Earlier editions of the Book of Common Prayer appointed John 1:19-28 as the Gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. That passage is now read only once every three years, on the Third Sunday of Advent in (Revised Common) Lectionary Year B. That’s a pity, as the drama of the back-and-forth between John the Baptist and the Jerusalem authorities—culminating in their question, “What sayest thou of thy self?” and his ringing response, “I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness!”—surpasses anything found in other scriptural accounts of John’s ministry. (Orlando Gibbons, in the well-loved anthem “This is the Record of John”, captures that drama and that ringing cry very powerfully: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9pE5vrgBHQ)
John’s remains the essential Advent voice, urging us to “Make straight the way of the Lord.” He stands on the threshold of the Kingdom of God: calling for repentance in our fallen world even as he points to God’s decisive intervention in this world in the person of Jesus Christ.
So in recognition of older customs and in affirmation of this year’s too-short Season of Advent, I offer this sermon about “the great forerunner of the morn.”
A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance, and to prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
May I speak in the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In my sophomore year of college, I received a sign. Just as I began to consider entering the discernment process for the priesthood, I found myself enrolled simultaneously in Introduction to the New Testament and Economics 101. It was an interesting juxtaposition, and I will never forget the day my economics professor chuckled as he handed back my exam. I’d gotten a decent grade (economics was never my best subject). But he had circled a word right in the middle of one of my answers. I had been talking about businesses and the way they calculate their “profits,” P-R-O-F-I-T-S, and I had written “prophets,” P-R-O-P-H-E-T-S. My professor, who knew that I had entered the discernment process, wrote in the margin, “Well this should settle the question.”
I thought of that story as I reflected on our lessons and prayers for this day. If you’ve been listening closely, you might have noticed that we’re making an awful fuss over the prophets this morning. Our worship began with a collect that lifted up the work and witness of “God’s messengers, the prophets.” Then our Gospel lesson, a few moments ago, introduced us to John the Baptist: the voice crying in the wilderness, the last and greatest in the long line of Hebrew prophets. John’s presence makes the prophetic point of this day quite prominent indeed: not only is he the prophet par excellence, but he is himself the fulfillment of prophecy. Centuries before his birth, his coming and his mission were foretold by the prophet Isaiah in a passage quoted today by St Luke. We focus quite a lot on prophecy this Second Sunday of Advent, and so it seems reasonable to me to ask the question: why? What’s so important about the prophets? Why does their work and witness matter, especially in this holy season of Advent?
I think the best place to begin to answer these questions may be in that collect of which I made mention. The first half of the prayer that opened our worship speaks of the prophets as God’s messengers, sent to carry out two complementary functions: to preach repentance, and to prepare the way for our salvation. Looking through that double lens, we begin to see why John the Baptist is the poster-child for prophecy.
All four of the Gospels testify to John’s power as a preacher of repentance. People from all over Judea—from the big city of Jerusalem to the small towns around the Jordan, and from every class of society—flocked to hear his message, to confess their sins, and to undergo the ritual washing of baptism in the River Jordan. John’s role in preparing the way for our salvation cannot be denied either: Jesus’ public ministry begins after he goes out to his cousin John at the Jordan, is baptized by him, and is anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. John stands as the promised forerunner, the one whose proclamation prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
So John gives us a clear view of the work of a prophet. But that only answers part of our question. Even when we understand what prophets do, we may still wonder why they matter. What has John’s preaching to do with us today? Why should we—who look back upon Christ’s coming in Bethlehem as an historical event, something that happened long ago—care about the ones sent to prepare the way? Why should we who live in hope of Christ’s promised return continue to listen to the prophets of old?
Once again, I think we can turn to this morning’s collect for help. We have prayed this day that God will give us grace “to heed [the warnings of John and of all the prophets], and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” I don’t know about you, but that word “warning” lands heavily on my ear. It reminds me that the continued relevance of the prophetic message is rooted in my own ongoing need for repentance.
When it comes to repentance, John’s call is as uncompromising today as it was two-thousand years ago. Just as he once stood on the banks of the Jordan, so now he stands, crying in the wilderness of our souls, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John stands, urging us to straighten out the warped and winding paths of our hearts; John cries out, imploring us to fill up our deep valleys of self-pity and self-hate, those places in our souls where the air is thick and fetid with regret and shame and bitterness; John bellows, warning us to pull down our gloomy mountains of pride and self-righteousness, those towering hills where the bracing breath of grace grows thin in the driving winds of our scraping and striving. John warns us to untwist our curlicues of covetousness, the crooked places and dead-ends of self-concern and jealousy; John pleads with us to smooth out the ways made rough by our churning appetites—those paths marred by the deep ruts of greed, and lust, and gluttony.
It is a daunting and a difficult message. It is a message that I find myself inclined to resist. There is a part of me that bristles and blusters and takes offense, and wonders who in the world John the Baptist thinks he is. But it is that resistance, that sense of offense, that pushes us to consider the final, critical element of a prophet’s role and work and identity. Beloved, the only way that we can hear John’s message, the only way that John’s challenging announcement can be received as Good News for us today, is because John does not speak for himself. No true prophet speaks for him or herself, but only by the will of the merciful God, the loving God, the living God.
The prophet speaks by the power of a God who has stepped into our story—into our collective and individual messes—with the coming of Christ as the baby in the manger. The prophet speaks by the power of a God who works in us, and all Creation, through Christ’s blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension. The prophet speaks, at last, by the power of a God who is faithful, who has promised to return, to gather us to himself, to wipe away every tear from our eyes, to make us at last “pure and blameless.” That is the God by whom the prophets speak. That is the God who gives life to the prophets’ words, and who causes those words to resound even to our own day.
Beloved people of God, the warning of the prophets is not our condemnation: it is our deliverance. The warning of the prophets is not a message of doom but of hope, because we have confidence that the same God “who began a good work among us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” The prophetic call to repentance does not drive us to despair because the same God who calls to us in the words of the prophets is at this very moment fulfilling those words in you and in me, preparing in us “a harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” By grace—by the power of God at work in us apart from what we can ask or deserve—every valley of our hearts is being lifted up. By grace, every mountain and hill in our souls is being brought low. By grace, what is crooked in us is being straightened out, what is rough in us is being smoothed, and by grace, we and “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Brothers and sisters, in this holy season of Advent, as we remember Christ’s coming in humility, and look for his return with power and great glory, may we give thanks for the prophets: for John the Baptist and all those whom God has sent to preach repentance and prepare the way of salvation. May we heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. And may we, in the fullness of time, join our hearts and souls with prophets, apostles, saints, and angels as they sing: “All praise, eternal Son, to thee, whose advent doth thy people free; whom with the Father we adore, and Holy Ghost forevermore.”