Sunday, December 8, 2013

ADVENT WEEK 3: JOHN the Baptizer, Agent of Advent. A Homily for 12.15.13 from Matthew 11:2-11

December 15, 2013
3rd Sunday of Advent,
Year A.
(edited and revised from a previous 
Homily posted 12.5.2010)

Advent Week Three offers us a sober picture of what it often means to follow the Christ -- prison, persecution and eventually death. Not exactly what you want on a recruiting poster for the faith, which is probably why this part of discipleship is left out or left to the fine print in our Gospel presentations ("They'll find out soon enough," we reason!). 

This part of the discipleship presentation may also be neglected because, at least in the West, we have not suffered for our faith in very a long time. The hegemony that Christendom once had in the West insured this lack of persecution, but of course the hegemony could only be maintained by softening the Gospel demands. Said another way, if the church in the West had ever really attempted to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom -- dropping out of the culture of consumption and declaring Jesus as the present and future King -- then many would have eventually ended up in prison as well.

In today's Lectionary Gospel reading we continue with the story of John the Baptizer, who now finds himself in King Herod’s prison because the monarch was unable to stomach the repentance message aimed at his own behavior — he had married his brother’s ex-wife. (cf Mt. 14:1-12) This meant the Baptizer's public ministry was essentially over, but its effect, as we now know, would linger in the ministry of the Anointed One. Thus, the preacher of repentance is locked up, but the person of the Kingdom, the actual King, had arrived and was marching to the front. Therefore, an important transition was occurring. (cf. Jn.3:30) 

We do not really know the motive as to why John sends word to Jesus, asking him to identify himself plainly, but N.T. Wright suggests that it could be Jesus was not even what John expected in the Messiah. It could be that John expected the bringer of fire and judgment, but Jesus was presenting message of restoration and not judgment. 

Somehow, things just did not add-up in John's mind. Was Jesus the real deal, or not? So, he sends word to Jesus in the form of a question:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus' answer is instructive and powerful for us to hear.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight,  the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

This opens to us the Advent windows into the text... 


Notice Jesus' cryptic response -- “tell John what you've seen and heard...” This response is very important for us to think-through. Rather than making personal identity claims, Jesus offers his work as evidence of his identity. 

Rarely, if ever, do the synoptic Gospels find Jesus making explicit claims as to his origin or identity. Instead, we find him battling for the reality of his Kingdom offer by doing the works promised by Messiah who would come to restore and reclaim. That is, how would Messiah be identified? He would restore; he would vindicate; he would cause resurrection. 

We must take his approach to heart. Claims and assertions about the identity of Jesus are just so many claims and assertions, but the real message is this: Jesus — through the cross, resurrection, ascension and his eminent return — empowers a new reality to be birthed in the world. 

People on the Jesus-way are offered new life and a new way to live. We will unpack this in detail in a moment. But we must remember, people on the Jesus-way are offered a new narrative by which to pattern their lives — I once was this, but now I'm that. People on the Jesus-way are offered a new biography that includes a break from the past (repentance) and a new way to see and behave in the world (forgiveness and faith).

This should remind us of many Gospel encounters. Think, for example, of the account of the healed blind man in John 9. The second time the religious leaders confront him about who it was that healed him, asking him to give GOD the glory because Jesus was in fact a sinner, the TEXT reads: 
"He answered, 'I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.'"
this response is the epitome of the 
tell John what you've seen and heard...” 
Or, said still another way, in this culture it is useless to claim things for Jesus' identity. When we claim deity for Jesus, for example, we actually end the very conversation we wish to begin; we actually circumvent what the hearer can only discover on her own! Instead, we must exhibit the new life and the new way to live that we have come to both see and hear. We must declare, simply, what happened to us. The person in front of us then chooses either to follow and find new life in the Jesus-way, or not.


Which leads to the second point. Christianity is no mere academic exercise. It is more than a list of accumulated knowledge...
the blind regain their sight, the lame walk,lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,the dead are raised,and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
The claims of the King’s Gospel are clear, therefore: 
A changed heart; a changed life. 
This is particularly difficult for us to hear, of course, being earthbound as we are to rationalism and the scientific method. To be sure, rational thought and science have given us many wonderful things, but they cannot offer us meaning and they do not have the instruments to measure the depth of the soul. 

The Christian claims that the Christ offers this, which is at the very heart of Advent. For the preparation that is Advent is nothing less that the miracle of forgiveness and a new-life allegiance. It is nothing less that the possibility of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world.

Said differently, Advent naturally reminds us that this world is not our home, and that we are actually on a sojourn, a journey, seeking a city whose builder and maker is GOD. Advent calls to us as a clear and present reminder that the answered calling from so long ago — “follow thou me” — brings to us a life of struggle, a life of daily faith. As difficult as this is to hear, Advent tells us that we do not walk under our own desires, or under our own wants. That is, the moment we accepted life of discipleship under the King, we took on the yoke of patient endurance, sacrificial love, and reconciling forgiveness. This is the Jesus-way.


Finally, the TEXT reads: 
“What did you go out to the desert to see?A reed swayed by the wind?Then what did you go out to see?Someone dressed in fine clothing?Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.This is the one about whom it is written:Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;he will prepare your way before you.Amen, I say to you,among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Again, N.T. Wright is helpful. This is an obvious reference to King Herod and the not so subtle contrast between the Baptizer’s desert lifestyle and Herod's royal lifestyle, as well as the Baptizer’s message of repentance and Herods’ message of the status quo where anything goes. These contrasts give us a nudge toward what may be the most important idea we can grasp this Advent: A person's life does not consist in what they posses. 

The values of the desert Fathers and Mothers, the Baptizer and even Jesus the King himself, all warn us against gluttony, avarice, consumption and the self-life, but this is so difficult for us in the West to grasp in practice. The culture -- so seductive, the means of purchase -- so available, the "I deserve this" -- so ingrained, we are netted and captured without even a gasp.

Perhaps the Baptizer's lasting Advent gift to us will be the promise of the gateway to the discipline of the soul and body. Perhaps our repentance-preparation for Advent is nothing more than a moment-by-moment rejection of the values of power and the subtle gravity of the royalty world-view. (cf. 1 Jn.2:15-17)