Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 10, 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent—Year B
My Friends: While we will never know the details of John the Baptist’s preaching, one thing is quite certain from this morning’s Gospel: John must have been an arresting and remarkable figure because Saint Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Even if we admit some hyperbole in this account of the Baptist’s preaching, it appears that John made quite an impression on all manner of folks from both the countryside and from the capital city. Then, as now, this was a remarkable feat: artisans and sharecroppers, together with urban dwellers and religious elites, were prompted to “repent,” to “confess their sins” and to “be baptized” by him. And they were doing it in droves! What preacher would not be willing to do almost anything for that result?
The locale and circumstances of these mass conversions and baptisms are striking as well. It all happened, according to Saint Mark’s Gospel, in the “wilderness,” the biblical world’s special haunt of Satan and the temptation to apostasy. In Jesus’ time and place, you stayed clear of the wilderness unless, like Jesus, you were driven there by the Spirit for a direct confrontation with “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” And we certainly can’t attribute the Baptist’s success with the masses to his “good looks” or an offer of fine cuisine. He must have cut quite the wild figure out there dressed in scratchy “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” as “he ate locusts and wild honey” for protein. Yet, in spite of all of this, John was a smashing success!
Well, to what, then, may we attribute John’s spectacular success as an evangelist? Since it could not possibly have been the medium, it must then have been the message. And Saint Mark says as much in the opening of his Gospel when he writes, “The beginning of the ‘good news’ of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Long before the advent of modern advertising and “focus groups,” both John the Baptist and Saint Mark the evangelist knew that a brief and pithy summary of the main message is worth more than a thousand words: “beginning”; “good news”; “Jesus”; “Messiah”; “son of God”; “forgiveness of sins.” There really is not much more to say! And the desired and appropriate response to this “good news,” this “gospel,” is stated very simply as well: “repent”; “confess your sins”; and “be baptized.” There is the whole Gospel in a nutshell!
The account in this morning’s Gospel, together with the example of the Baptist and the evangelist Mark himself, is proof positive that we don’t need great eloquence or (God forbid) a theological education to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our daily circumstances. We don’t even need personal attractiveness, good food, or an auspicious location. All we need are “mercy” and the “truth,” because the “righteousness of God,” God’s “saving justice,” and the “shalom,” the “peace,” of Jesus Christ will follow. And the success of our poor efforts as evangelists and missionary disciples is never owing to us alone; rather, it depends on the power of God. We scatter the seed; God brings in the harvest. In the words of the holy prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”
In this morning’s psalm we prayed: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other/Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Here, in yet another short and pithy verse, the psalmist issues the chief obstacle to successful proclamation of the Gospel. “Mercy,” “righteousness,” and “peace” are gifts of God that only follow in the wake of the truth, especially the existential truth about the dignity, vocation, and destiny of the human person proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who completely reveals humanity to itself. Without that truth, there is no justice, no peace, no reconciliation, and no real freedom. In Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” And he says as much again during his close questioning by Pilate when he tells the Roman procurator: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” But, as we know from Pilate’s response to this claim with his now famous question, “What is truth,” truth is not always obvious, and mere apparent goods frequently masquerade as the real thing.
In an era such as ours, with its so-called alternative facts and repeated lies and disinformation, we know all too well that truth is a precious thing indeed. Fortunately, we Christians have a categorical standard for judging the truth in the person of Jesus himself, fully human and entirely at one with God, who also said in Saint John’s Gospel: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Anything that fails that standard is neither true nor good, and it will never lead us to a full life and love in the truth. By proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can do no greater kindness or render any higher expression of charity than to profess that truth at all times and all places, in season and out of season. Freedom without the truth is little more than license; mercy without the truth is mere indulgence; and peace without the truth is simply the absence of conflict. And so the psalmist was also right to sing in this morning’s psalm: “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.” The divine “Presence,” the “Shekinah,” and the feet of the “Messiah” only tread the “pathway” made by “righteousness” and “peace.”
I suspect that the real power of John the Baptist’s preaching resulted from his witness, integrity and fidelity to the truth—in season and out of season—especially in a world, very much like our own, full of lies and mendacity and ersatz spirituality. We know the tragic ending of the Baptist’s story from the Gospels: the Roman client-king Herod Antipas had John beheaded at the behest of his wife Herodias, who was furious over John’s public denunciation of their illicit marriage in violation of the Torah. And John was not afraid to confront the hypocrisy of the Jerusalem religious and political hierarchy as well, referring to them publicly as “a brood of vipers.” He just never shrank from announcing an “inconvenient truth,” nor did he worry over who might take offense over a breach of protocol or an “unhelpful” comment. And neither did his Lord, the “thong of whose sandals” John was “unworthy to untie.” Jesus too would hang from a Roman cross outside the gates of Jerusalem as a witness to hope and the truth.
On this second Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us the powerful figure of John the Baptist and Forerunner of Jesus the Christ as an exemplar of an effective witness to existential truth in a time and a world of lies and mendacity. He is a summons to us who have already been baptized “with the Holy Spirit” in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and who are strengthened week-by-week with Christ’s Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist, to proclaim the Gospel boldly to the un-churched of our secular society hungering and thirsting for true transcendence and meaning, but looking for it in all the wrong places. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the young man knocking on the door of a brothel is searching for God; he is just knocking on the wrong door!” As the “prayer of humble access” from Rite I of the Holy Eucharist reminds us, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (BCP) So, even as we proclaim the truth about the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of God’s Eternal Word during this season of Advent and Christmastide, we must do it with boldness, but also with humility. And at the very least, we should not shrink from proclaiming the real purpose for all of the celebration of these days by greeting the world with a courageous and joyous “Merry Christmas” during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and our Jewish sisters and brothers with “Happy Hanukah” during the eight days of that sacred festival beginning Tuesday evening. To do this is not an act of exclusion or an “offense” against tolerance, pluralism, and the separation of church and state; it’s recognition of the value and the dignity of difference. Having been “made righteous” in Holy Baptism through the mercy of God, and been “grafted into” the people of the covenant through Jesus Christ, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the “nations” by Jesus himself.
As we prepare during this holy and penitential season of Advent to receive the Messiah into our hearts anew at Christmas, let us pray for the courage and integrity to witness to the truth by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ—in season and out of season—as missionary disciples and evangelists. You don’t need a theological education or fine words or elegant dress, and the food that we Christians have to offer is true bread in the wilderness of this world. As recipients of the Divine Mercy and the righteousness of Christ, our savior and redeemer, we, the baptizing community, have everything we need for this sacred task and privilege because, in the words of Saint Julian of Norwich, in Jesus Christ “the greatest deeds are done already”! AMEN.