During any given Advent, the Gospel reading for at least one of the four Sundays is dedicated to John the Baptist. This year, John was featured both last week and today. In addition, at least one of other Sundays in Advent the reading is always dedicated to Mary. Now, this distribution of the readings is fully appropriate. Among the things we observe during this time in the church year is the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. So, John is appropriately understood as the last of the Old Testament saints, a wild, fierce prophet, and Mary is understood as the first of the New Testament saints, the one who receives, by the Spirit, the gift of God’s Word into her. The change being marked is not a revolution or overthrowing of the old by the new, but as Jesus himself says, the fulfillment of the old, making it into what it was promised to be. It is a new way of worship, one that does not throw away the old, especially its demands for righteousness, but that now brings it forward and that gives us worship of a God no longer far off, but worship of God in Spirit and in truth.
Thus, both John and Mary are essential to the story of salvation, the story of God becoming a man so that women and men might become one with God. John’s wild prophecy, his calls to repentance are crucial; without them, and without that repentance, there is no openness in us as there was in Mary to receive the gift of God himself. On the other hand, without culminating in that openness, without looking forward to something, John’s calls to repentance would lose their real meaning. They would become moralistic and ideological and fanatical. It is that theme, the difference between looking forward and being a witness to what is to come and moralism and ideology that I want to make our theme today on this “John the Baptist Sunday.”
So, let us, this Sunday, concentrate on John the Baptist. And, as John preached a message of repentance, let us begin with a story of repentance.
It is the story of a man who inherited a parrot. Now, the thing about inheriting parrots is that you don’t really get to teach them to talk. They tend to come with vocabulary fully formed. And this bird had quite a vocabulary! This was the rudest, most foul-mouthed fowl that anyone had ever heard. His poor owner was absolutely mortified every time that anyone came over. The bird would insult the owner and the guest, and, in doing so, use language so inventive that it put most sailors to shame. Needless to say, this pretty much killed the owner’s dating life.
Now, the owner knew he had to do something about his parrot. He tried reasoning with it. He tried teaching it new words, and he tried positive reinforcement. He tried negative reinforcement. But it was all to no avail. Each new effort, simply brought the ridicule of the bird down on his head. He became frustrated and angry. He was at his wit’s end about what to do.
Finally, in a fit of frustration and anger, the owner grabbed the bird roughly and stuck him in the freezer. Of course, once he shut the door of the freezer, he could hear coming from the inside of the appliance a long and loud torrent of angry, abusive, and obscene words. But then, suddenly, everything became very quiet. And it stayed quiet. Finally, after a couple of minutes, the man opened the freezer and took the parrot out.
Immediately, head down, the bird began humbly apologizing. “I have been a terrible parrot to you,” he said. “I have been rude to you and I have been abusive. I have insulted your friends and ruined your social life. I have been intolerably obscene. I am truly sorry for all that I have put you through. I promise I will never do it again. I promise to learn new words, and to learn new ways if you will only forgive me, and teach me the words you would have me say.”
Well, needless to say, the owner was truly impressed, and, of course, a bit shocked. But before he could ask what had caused the parrot’s change of mind, the parrot came close to him, and said humbly, “Might, sir, I ask you a question?” “Of course,” said the owner. “Well,” the parrot queried, leaning in close to his owner and speaking very softly, “What did the turkey do?”
That is repentance of a sort. It is the sort of repentance we see a lot from sorry politicians. One could say that they have seen the turkey. I suspect that we often think that is the kind of repentance that John is asking for when he bursts onto the scene, announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand and calling for true repentance. We assume in asking for repentance that he is sort of presenting a threat; repentance is the response one makes to a credible announcement, such as the parrot felt when standing next to the frozen turkey, that something is going to happen and it isn’t going to be good unless things change. We take the call for repentance as a call to repent “or else”.
Perhaps there is something of that in John, just as there was in the Old Testament prophets. Things are not going the way they should; if God’s covenant has not exactly been forgotten, it still isn’t going well for God’s people, and things have gotten out of hand. God is not happy. Appropriately, the announcement thus comes that a time of reckoning is at hand, and it is time to change. One had better be ready, and being ready means getting your act together.
But, if there is something of this in John’s announcement, John is about so much more than that; that something more is what is most important in John. Like the Old Testament prophets, in the end, what his message was about was God’s promise to make something of the human race. John is not trying to scare people into good behavior so much as he is trying to announce that the kingdom of God is near at hand, and that announcement is Good News. John is announcing not destruction, but the fulfillment of God’s promise. He is telling the people what Isaiah had told them, that the one to come will bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and comfort for all those who mourn.
That is what the call to repentance is about. He is not telling folks to watch out or else. He is telling folks to make way for the fulfillment of these promises – make the ground level, clear the way for the kingdom. He is telling them how they need to welcome God’s good news. He is telling them to get ready, and repentance is how you do it.
Still, this call to repentance sounds annoying. Couldn’t John have just told people the Good News and avoided the call to repentance? No. For repentance is crucial. For the Good News will not happen if everything stays the same; it isn’t just frosting on present reality. Unless we make room for it, and change our lives, captives will remain captives, and mourners will continue to mourn. For where else have those things come from, if not from us? Moreover, unless we change we will remain captives, and prisoners, and we will continue, as the hymn says, to mourn in lonely exile here. But, if we are willing to change and clear the way, then the light from on high may break upon us.
This notion of preparing the way for something that is yet to come is crucial to understanding John’s message and to understanding our relation to God’s Good News. It is crucial in this way: it is what distinguishes a message of hope from a message of moralism and ideology. John, in preaching repentance and the clearing of the way, is not trying to establish the kingdom; John is not trying to get people to buy his message. John is simply preparing the way. John is as our Gospel lesson this morning says, not the light, nor is his message the light. He is simply trying to bear witness to the light.
That distinction is important for us, because we often fail to see the message is always pointing us forward, that John is pointing forward. He is not trying to establish anything. He is not trying to civilize the uncivilized. He is not trying to reform morals so that we can have a better society. No, he is trying to plant. He is trying to get everybody to look ahead, because ahead, not now, is where all the action is. He is trying to bear witness to what is ahead and to what is beyond us.
I have said it many times before and I say it again: Christianity is not an ideology. Faith is, therefore, as much about how we believe as what we believe. It is not a plan for the best society, nor is it a set of principles to live by. It is not a method of crowd control. It is, rather, about--it is always about--what God is doing and about what God is going to do, most especially in us. If that is so, then it follows as Monday follows Sunday, that what John says, even if he is a very great prophet he is not ever the full Truth. What I say and what you say are not ever the full truth. We and what we say are not the Way, either. We, by ourselves, are certainly not the Life. Christ alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and all that we can do, is, like John, recognize that we are to bear witness to the light. We are not to capture it, we are not to enclose it or comprehend it, we, instead, are to be captured by it, we are to be excited by it, we are to be moved by it, we are to look forward to it, we are to live in its light. In doing all those things, we bear witness to what is above and beyond us. Thus, we are always looking forward. That is why Christian faith is always full of hope, and it is never a completed system of intellect or morals. That is also why we have to clear the way. God acts in the open heart, which is the faithful heart.
There is a passage from the writings of the martyred bishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, titled “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.” It expresses well what it is to be John the Baptist, and what it means to hear his message. It is about what it means to live as people looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. It goes like this:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
“No statement says all that could be said.
“No prayer fully expresses our faith.
“No confession brings perfection.
“No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
“No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
“No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
“This is what we are about:
“We plant seeds that one day will grow.
“We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
“We lay foundations that will need further development.
“We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
“We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs.
“We are prophets of a future not our own.”
John the Baptist speaks to us. He tells us to clear the way, so that God’s kingdom may come in. But John also stands as a very important symbol of what all of us must be if we have Christian faith. For he stands as one who is a witness to a light that comes from somewhere else; he stands as one who hopes for a way, a truth, a life that is not his own. He, as we all must, bears witness. And in that bearing witness is his holiness, his participation in the life of God. And in bearing witness is our life in God. And in that is how we also move from John the Baptist to Mary, for it is in realizing that we are to bear witness, that we also realize that what we are asked to do, is, like Mary, to say, “Let it be with me, according to your will.”