St. Mary’s Anglican Church – Canon Claude Schroeder
Sermon on Matthew 11:2-10; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
It’s the hap-happiest season of all…
I’m sorry. I just can’t do this. Besides, you did not come to church today to hear me sing that song, did you? I would hope not.
It’s Advent after all, and Advent, as I read this week, offers a resounding ‘No’ to sentimentalized Christmas cheer, instead, invites us to name our sorrows, lament unfulfilled longings, pay attention to the pain of waiting in the wilderness — all with quiet hope. “Advent begins in the dark.” (Duke Kwon)
So how is that been going for you? Not easy is it? Who wants to name the sorrow, lament the longing, and attend to the pain of waiting in the wilderness? These things need practice, which is what makes coming to church in Advent all the more important.
John the Baptist is for us the great exemplar of someone who watched and waited for the Lord’s Advent, and someone who sought to prepare others for that Advent. It is for this reason that on this the Third Sunday in Advent and again next Sunday John the Baptist takes center stage in our Gospel readings.
John the Baptist was the only child, of a priest by the name of Zechariah, who was married to Elizabeth, who was related by blood to the Virgin Mary. We have that lovely story of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, going to see Elizabeth, pregnant with John, and John leapt in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. John, whose birthday, we celebrated almost six months ago (hint, hint) did not follow in his father’s footsteps and enter into the service of the Temple, but filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, became a preacher, and a fiery one at that!
“Even now”, said John in one of his sermons, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John declares God’s judgment on human sin, and the judgment is death and destruction. And so John also declares to us and the need for repentance, a change of heart and mind, a change from the inside out that issues in a changed, fruitful life. In declaring these things John was clearly putting his finger on something, which explains why the huge crowds came out to hear him speak.
But what was it? We know, deep down, that there are things about us that need changing. It’s not my spouse, it’s not my kids, it’s not my friends, it’s not my boss, it’s me that needs changing. Why else do we come to church?
But there was something. John, like all the prophets before him, spoke not only about the need for change, but held out the hope of change, and more importantly pointed people to the One through whom, the power for change would come.
“What exactly,” said Jesus to the crowds, “ did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone who would “go with the flow?” and “bow to public pressure?”
In insisting that people take personal responsibility for their lives, and for their sin, John stood out apart from what almost everybody else at the time was saying, which was that the problem is not with us , it’s with them, the Roman oppressors, who are oppressing and pushing us down in every way possible: politically, socially, economically, culturally and religiously.
But in the face of massive Roman oppression, John said to the people, “Look, the Romans are not the problem. You are the problem. You want to see change? (And who doesn’t) It’s a change of heart and mind that you need that will lead to a changed life.
So I do wonder what John the Baptist would have made of the story that is being told today that human history is essentially a story about conflict a between the oppressor and the oppressed. We all know who the oppressors are. They are white. They are male. And they are European. They have all the money and they have all the power. And we’re gonna get ’em.
I think John would have said that’s a bad story. Not just because it is simplistic and inaccurate, but because it is inherently violent and godless. It is not a story that will help you make your way forward in life, because you are always going to be blaming other people for your problems.
For John, history is about the conflict between oppressor and oppressed. History is about the coming ofJesus Christ into the world.
So what about this idea that we also have today that things like race, gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation is what establishes your identity? And the related idea that I should be free to choose that identity?
You know now the government of our province no longer records gender, what we used to call “sex”, on birth certificates?
There is a reed shaken by the wind!
I think John would have said these ideas of the essence of sin and the essence of unbelief, given his message that our identity is something that is given to us through a relationship with Jesus Christ, where we understand ourselves to be forgiven sinners. This is who we are. Therein lies our freedom. Therein also lies our future.
So, John was definitely not a reed shaken by the wind!
John as we read did not wear the latest fashions. You know cotton shirt, silk tie, wool suit. Why was that? As Jesus points out, people who wear the latest fashions typically live in big houses. And John wore a short of camel’s hair with a leather belt, and lived in a cave in a desert.
What’s that supposed to prove?
It proves that John did not profit from his message.
John didn’t care about the money or the power. He only cared about one thing, and that was the truth. What are we to conclude from this?
Without a doubt John was prophet, a man who spoke the word of God.
But as Jesus points out today, John was more than a prophet. John was, in fact, the last of the prophets. In the Book of Malachi, which is the last book in the Old Testament, the Lord, speaking through prophet Malachi says, “See, I will send my messenger to clear a way before me.”
In a breathtaking misquotation of that verse, Jesus declares that John is he of whom it is written, “Look, I am sending my messenger in front of you to prepare the way before you.”
What is Jesus saying here? Not only is John the one about whom Malachi prophesied, but — and this is where the misquotation comes — in preparing the way of the Lord, John was preparing the way for Jesus.
So what does it means for us to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist in watching and waiting preparing the way of the Lord?
It’s an identity thing. Who am I? Who are you?
In our baptism, and in my ordination, the Church conferred on us an identity: “ministers and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
Isn’t that wonderful? Maybe you didn’t know that about yourself. But now you know.
In our epistle today Paul writes, “It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”
Yes, and last Sunday we wound up our stewardship campaign when we gathered in the pledges for 2019. (By the way it is never too late to make a pledge!)
Having attended to the stewardship of money, we now need to talk about our stewardship of the mysteries of God, our stewardship of the Gospel.
Who is the trustworthy steward the mysteries of God? What does that mean?
I think it means two things. As we look to John the Baptist, we see that it means upholding the law of God, and suffering the consequences. John you remember called out King Herod for having married his brother’s wife, the result of which King Herod had John arrested and thrown into prison.
Some of you may remember what our Prime Minister said back in the 1960’s, defending the sexual practices of Canadians. He said, “The Government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” It sounds good, but that actually is a motto that we have not been able to live by. There is such a thing as abuse, and it appears to be a bigger problem than we think.
John declared that the King was abusing his body, and that of his brother’s wife in marrying her, and a he paid the price. John, like Jesus after him, proved himself a trustworthy steward of the mystery of God in marriage.
But the picture that Paul paints of faithful stewardship of the mysteries of God in our Epistle reading today is quite different. For Paul, faithful stewardship of the mystery is found in the suspension of judgment. Paul writes, “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefor do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light things now hidden in darkness.”
Is Paul telling us here to turn a blind eye to things that we know are wrong? I think what Paul is saying is that when it comes to human actions and human behaviour it takes time for the truth to come out. Right now things are hidden in darkness. Right now we can never be quite sure what causes people to say and do the things they say and do, what hurts and wounds underly the hurting and the wounding of others? What was the back story to King Herod’s behaviour? We don’t know. But when the Lord comes that which is hidden in darkness will be brought to light.
So, it seems to me that what faithful stewardship of the mysteries of God means in the present time of waiting has to do with the cultivation of an atmosphere where people can freely bring to light things now hidden in darkness and disclose the hidden purposes of their hearts without fear of judgment.
How do we do that?
There is only one way, and that is through forgiveness This cycle of hurting and being hurt has got to be broken, and it can only be broken in one way. Forgiveness. It is forgiveness that frees people up to tell the truth, concerning things hidden in darkness.
Sitting in his prison cell, John was beginning to have his doubts about Jesus. Why was that? I think it had to do with the fact that in his preaching Jesus, like John not only upheld the law of God, and called people to repentance, but unlike John, not only held out the promise of forgiveness, but He actually did it.
And it’s a wonderful picture which Jesus paints of what faithful stewardship of the mysteries of God in the forgiveness of sins looks like when he said to the disciples John had sent, “Go and tell John what you see and hear “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
There, dare I say, is something for us to sing about. Amen.