrisy, unbelief, etc. even in the moment they declare the absolution.
John is the one who reminds me what my job is, and how to keep things in balance (Hint: 100% about Jesus. 0% about Me.) So, I can’t preach about my own self-reflection. Now or ever. And yet John draws me to that self-reflection. And it’s healthy for me to do that, because it reminds me what my job is. But that’s not what I preach. I preach about John, and how he points to Jesus. Because that’s what John did. It’s why he was sent. And why, even in prison, we honor him. How devoted was he to preaching Jesus? When his disciples wouldn’t listen any other way, he besmirched his own reputation (for all time, but especially in the 20-21 centuries) to get them to go and hear Jesus. Now that’s a faithful preacher. And here’s my attempt to explain that in way that brings Jesus, not me, to my people. (After the jump)
Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Unlike Lent, which seems to stretch endlessly from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week, Advent moves along at a pretty good clip. Half done already. And today the candle is rose colored. (The Technical term is rose, not pink.)
It’s a lighter mood. Advent is a penitential season. The Gloria in Excelsis – the Church’s great song of praise, first sung by angels to the shepherds on Christmas night – is missing until Christmas. The readings speak of judgment, and tell us to be watchful. They seem more in keeping with the end of the church year, than the beginning. And, if you want proof that this is a time for rough living in the church year, this week and next week’s readings place John the Baptist before us. He’s the most famous preacher of repentance in the history of the church. Sinner’s in the hands of an angry God sort of stuff. Locust breath, camel hair fashion, and the amazing ability to offend anyone who listens to what he says. This is not the prophet of fancy dress parties and social occasions. This is the guy on the corner with a megaphone and street sign shouting “repent” as people walk quickly by.
And yet, today, the mood is a bit lighter. Instead of a blue candle for today, judgment and the clouds of heaven, we have rose. Instead of calls to repent, we begin the service with “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Today is sometimes called “Gaudete Sunday”. It’s Latin for rejoice! Today is a day of rejoicing in the middle of our season of repentance. And yet, it’s odd to say that the theme today is rejoicing, when you have John in prison. He doesn’t get out again. And, he likely knows it. But it’s still likely he would agree that today is a good day to rejoice. This is a happy day. Although his reason might be a little bit different than ours. We say, “It’s not quite so much ‘Repent!'”. A little less law today. That’s nice. John says, today is a day to rejoice because I got to send people to Jesus. That’s what John does. He does it in next week’s Gospel reading as well.
He hears what Jesus is doing. He has already stood on the riverbank and baptized Jesus. He has seen the dove. He has declared Jesus “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And now, in his final moments, he wants to make sure his disciples know it, too.
Among modern commentators it’s common to hear them explain that John was in prison, and even though he had seen the dove, proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God, had even sent his two of his own disciples after Jesus, that now John doubts. And so he sends the disciples so he himself would be reassured.
It’s a common sort of view these days. After all, who wouldn’t start to doubt if they devoted themselves to preaching about God, and living a holy life, and then spend weeks or months languishing in prison for it? But that’s painting John with a pretty modern lens. In fact, some of the great moderns of our age have tried that very tactic. There have been people – behind the iron curtain – in cuba – who were imprisoned for years or even decades because of their faith. And yet, in their imprisonment, they hold ever tighter to Jesus. Ever tighter to the word of God. Even in their suffering. The idea is – get these Christians, imprison them until they see reason and renounce their faith. It almost invariably fails.
It’s an attempt to find some common ground with John. We doubt. We struggle with our faith. Obviously he doubted as well. There are no real heroes.
But the ancient church didn’t see it that way. We are used to hearing about the kings of Israel, and their sins. Even mighty David committed adultery and murder. The books of the Old Testament have many scenes that are PG-13 at least.
The apostles are often portrayed as doubting. Jesus chastises them for their lack of faith. Peter denies Jesus. These men aren’t heroes. They are everyday saints, who are redeemed by God. They are an example to us of sinners, living lives of forgiveness. And that’s good.
But there are a couple of people in scripture – major characters – who don’t fit that description. We don’t hear about their sins. They stand as examples to us – not of saints who were forgiven sinners – but of the church herself. John is never spoken of in any but the greatest terms. David said, “I was born in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” John answers that by – even in the womb – pointing to Jesus. Peter doubted – even denied Jesus. John answers it by never taking his eyes off of Jesus. In the Gospel according to Saint John the Apostle, it even records John’s disciples complaining that Jesus was becoming more popular. John basically tells them that they need to deal with it, because of course it was always going to be that way.
John is never about John. He is always about Jesus. And here, at the end of his life, rotting in prison, John finds one more excuse, one more reason, to send the disciples to Jesus. “Hey, could you find out for me if Jesus is the Christ?” That guy that I’ve called the Christ about a dozen times. The one I keep pointing to. The one I said, “he must increase, I must decrease”. The one I said “He is the bridegroom, I am just the best man. I’ve pointed to him announced that he’s arrived, and now I fade away” Could you maybe go see who he is, while I raise doubts about my own faith for all time? Because that would be great if you went and listened to him.
John’s in prison. You can imagine his disciples, “We’ll never leave you. We’ll carry on. We’ll work to get you out of here… somehow….” And even if John says to them, “Time to move on.” They would promise they never will. He has no choice. He has to tell them to go away in a way that they will actually go. So, he says, “Do me a favor. Find out who this guy is for me.” Absolutely. We’re on our way. No problem…
That’s why John sends them away. Because he knows they need to look not to John for salvation, but to Jesus. What conclusion can they draw as they return to John, but “Yes. He is the promised one.”? After all, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and most importantly, the Gospel is preached.
Jesus is the one who was to come. But he doesn’t testify of himself. He lets John do it for him. And John does. He sets up the perfect question. He is the church – especially her preachers. He is the exemplar. The one who never falters in his task. Yes, we know that John the Baptist was a sinner like the rest of us. He confesses it to Jesus when Jesus comes to be baptized. He was even better at confessing his own sin than we are.
But as a biblical figure, John is the prophet. The preacher. The one who always brings it back to Jesus. Who never himself stands in the way. If you go to John, it’s not because of his amazing personality, or his witty repartee. It’s because you want him to point to Jesus. That’s all he does. He preaches. He baptizes, he points. He steps back. John doesn’t have time for niceties. He barely has time to eat. Just enough to keep himself alive.
No reed broken by the wind. He is the real deal. The prophet who prophecies relentlessly about Jesus, and then moves back so Jesus is front and center. John speaks the Word of God clearly. No confusion. No great soaring rhetoric. Just “Here’s what it says. Do those things. Here is God. Listen to him.”
That’s why he is more than a prophet. He is the messenger. And he is greater than any of the prophets.
And yet, says Jesus, the one who is least in the kingdom is greater than John. But this isn’t Jesus saying, “You can be greater than John.” It’s Jesus saying, “I am least in the kingdom of heaven.” Because Jesus is still on the way to the cross. He has yet to die for you. He has been counted a sinner. He will be counted as THE sinner. He has been placed under the law. He will be placed under condemnation. He is God enfleshed and made man. He will be reduced to a worm before God. He will pay the sacrifice with his own blood. The sacrificed is always less important than the sacrificer. The lamb is sacrificed so the people can live. And Jesus becomes that sacrifice. He is the least in the kingdom. And so he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Exalted to the right hand of the Father. He is the one we look to. The author and perfector of our faith.
It’s always Jesus. Only Jesus.