A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on Advent 2 [Year A], 04 December 2022: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 Truth Telling
Mustering the emotional discipline to move forward, she made the appointment. After all, it was past time to have her annual physical examination. Avoiding the encounter served no good purpose. So, she called the office to claim an opening in the doctors’ schedule. As with most of us, she wanted her physical exam to be a simple and uneventful confirmation that her body was working as it should work and that as a result her life would be a matter of staying the course. Alas, this was not to be for her.
The nurse called her into the examination room; and after exchanging a few social pleasantries, asked her to have a seat, that the doctor would be in soon to see her. Very soon thereafter, the young, male doctor knocked softly on the door and entered the exam room. Extending his hand in greeting, he proceeded to review her medical notes before beginning. It was at that point that the unnerving surprise occurred.
After a quick scanning of her medical notes, the doctor raised his eyes from the papers and looked directly at her face and uttered these remarkable words. Gently using her first name, he said, “I can give you all the tests available that will indicate accurately the nature and status of your health; but I must tell you this.” He pause for a moment and then continued. “The most important thing you can do for your physical health and well-being is to stop smoking.”
If this were a scene on a television soap opera, at this piercing statement the background music would have hit an intense crescendo and then stopped with a stunning silence. This was not what she expected to hear. It was one thing to run tests that would mark the status of her vital organs and the mix of her blood – items that would be added to her medical records and referred to in future visits. But it was entirely another thing to have her doctor introduce himself and begin the entire procedure with that pronouncement. It was so … direct … so true -- that she sensed that a long-denied change in her life was coming – if – if she wanted to be healthy. And more to the point, whether she would make such a significant change or not was completely in her own hands.
As for her doctor, he had to realize that such truth-telling might risk losing a patient. Instead of taking the easy route and masking the problem with a prescription or a charming bedside manner, instead he functioned as a healer, a physician, and not someone hiding in a white coat with a stethoscope.
In scripture, we are told any number of times and in any number of ways that the “truth shall set you free”. Yet, truth’s freedom is not always greeted with a welcomed sense of liberation and deliverance. A timeless example rests with Pontius Pilate’s infamous interrogation of Jesus. Trying to discover who this Jewish celebrity was, what he was up to, and more importantly to what extent he was a threat to the status quo – that is, Rome’s power and control, Pilate asked Jesus if he were a king, to which Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world. Seeking to exploit any crack in Jesus’ testimony, Pilate leaped at this royal reference: “So you are a king!” Parrying such rhetorical “gaslighting”, Jesus simply states: “… I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” With what is seemingly a completely unfiltered response, Pilate utters one of the most famous and mystifying questions in human history: “What is truth?”
One of the ways that Pilate’s question hits me is that I wonder how he meant what he said. What was the tone of his voice? What was the look on his face? I can easily assume that this middle manager of Roman oppression, in the bureaucratic armpit of the Empire, would spew this question from his lips in either complete cynicism or broken exasperation. In both cases, Pilate had seen it all, and all sentiment aside the only thing that mattered was keeping power, with the goal of being in control –even though it was killing him.
“What is truth?” Truth telling. What does it mean to tell the truth? What does it take to tell the truth?
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we are presented with a powerful – albeit, very provocative answer to these questions. The giver of the answer lies specifically in the person of John the Baptist. Each year, on this second Advent Sunday, right on schedule, John the Baptist emerges into our Advent consciousness. And he enters this significant time (as they say) “with a bang and not a whimper”. In the biblical witness, he is recognized as the “forerunner”, the very incarnation of the biblical prophetic tradition, the core part of which is contained as a verbal footnote in Matthew’s gospel account, the one we heard today: John the Baptist is [t]he voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John is known as the “forerunner”, the very one whose truth telling dares to anticipate the Messiah, the Christ of God. Matthew describes John’s steely inward nature in terms of his outward appearance. He wears clothing that otherwise would cause you and me to itch miserably and most likely cause an unsightly rash. His diet was equally unadorned, not the kind of guest you’d want to invite to Christmas dinner. (I can see it now: John, the ever-gracious guest, bringing the dinner’s hostess not a bottle of wine but a vintage collection of organic, sustainable, grass-fed locusts! “Guess who’s coming to dinner?!”).
No, in Jesus’ own words, John the Baptist was not a smooth-talking, hand-holder but rather one who fills the role of Elijah, the prophetic figure in the Hebrew tradition whose appearance would foreshadow the imminent Advent of the Messiah. And this is the reason that in traditional Christian iconography and art, the Baptist’s posture is always pointing beyond himself to Jesus, as if to say: “There is truth; and I am telling you the truth. Deal with it!”
But telling the truth is not always what it’s cracked up to be; is it? Not everyone welcomes the truth, and at times this includes you and me. Why is this so? If the “truth will set us free”, then what is the reason we so frequently shy away from it? More to the point, when the truth is spoken among us, why does it so often bring out the worst in us? --from election deniers to bitcoin charlatans?
Given this painful truth, we shouldn’t be surprised that John the Baptist’s habit of telling the truth got him into some real hot water. Calling the religious and legal authorities of his time “a bunch of snakes” was mild in comparison to holding for instance) King Herod accountable for his self-serving, abuse of power. For telling the poser-king the truth, Herod had John’s head cut off.
“The truth shall set you free.” But striving to live in this freedom, the truth is that you most likely won’t be called as Rector or elected to public office or to get the promotion with the corner office. You won’t because, like the woman’s doctor, the truth will challenge the way things are and change what we are most comfortable with, which is to say what we are most addicted to: namely, whatever sense of power that deludes us into believing we can be in control.
John calls us to “repent”: that is, to change the way we think. In Greek, the term is “metanoia”, which in its literal sense means “change your mind”. But it also has a deeper sense, meaning “change your heart” – that is, “rework your integrity”, your core Self, your soul. Repent.
“Repent” was the first word that John the Baptist spoke publicly in his ministry. It is also the same first word that Jesus spoke at the initiation of his public calling. “Repent.” “Turn around!” Your thinking, your life’s trajectory, your soul is headed in the wrong direction. Stop smoking or boozing or posing or lusting after power because it is killing you, ruining you. Ruining all of us.
“Stop! Be whole. Be healthy. Be what God sees in each of us.” This is the true nature of “salvation”. Salvus is the Latin root for the word “salvation”. Salvus mean “health” and “wholeness”, not “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by”. In the face of our dis-ease and anxiety, in the face of our brokenness, “health” and “wholeness” is what we need most. Salvation, health and wholeness, is what God alone can and does give to us. It is the reason John the Baptist points to Jesus and speaks the truth about Jesus; and it is the reason Jesus was born, was crucified, and raised. The “forerunner” dares to speak such a profound truth because folks like us need it – even if we don’t want it.
As I did last Sunday, I close by referring to the phrasing of the Proper Preface for Advent, the one we use in our Eucharistic Prayer. The Advent preface says: [We give you thanks O God] because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.
This is the truth, and it sets us free. The issue is whether or not we will receive it and be healthy and whole.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Amen.