Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2012
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

 

Let us pray: Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour by preaching repentance; Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

On this particular day, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, we meet again John the Baptist. Who is he? Yes, we know that he was sent as a messenger to announce the coming of Christ. John knew this better than anyone. He knew his purpose in the world. He knew his identity. He knew who he was and he would proclaim his identity and his purpose with an honesty and clarity to all who asked. When the priests and the Levites from Jerusalem asked him “Who art thou?” he told them. It is rare for someone to have the kind of self-knowledge, honesty and clarity of purpose that John Baptist had.

        We meet many people in our lives. We never get to know most of them very well. Our relationships with others is mostly pretty superficial. Maybe we feel it's safer. But we rarely ask anyone “who are you?” And when we do, it is usually to get a bit of information: a name, a drivers license, a resume. These things may tell superficial things about us. But they don't really say much. And they never address the question of who we are in the eyes of God. And they never address the question of what we were created to do. John the Baptist knew precisely what he was created, what he was called to do and who he was in the eyes of God.

 

        It's a little tougher for the rest of us. Maybe that's why we do a fair amount of self-analysis; we want to know who we are. And we gravitate to all kinds of instruments, psychological and otherwise, to find out. How do we answer the question: “who art thou?” Do we have the honesty and self-awareness of John the Baptist to answer honestly and correctly?

        There is a man in my home town who bears a remarkable resemblance to the actor, Alec Baldwin. The similarity is uncanny. Although my friend Todd is a little heavier than the famous actor, his facial features are nearly identical. Todd is pastor of the Congregational church. He also has, as they might say in Boston: a “wicked” sense of humor. He is often mistaken for Alec Baldwin and occasionally plays along.

        Recently, he told me the following story. Awhile ago, Todd had taken a train to New York City to visit his daughter. On the return trip, a man sat down in the seat facing him. The man was a bit tipsy. He looked at Todd for a long time, then said: “hey, you're that actor; the tv guy.” “Yes, I am,” said Todd. If truth be told, Todd does a bit of amateur acting on the local cable access network. The man pursued the conversation. “I like your show,” he said. Todd thanked him. Eventually, the man got to his point. “Say, would you mind loaning me a few bucks.” Todd had anticipated this. A short time before, Alec Baldwin had gone through a nasty divorce. “You've heard about the divorce?” asked Todd. The man nodded; he had heard about the divorce. Todd described sighing deeply at that point.
After a pause, he said: “well, I don't have a cent; she took it all.” The man was very sympathetic. He said he understood completely. He reached into his pocket, took out a five dollar bill and handed it to Todd. Todd attempted to refuse the money, saying he had lots of tv work. But the man wouldn't hear of it. “You need it,” he said. And he moved away to find someone else. As you might suspect, that bill ended up in the following Sunday's collection.

        This is a humorous and very harmless story of mistaken identity. But it is a reminder that it is indeed difficult to know someone's true identity. Todd's vague but not inaccurate responses left questions. So much of our lives are known only to God. But what if John the Baptist had been similarly evasive; what if he had left the Pharisees with questions? But John, who could easily passed himself off as Jesus, was very accurate indeed. He said who he was and announced the coming of Jesus.

We announce the important events in our lives. When we prepare for a special celebration, we usually make it known. Whether it is a wedding, a graduation, perhaps a baptism, the news of the event is broadcast widely. All the friends and relatives are invited. And everyone arrives with great expectations. They have attended such events before and there is a clear understanding of what will happen.

        With heads of state, the preparations are very detailed. Protocol must be observed, the itinerary set out and security arranged. No detail is left to chance. That's the way it should be with people who are very important. The announcements are sent out, all the steps are followed and the emperor makes his appearance. In the ancient world, the words “make straight the way of the Lord” would announce the immediate approach of an emperor.

        “Make straight the way of the Lord.” This is what John the Baptist says when messengers from the Pharisees approach him. Who are you, they wanted to know. And he answers them honestly and humbly. How easy it might have been for John Baptist to have pretended otherwise, to have claimed the honors for himself. But he knew his place, his particular calling. And he fulfilled that calling. He knew who he was. He knew precisely who he was.

        When John the Baptist says that he is not worthy to unloose the latchet of the shoes of Jesus, he is not engaging in an idle metaphor. He is saying that he does not have the status of a slave in the light of who is about to appear. John the Baptist is called to come before Jesus, to prepare the way. And he does just that.

        We learn from John the Baptist the importance of being completely honest before God and each other. Who are we to God? What is our purpose in the world? How will we serve God and others? John the Baptist answered each of these questions with a simple humility and clarity of purpose that we remember with similar clarity on this day two thousand years later.

 

Let us pray: O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thine only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our judge, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen