Sermon, St. Sauveur/Morin Heights, Dec. 10 2017
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the day of Peace. What king of peace? The Peace of Christ. The Peace of Christ that we wish each other during the service. And the Peace of Christ obviously includes looking forward to the coming of Christ, Christmas.
This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus. John the Baptist proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a radical thing to do and gave people peace. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; who was John the Baptist?
Who was John the Baptist?
John the Baptist is the last Prophet in the Bible. Remember prophet doesn’t mean someone foretelling what will happen in the future, as we use the word today, it means someone speaking the Word of God. The first prophet was Elijah and direct links are made between Elijah and John the Baptist. Elijah preached in the desert, as did John. John wore clothes made of camel hair and a leather belt as did Elijah. John denies that he is a successor to Elijah but many around him made the connection.
Mark’s Gospel implies that John’s arrival was prophesied in Isaiah, in which one reads that God will send a messenger ahead of the arrival of the Messiah, to prepare the Messiah’s way. All of these references to the Hebrew Bible certainly established his credits with the Jews as a prophet.
John was an itinerant preacher in the early part of the first century, immediately before Jesus moved into the public realm. Indeed some scholars say that Jesus was a follower of John and that many followers of John became followers of Jesus after Jesus’ baptism by John. John was preaching the forgiveness of sins through repentance and repentance was symbolized by being baptized. Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist and it was at this moment that Jesus was recognised by those who saw as the Son of God. In the Gospel passage which I read, John proclaims that Jesus is coming and that he is much greater than John. John announces baptism by the Holy Spirit. It is not clear whether John initially knew that Jesus was the Messiah because apart from Jesus, it is not clear who heard “You are my beloved Son; in you I take great joy.”
We later hear about John’s death. King Herod wanted to get rid of John because he was afraid of his gathering influence over the Jews and his increasing number of followers. But he was equally afraid of what John’s death might provoke, something like the consequences of Trump declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel I suppose. So Herod did nothing. But John denounced Herod’s marriage to his divorced sister-in-law, Herodias. When Heriodas’ daughter danced for Herod, Herod was so pleased he offered her whatever she wanted. At her mothers request, Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head on a platter.
Herod is obliged to keep his word, as so John is executed and the head is brought. Whether this was factually true or not matters less than its symbolism; for many scholars, the story of John’s arrest, execution, and burial in a tomb is a conscious foreshadowing of the fate of Jesus, a continuation of John as the harbinger of Jesus.
So much for the history of John; it shows that Jesus was heralded by a man of spirituality, of strength and of influence. But why are we shown John for the first time on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, this day of Peace. It is because this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus.
Beginning of the Good News
John the Baptist proclaimed in the wilderness a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a radical thing to do and gave people hope.
It wasn't radical or even unusual to proclaim that people could find forgiveness for sins. The Rulers in the Temple (the High Priest, the Sadducees, the Pharisees) had been saying that for hundreds of years, saying that God was merciful and eager to forgive. The key difference was that the Rulers of the Temple said that the sacrifices in the Temple brought forgiveness to God's people. John’s message therefore wasn’t too popular with the Rulers, as it cut out their income from selling sacrificial animals, the classic sacrificial lamb.
Prophets had been a thorn in the side of the Rulers of the Temple for a long time, proclaiming that God isn't impressed by burnt sacrifices, doesn't live in a house built by human hands, is not confined to one holy land.
The prophets like Elijah and John, proclaimed that God's reach extends across every land, God dwells wherever justice and peace are lived out in community, and that justice and peace is the only sacrifice God wants. John the Baptist, a prophet, made his ministry a living example of that message.
The world did not need Jesus to hear a message that forgiveness of sins and a relationship — a close, personal relationship — with the God who created the world was available to all. That message of grace was proclaimed in the Temple by Sadducees who believed that animal sacrifice in the Temple was sufficient to cover sins, and by Pharisees who said that God welcomes converts from any nation who want to join God's people and follow Jewish traditions and rituals.
But the High Priest didn’t want the the baptism of repentance any more than he wanted the availability of God to the Gentiles. This cut into his influence and his prophets.
The world did not need Jesus merely to hear that we can find forgiveness and join God's people without a Temple, without preconditions apart from conversion through repentance and baptism. John the Baptist taught that much, and it would have been sufficient for that much.
If all we expect from Jesus' coming and Jesus' work among us is that we will find forgiveness for sin, find relationship with God, and join God's people if we're willing to repent and experience conversion, we're due for a surprise. This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, but it is only the beginning.
What is the Good News?
The Good News is much more than that. We hope for more, especially on this 2nd Sunday of the Advent season. We hope for the coming of Jesus and his reconciling work on earth. We hope for God’s justice to be at home in the world. Jesus is inviting us to reconcile the whole world, each of us with one another and with God. Jesus gives us a vision of a world in which all of the barriers that separate us — the poor from the rich, the West from the South, nation from nation, region from religion, race from race, men from women — will be no more. No more wage disparity, the 1% owning as much as the rest of the world combined. No more developing countries being crushed by debt to the European or Asian nations and banks. No more North Korea vs the United States. No more terrorism using Islam as a cover or so-called Christians burning the Koran. No more white policeman shooting black suspects or putting indigenous people out in the cold to freeze to death. No more sexual harassment. Is that not a vision that would create peace?
The end of extreme poverty in this generation isn't impossible: what it requires is the political will to do it. To put people’s welfare before corporate profits. To put pensions ahead of the banks when companies go bankrupt. To support organisations that are helping the poor on the ground where mass poverty exists, in Brazil or Bangladesh or Haiti or Zimbabwe. To push for livable working conditions for people working in sweatshops. To be generous with organisations here in Quebec which help the homeless. Raising up the lowly is the ultimate levelling of the playing field
What if heaven were not somewhere above the clouds, but right here on earth, on this planet. What is heaven were in fact a perfect planet Earth? A perfect world? Hard to imagine a perfect world but wouldn’t it be heavenly if we had one? Jesus has given us not only the vision, but also the Holy Spirit as our intermediary. We are on the way to God whenever we further justice and make peace. The peace of Christ.
Now that would be a new beginning. All of these apocalyptic texts we read in Advent are meant to instill in us a deeper sense of what the end result of Jesus' ministry is. Then we can find the energy and the spirituality for a new beginning.
John the Baptist’s message is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus and of the peaceful future6 we hope for.