John the Baptist’s Call to Life
Homily for Advent 3, December 13, 2009
It is mid-Advent, and I am just starting to get into the Christmas “mood,” and the Christmas spirit. I have finally accepted that golf season is over, but I seem to need a bit of a prod to get focused toward Bethlehem once again.
It’s a good thing that the Gospel this week presents John the Baptizer and his message of repentance as a preparation for the coming of the new era of God’s sovereignty. It contains the powerful image of the axe chopping down the old tree, and the promise of renewal and re-growth.
John is like a spiritual cattle prod. One of the themes of Advent is about waking up. John is a spiritual wake-up call – a biblical figure who represents that summons to snap out of it – someone who confronts a complacent and apathetic people so that they can respond to the Messiah and receive the new life which is coming in Christ. I sometimes amuse myself trying to imagine John the Baptist at a modern pre-Christmas cocktail party. I assure you, he doesn’t fit in very well (“Pass the grasshoppers?” “What’s that weird smell?” “How did that homeless guy get in here?” “Did he just call me a snake?”).
John was someone plugged in very directly to the life of the Spirit – a man open to God and willing to engage people where it counts. He was a straight shooter, a man with passion and fire, the original fire and brimstone guy. He was definitely not a feel-good kind of guy who adapted his message to whatever might have made him popular. He was a throwback to the ancient prophets, yet his message was radical news, promising the advent of a massive change. He not only urged people to turn to God; he knew how to get them there.
Much of our life, in the church and in our daily lives, gets consumed by the ordinary – the mundane – we need to tend to many day-to-day things, which is fine to a point. But the life of the kingdom is anything but ordinary, and so it’s helpful to remember a character like John to realize that. John is not just alive – he’s wired! He reminds us each year that we are meant to live with purpose and intensity, to be awake, to be alive, and not dozing like we’re sleeping off a bad hangover!
This past week, several of us made a visit to St John’s Burnaby, a parish that will be closing at the end of the year. When we arrived I got quite a shock. I expected to find a small, rundown and obviously redundant old church. Instead I saw a large, well-kept church, which showed almost no signs of gradual rundown and neglect. It was quite a strange and jarring experience. But I was told that the parish chose to stay the course on what it used to be (circa the 1950’s) instead of attempting to engage the community where it is now; so instead of striving to be vital and relevant, it just got old and dwindled. Like Rip van Winkle, they fell asleep and when they woke up, they realized everything had changed. As a result, the congregation is now so small and in such a deficit situation that there is no saving it. They are done. Their doors close forever January 3, 2010.
Maybe if a John the Baptist had been around the people wouldn’t be saying, “No one warned us! We were asleep at the switch.” Prophets always warn people of potential outcomes. But they also say that the future does not necessarily bring disaster – it depends on how we respond in the present time. As the Bible says, “now is the acceptable time.”
I buried a beautiful little eight year old last week – her name was Jessica. As I visited with her parents the day before the funeral, they shared with me about what a lively and inspiring person she was. As we looked at pictures and videos of her short life, I sat there with tears streaming down my face, but they were tears not just of sadness, but of admiration, for how intensely, and how fully, Jessica lived. In her short life, she inspired many with her courage, her spirit, her constant smile, her ability to connect, and her will to live.
That’s what we need: the will to live. Not just to exist, not just to survive or maintain, and not just to piddle our time away, but to be truly alive. Her life to me is a reminder that time is precious, and that our life is meant to be lived, not endured; embraced, not held at arm’s length. Life in the Church is meant to be an expression of that – a place where we are given permission, encouragement and instruction to be loving, to be creative, to engage in spirit and in truth.
There are times when I agonize over how we squander the gift of the kingdom, and pray that, instead of making things like light bulbs and church bulletins our priorities, that we make sure that we are there on the front lines with the Jessica’s of the world, and their families, where issues like faith and hope and love don’t just matter – they’re all you’ve got.
When we are tempted to settle for polite and insipid and inoffensive – for gentle Jesus meek and mild – we are reminded of powerful figures like John the Baptizer. John’s voice in the wilderness is like the roar of a lion on the Serengeti — a voice that, even sounding alone, demands your attention – a voice that cannot be ignored. American revolutionary war general George Washington said, “An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.” John was a leader, who dared to speak out of the deepest truth and integrity, who dared to confront the sick religious, social and political life of his time. He was not one of those simpering, ingratiating, apologetic and uninspiring non-entities we often have as clergy. His purpose was important and he acted that way. As a prophet, he came to warn, to prepare people for a revolution of the spirit – a revolution of the human soul – one which meant breaking with the past, and embracing a radically different future. John’s warning, to us as much as to the people of Israel, is that you can’t rely on your heritage or history to save you; you must respond to the movement of the Spirit NOW.
In the face of uncertainty many can start clinging to the past in desperation, in dread of what may come, looking for certainty, or just a dose of nostalgia – something cozy and familiar. But John says No, let it go, that tree is already dead – it’s already cut down. You can’t drive forward looking in the rearview mirror. The odd glance is helpful, but if you want to get anywhere, it is essential to look forward, and not in fear and trembling either, but in HOPE. He reminds us that we need to look to the future, and the future is full of hope — as John would put it, our ONLY hope.
Winston Churchill said, “I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar.” The real lion was the British people, but they needed to be reminded of who they were, in order to stand up to the tyranny of Hitler. Churchill trusted that he was that voice, which helped them find their strength and purpose and determination not to be defeated.
Where is that voice today – the voice that commands attention – the voice that speaks with a divine authority, recalling us from our wayward and selfish paths to the way of the Lord? Who is that person who speaks out of the heart of those places we dare not go, and gives us the courage to face them and the power to overcome?
Anything really alive draws a crowd, but it’s like we in the church are not getting that. When you tell someone about what your faith or your church means to you, and immediately their eyes glaze over or they fall asleep in front of you, maybe it means there’s nothing compelling about your story. Maybe it means you are not giving voice to what it is really about. It may mean you need to get reoriented yourself.
John’s message is startling, even harsh: “HEY! Something’s happening here!” It is Jesus who comes and reveals what that “something” is. It is the new creation, the new life of the Christ of God. The summons to this new life is so important, John willingly puts his life on the line for it. The new life is so amazing, it doesn’t even begin to compare to what people have been used to. John suggests if they think HE’S great, and John is obviously pretty great, he’s nothing compared to the one who is coming — he’s not worthy even to tie the shoes of the one who is coming. Nothing could put things in perspective any better than that. This new life John points toward is worth it. The life Christ brings is not mediocre or bland or insipid, it’s everything that really matters, and having a herald as powerful as John the Baptist tells us so, in no uncertain terms. For the Church, it’s an important reminder to refocus on our essential purpose, and to realize we not only have permission to be fully alive, we have a responsibility – a calling – to be fully alive, because the world needs vivid and vital and vibrant people, like a young child needs Christmas, like a young girl needs a cure for cancer. Go out there and, like John, like Jesus, be God’s gift to the world. And realize that here, together, in the context of the church, you have the permission to practise what I preach!
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers