Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.
In my homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, to all of you I said the following words:
“Let us continue to seek harmony with each other through prayer. For when we do so, God will send forth to us His increase. The increase of the harvest is completely up to God—he will send new disciples not when we think we are ready for them, but only when God decides—when He judges—that we are ready to receive new disciples, when we show the fruits of our prayer and harmony.”
I said those words last Sunday, and I repeat them again this morning, and I probably will repeat them again in the future, because they reflect accurately the Gospel as the Church has received it from Jesus Christ. The theology of those words is derived primarily from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, when he appointed the Seventy for mission, “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.” And when he appointed them, Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”
Jesus sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves. We are lambs by virtue of our baptism, being incorporated into Him, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are lambs because we hear the voice of our shepherd, we hear Christ’s speech, we hear His voice. And hearing His voice, we are filled with joy—the real joy, against which all other joys are secondary. This joy protects us, it shields us, for it is the shield of faith. This joy is our breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of our salvation, the sword of the Spirit. This joy is true peace.
And we constantly need this peace. Without this peace, we are restless. Without this peace, we become like lost sheep who cannot hear their shepherd. Without this peace, we grow anxious, we become worried, we become nervous. All of this happens because we lose the proper sense of harmony between us and each other, and the world—a harmony Jesus teaches is necessary to understand who we are and who He is. And without that harmony and without the proper understanding of who we are and who He is, it is part of the tendency of fallen humanity to begin to search around and eventually create an idol, thinking this idol is God. Idolatry takes many forms, but it is always rooted in an incorrect understanding of who God is, and how He works.
We hear hints of such a misunderstanding in our Gospel from Matthew. Before we look directly at our Gospel, I want to spend a moment with some background which is necessary to correctly interpret our Gospel and particularly the words of John the Baptist.
Now there were many expectations in the day of Jesus about the messiah, and there were many expectations about how the messiah would show himself, and how the messiah would act in Jewish society. Expectations were not uniform or dominant, but perhaps the most common expectation was that the messiah would be a military and political leader. A charismatic political leader who would transform the unrest into an army able to overcome by battle and blood the oppressors of the Jewish people.
Now John the Baptist had gathered a significant following in his day. He was a leader of a large movement. So much so, as we heard last Sunday—“then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan.” John was popular. Remember, too, the John the Baptist was a close relation to Jesus, a “cousin” if you like. John’s mother, Elizabeth was a close relation to Mary, so much so that Mary travelled to her cousin when both were pregnant, and Mary spent the last three months of Elizabeth’s birth with her. Through the close presence of Jesus and the Blessed Mother of God, Mary, John was supremely blessed, even in some Christian sense baptized. And we are never given a clue in Holy Scripture that the bond between Mary and Elizabeth, and therefore the bond between Jesus and John the Baptist, was ever broken, harmed, or distorted. We can assume their relationship remained close and intimate, even as they grew into maturity.
And as we will experience in a couple weeks on the Feast of the Epiphany, John gave Jesus a Jewish baptism, an event so powerful that John sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit, and somehow even the voice of God the Father. Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan, which was not a Christian baptism like ours but of the Jewish tradition, nonetheless provided for John the Baptist something of an annunciation of who Jesus was—indeed, that Jesus was the beloved Son of God, the true Messiah.
I point out all of that because we should not hear, in the words attributed to John by Saint Matthew in today’s Gospel—“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”—a confused John the Baptist. Rather we should hear a very wise John the Baptist, knowing full well who Jesus is, and who is His Father. We should hear a man subtle and savvy, with a profound understanding of his society and how perception actually works politically—remember, followers of Jesus are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
That question from John—“Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”—he articulates not because he questions who Jesus is, but because John’s followers question who Jesus is. John—a wise spiritual guide, full well knowing that Jesus is the true Messiah and the Son of God, knowing that through Him, the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, that lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear—knows that through Him the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. John was raised by two holy parents who are both Saints—Saint Elizabeth and Saint Zechariah, and all three of them are depicted in Christian tradition as having halos around their head—indicating a close presence of God in their hearts at all times. John, then, knowing that the messianic expectations of a political and military leader will be hard to uproot, understands that the people will need to hear and be told time and time again who Jesus is, and how He acts. They will need to experience Jesus firsthand and experience His mysterious and wondrous grace. And he knows that when you ask good questions directly to your divine teacher, you get good answers. John gives this question to his followers, not for his benefit, but for theirs.
And what bountiful grace this question yields! For through it we hear once more how bountiful the kingdom of heaven is—greater than the greatest person born of women, of flesh and blood. A kingdom of heaven worth all patience and suffering. A kingdom of heaven indeed that makes the wilderness and dry land glad, and the desert rejoicing and full of flowers. By our questioning, the Holy Way of God, prophesied through the ages, is finally revealed. May we with love, patience, trust and full vigor continue to ask our questions of God. For by our questions, and our patient listening for His response, he truly comes into our hearts, He overshadows our soul, He enlightens our spirit, that we may evermore conceive Him in our heart, bear Him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect people in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Cover image “Nativity John Baptist” by Shakko is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.