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JOHN THE BAPTIZER

A sermon preached by Elle Morgan ~ December 10, 2023


Good morning, St. Philip’s – Near and Far.


I love preparing for things.  If I could do it all over again, I would be a tactical logistician for the military.  Also, helping people prepare for things feels pretty terrific to me, too.   I know what my schedule is for the next two years.  I drive my kids crazy with scheduling Christmas 2025 now and asking if they've checked in for their flights on time and if they remembered their wallets.  My son, Dylan, taught me that confidence is preparation, and he's right.


But isn't it interesting that we are preparing for an event that has already happened?  There isn't an analysis where we believe the inaugural incarnation will take place a little over two weeks hence – at least, I don't think so.  So, what are we preparing for?  Advent is a season of waiting and expecting.  We use this time to prepare our hearts and minds for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, recognizing the historical event of Christ's first coming and, importantly, looking forward to his promised return.


Canon Rich Simpson, in the online blog "21st Century Congregations," writes, "Advent is always filled with some measure of "looking back" to the birth of Jesus in first-century Palestine, on the edges of the Roman empire.  In our worst moments, we may succumb to nostalgia for a simpler time, the innocence of childhood perhaps.  But in truth, the birth of Jesus took place in a world sadly not so different from ours.  In those days, when a decree went out from the emperor, the world was a hot mess.  But Advent is also about the present and the future.  It's about paying attention to the world we live in – a world that can feel very frightening, a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.”  His article was a good one, which also cites that this year, Christmas is canceled in Bethlehem, and ironically, there is plenty of room in the inn due to a deeply troubled world.  I would direct you to it on the Dioceses website.


Advent provides an opportunity for spiritual reflection and preparation.  It's a time to focus on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love associated with Christ's coming.  This preparation involves self-examination, repentance, and a commitment to live in alignment with our values.


Advent highlights the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah and the circumstances of his birth.  Our readings and reflections during this time draw from prophetic texts that foretold Jesus's birth, reinforcing the connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. – which is where we find ourselves today.


Today, our Gospel highlights both foretelling and forerunners – well, at least one forerunner.

History shows us how vitally essential forerunners can be.  Forerunner refers to entities or people that precede or pave the way for others.  Ironically, we usually see forerunners in hindsight.


Galileo Galilei was considered a forerunner in the scientific revolution and significantly contributed to physics and astronomy.  Socrates is often considered the father of Western philosophy and laid the groundwork for critical thinking and the Socratic method. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for nonviolent protest and equality for all people as a forerunner to progress in the civil rights movement.


These are just a few examples, and there are forerunners in many fields who have shaped the course of history and human development.  John the Baptist's role in this context is often highlighted because he is the forerunner who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah.


Significantly, John knew he was a forerunner.  And his mother knew.  And Jesus’ mother knew. Luke tells us that Mary's words prompted Elizabeth's unborn child's immediate, silent response.  John leaps, acknowledging Mary’s presence and the significance of the child she carries.  John's reaction to Mary's voice fulfills Gabriel's prophecy, "even before his birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.".  John points to the coming one as he continues to do for his entire life.  The leaping of John the Baptist in the womb is a unique and significant moment in the biblical narrative, highlighting the extraordinary nature of the events surrounding the births of John and Jesus and underscoring their close relationship, even before their births.  The Baptizer never wavered or misunderstood his role.


So, today in Mark’s Gospel, we read about John the Forerunner.  The Baptizer leads us in this Advent season, pointing us to the one who is Lord.  Whose birth we await and whose reign will not end.


Fleming Rutledge, one of the first female priests in the Episcopal church, sagely says, " It would be hard to say which is more alien to our contemporary ideas of getting ready for Christmas, the season of Advent or the figure of John the Baptist—the man who greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees by calling them a "brood of vipers."  An interesting sentiment for a Christmas card,” she muses.


In Advent, our thoughts naturally turn to the birth of Jesus and his blessed mother, Mary.  And yet, our lectionary readings for Advent bring us to John the Baptist.


So, why does John the Baptist figure so prominently in the earlier days of Advent?  In his book Loosing the Lion, Dr. Leroy Huizinga, a noted theologian, shares how the Gospel of Mark reveals how the shortest of the four Gospels is an intense, wild, and impossible story that brings us to an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Dr. Huizenga posits that there are many reasons for John's prominence.  Here are three: Advent is not only about Jesus’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem.  Second, John the Baptist is the last of the old covenant prophets.  Third, John the Baptist is Jesus's birth, message, and death forerunner.  John is seen as fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 40:3;


"A voice of one calling:

"In the wilderness, prepare

    the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

    a highway for our God.'"


The Baptizer’s ministry is contained in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – a symbol of its emphasis.  It’s important.  The message is that John would come as a voice in the wilderness, preparing people for the imminent arrival of the Lord, which he did.  During the Advent season, the figure of John the Baptist continually reminds us of the themes of preparation, repentance, and anticipation.


One of the distinct characteristics of Mark's Gospel is the pace by which it moves from beginning to end.  And its brevity.  There are no details about the birth of Jesus.  We find those in Luke and Matthew.  It does not give us a chronological treatment of all the information about Jesus, as we see in Matthew's Gospel, and it's not a biography.  One of the most important Greek words in the Gospel of Mark is euthys, which is translated as "suddenly -- used forty-two times in Mark's Gospel.


Mark's account begins and ends suddenly.  Interestingly, this pericope's inaugural sentence is "the beginning of the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”  It's a title.  But Mark wastes no time telling us for whom we are to prepare our hearts—the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus is coming.  What a message!  This is no minor visitor – not even a treasured friend or long-lost family member.  God is sending God’s son, our Savior, to become incarnate and dwell among us.  To live with and teach us and ultimately die for us.


Mark’s Gospel story begins not within a stable in Bethlehem but with a prophet -- Mark's gospel story begins with John the Baptizer.


But our preparations in Advent are about Jesus.  From our vantage point, this might not seem so startling millennia later – we know this story.  It was probably quite surprising for the people hearing Mark's words for the first time.  But the nature of the Good News is not disputed.


Mark takes us through the past, present, and future in these short verses.  He revisits prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures, describes his present time in his desert ministry, and connects his wilderness experience with the cry, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord."


Preparation is important.  We want to be ready to face any challenges.  And sometimes, our plans require modifications.  And depending on the situation, you will prepare differently.  A short overnight trip requires other preparations than a move across the country.  Meeting a friend for tea requires a different preparation than cooking Thanksgiving dinner.


As we considered last week, we’re reminded again today that Advent is a season of preparation.  We may have spent the week decorating our Christmas tree or planning which treats to bake for our neighbors, but these are preparations for Christmas, not Advent.  John the Baptist leads us to see that the most vital preparation for Advent is that we prepare our hearts.  Last week, the Gospel reminded us to stay awake.  This week, we are reminded to prepare.


And so, Advent prepares us to welcome Jesus and accept his call to take up the cross and follow him.  Our lives may contain suffering and pain, but we know His coming and salvation are certain.  We know this story.


Reflection during Advent is a multifaceted process encompassing spiritual reflection, anticipating Christ's coming, commemorating prophecy, and cultivating our beliefs.  It's a time for individuals and communities to engage in intentional practices that deepen our understanding of the significance of Christmas and foster a spirit of hope, peace, joy, and love.  John the Baptizers' message of repentance and the call to make way for the Lord is integral to Advent's spiritual significance.


So, back to preparation.  I've come to question that while I enjoy preparing for things – many things,  am I preparing for the right things?  This is a question I will be sitting with this Advent.  Father Michael reminds us that everyone is religious; it's just a question of what they worship.  I would similarly suggest that we are all preparing for something – it's just a question of what we are preparing for.


I invite you to join me in considering this question of preparation this Advent season. 

 

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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