The Power of the Prophetic Word

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 4, 2016
The Second Sunday of Advent – Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

My Friends:

the_beheading_of_st_john_the_baptist_-_google_art_projectLike it or not, our Gospel for this Second Sunday of Advent challenges us with two profoundly counter-cultural realities in our time and place:  prophecy and repentance.  As we continue our spiritual preparation to celebrate the birth of the Messiah two-thousand years ago, and to welcome him anew into our hearts and into our world—now, and at the close of the age—holy Church asks us to hear and to heed the fundamental message of the prophets of God throughout salvation history.  For, regardless of the historical circumstances, every prophet has sounded one clear and consistent message over the ages:  The “people of God” have fallen short of the glory God intends for them, and they must remedy matters by “repenting,” by “changing the direction from which they are seeking their happiness.”  Whether it’s by the Hebrew word “teshuvah” or the Greek word “metanoia,” the biblical call to repentance always requires a radical “change of mind and heart,” a turn-around, and reformation of life.

It should come as no surprise, then, that prophets themselves are usually even less popular than their message.  And very often, they find themselves either expelled from their community or murdered by the “Powers and Principalities” of this world, as Saint Paul refers to them.  It was true for the prophets of the Hebrew Bible; it was true for the prophets of Jesus’ own time; and, regrettably, it will be true for the prophets of today and of every era.  John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah and the focus of today’s Gospel, suffered beheading at the command of Herod Antipas—Rome’s puppet ruler of the Galilee—after which John’s head was presented on a silver platter to Antipas’ wicked stepdaughter Salome.  According to the Gospels, the news of John’s judicial murder shook Jesus to his very core—and for obvious reasons.  His execution was the prologue to Jesus’ own Passion and Death.

So, what is it about the prophet’s message that causes the wielders of petty power to quake with such fear and to react with such violence?  What was so fearsome about John the Baptist, this pious former Essene, dressed in crude camel skins, living as a solitary in the desert, and eating insects and wild honey?  Why, several years later, were the Jerusalem Temple authorities and the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, so threatened by Jesus that they executed him on a Roman cross on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and sedition?  It’s true that both John and Jesus had a sharp tongue; a mordant wit; a keen sense of justice and concern for the powerless; a strong sense of irony—especially in matters concerning values, morality, and ethics; occasional flashes of righteous anger and zeal for God’s Torah; and contempt for hypocrisy, especially among the powerful.  Neither of these spiritual giants—like their many predecessors in the Hebrew Bible—suffered foolishness lightly.  The holy prophet Isaiah in this morning’s lection puts it rather pointedly and succinctly:

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” 

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And so, neither John nor Jesus ever engaged in violence or any insurrectionary actions, so prevalent in their time of brutal Roman occupation of their land.  So why did John and Jesus, together with all of the other prophets throughout salvation history, so often find themselves the objects of derision, obloquy, and contempt—often to the point of violence, exile, or murder?

Well, it is precisely because they wielded no weapons of war or violence that they were so feared and derided.  They had something much more powerful:  the pen and the word—and the word of God at that.  Among the Jewish people, the “people of the books,” nothing human was more revered than the power of words to summon, to change, and to transform.  And the powerful knew it then and they know it now.  They know that there is nothing as unsettling as a challenging perspective or an inconvenient truth articulated with empathy and a passion for justice and the truth.  It’s the bane of the authoritarian personality wherever we find it and in whatever guise:  in the highest reaches of government, in schools, in the marketplace, and even in churches.

17c_russia_jtb-with-lifeWe see the immense power of the prophetic word in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  John is offering his co-religionists a “baptism of repentance” in the living waters of the Jordan River because he knows that the “kingdom of heaven has come near” with the advent of the Messiah.  And he is apparently meeting with great success.  People are confessing their sins, submitting to immersion in those spiritually cleansing waters, and beginning anew by “changing their minds and hearts.”  John, in great humility, knows that he is just “the prologue to the swelling act”:  the coming of the Messiah who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  So, there are no surprises here.  The humble folk of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Transjordan regions have heard the word of God spoken by John; they have been moved to reform their lives in anticipation of the coming “kingdom of God”; and they have ritually cleansed themselves in the living waters of the Jordan, a natural, outdoor “mikvah” or “ritual bath.”

On the other hand, John is quite surprised and nettled to see the religious establishment among the Pharisees and the Sadducees “coming for baptism.”  He knows that Jerusalem’s religious elite is not sincere about repentance:  the Jerusalem Sadducees were the wealthy collaborators with Rome who rejected the “oral Torah” and denied “the resurrection of the dead.”  The wealthy Jerusalem Pharisees, many of whom support the Sadducees’ counsel of peace with Roman injustice and recommended safe refuge in pietism and careful religious observance, are similarly threatened by the appearance of the “real deal” in John and Jesus.  Neither Jewish sect supported any disruption of the unjust and cozy status quo.   But John, the former Essene firebrand, will have none of this.  He sees right through their hypocrisy and feigned concern.  “You brood of vipers,” he cries, “who warned you to flee the wrath to come.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Now, there’s the crux of the matter then and now:  John’s exhortation to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  It’s not enough to join the bandwagon and to make a great show of remorse and repentance.  John knows that you must actually “change your mind and heart.”  And, as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting”; so, that “change in the direction from which you are seeking your happiness” must “bear fruit” in your life as a moral agent, an acting person, through what Saint Paul describes as “a faith that is active in love.”  And it doesn’t matter from whence you come; it only matters where you are going.  It’s not enough, according to John, to take refuge in your pedigree and status, in this case as “children of Abraham.”  “God,” John howls, “Is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” as indeed God does in the Church through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to this very day.

Although you may be hard-pressed to see it in the way that many in our culture—even among the Christian community—observe this holy season of Advent, the Church still regards it as a penitential season of reflective preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ, now and at the end of time.  It’s the reason that we begin the season of Advent each year, like the season of Lent, with the Prayer Book’s Great Litany in procession as a sign of the pilgrim church on its way to redemption and salvation.  Advent is supposed to be a season of quiet reflection and contemplation as we prepare to welcome the Christ anew into our broken individual lives and into our darkened world.  In fact, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, Christmas is still preceded by a strict, forty-day fast known as the “Nativity Fast.”  Real joy, love, and peace in a world still marked by injustice, extreme poverty, brutal wars and genocides, and conspicuous consumption, require sober reflection and self-examination.  Only then can we come into the presence of the Child of Bethlehem ready to share with joy and conviction in his threefold ministry of prophet, priest, and king.  And this Christ child has already baptized us “with the Holy Spirit and fire” and sent us into the world as his witnesses and as prophetic messengers of justice and peace.

10545698264_591c323de2_bBut are we ready? Have we really and truly “changed our mind and heart”?  Have we “changed the direction from which we are seeking our happiness” by fixing our constant gaze on God and his Christ?  John the Baptist, the holy forerunner of the Messiah, reminds us this morning that the time for decision has come, and we must decide“His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John tells us, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, Advent is the gift of time and space, for a people who find holiness in time and space.  It’s an invitation to slow down; to take a break from the manic activity and the petty pace of our lives in this consumerist economy; and to take stock of the quality of our spiritual journey.  It’s a time, in the words of this morning’s collect for the Second Sunday of Advent to heed the warnings of the prophets throughout the ages and “to forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our redeemer” (BCP) now, and again at the close of the age.  It’s the gift of a time and an opportunity in the Great Church Year to take stock and to ask ourselves once again:  For what and for whom are we waiting in this brief and passing life?  And how is that wait?  Let us resolve this morning to seize this gracious opportunity and gift as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN.                                                                                                                                                          

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