Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Fourth Sunday in Advent, 2013
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.

Ever wonder how many times John the Baptist makes an appearance during the church year? It often surprises me when he shows up. But he is a surprising character, intentionally so. He is with us during Advent, of course, when he announces the coming of Jesus. Like the ancient heralds who would announce the approach of the emperor, John Baptist announces the coming of the Messiah. But he doesn't make his announcement with great noise; he doesn't own a trumpet and likely wouldn't use it in any case. Rather, John's is a voice crying in the wilderness. But like those imperial trumpeters, he calls us to "...make straight the way of the Lord." Those Roman trumpeters announced the emperor's appearance so that people would be aware of the great Caesar's arrival, so that they would pay him his due respect and so they wouldn't be trampled to death by his chariots.

 

But John was also aware of the prophetic traditions that preceded him. He knows their history and quotes from those ancient prophets. John the Baptist is a knowledgeable man; he knows his traditions, he knows the Scriptures well. But, above all things, he knows God. He has a gift of discernment that others of us just do not have. Like all genuine prophets, John Baptist could read the signs; he could predict accurately the coming of the Messiah. But he does not let all this knowledge of God go to his head. He knows he is just a man. He knows he can baptize with water only. And he knows that he is unworthy to unlatch the shoes of the one who comes after him. Unlatching the emperor's sandals would have been the task of a slave. When John made such a statement, it would have been considered shocking to the Pharisees who asked his counsel. But, even more, such a statement would have marked John as among the most humble of all men. And that is precisely who he was. He walked humbly before his God, who he knew with a certainty that transcended the knowledge of all other men. "There standeth one among you whom ye know not..."

 

We know of John the Baptist at the River Jordan when he baptized Jesus. We remember John at the beginning of Summer when we celebrate his feast day. But we learn of John the Baptist even before he was born, when he reached out to Jesus, knowing him to be the Messiah. Two children in the womb reach out to each other; one Emmanuel, God with us; the other a simple man who knew his God and reached out to him – reached out to him before he had fully formed senses, before the world might have regarded him as "real." But God recognized him as real and responded to his impulse to reach toward God.

 

We have just three days before Christmas. Advent draws to a close. There is a human child about to be born. The signs are there. Where will this birth take place? In the developed world, we have hospitals and trained professionals to guide that journey to its conclusion. We have lots of help. It is curious, when we consider the story, that there appeared to be very little help at the time of Jesus' birth. We hear of no one except the parents as they travel to a lonely place in the empire to fulfill their civic duty. No one anticipates the coming of the Messiah. There are no medical doctors present, no trumpets, no professional heralds of the event; there is no clear path; no chariots or soldiers to transport the Messiah; no soldiers or retainers to protect him from harm. It is hard to believe.

 

Yes, there are signs and wonders of the coming of the Messiah. But who really knows how to figure them out? They seem pretty vague, even to the great scholars of the time. The Pharisees certainly wonder. They even wonder about John the Baptist. Perhaps they think the Messiah might be John. And so they ask.

But John Baptist is the only one who gets it, the only one who truly knows.

 

Because we don't. We do not have the gifts that John the Baptist has. We simply do not have his gift of discernment. And we can't really fathom the difference between baptism with water and baptism with water and the holy spirit. Sure, we may understand the concept; but do we understand with the fullness of our being? Do we truly know it is the presence of God that makes all the difference?

 

But it is time for us to make straight the way of the Lord. This is not a physical road, one that an emperor might travel to the sound of shiny trumpets played by well costumed heralds. It will not be a street filled with crowds of people who run for their lives at the announcement of the emperor's approach. Rather, this is the road of God, the spiritual path that is of God's kingdom. It is made by God's own hands and it exists within us.

 

But that way is filled with all kinds of obstacles, all sorts of things that get in the way of God's arrival. Make straight the way of the Lord says John the Baptist; clear away all those things that are not of God.

 

We are asked this day, by the quiet herald, by the one who speaks from the wilderness that has become of God's creation. We are asked by him to free our hearts of all that keeps us from God, so that we, too, may be aware of the one who stands among us; the one we may never see but whose presence among us is as certain as the Bethlehem that the weary travelers see before them; the place where all that matters will come to be.

 

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

 

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.