Letting Go of John: A Sermon for Advent 3

Good morning and happy third Sunday of Advent, which comes really early this year. Since Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, the 25th, this is the longest Advent can possibly be. Which is how we find ourselves already on the third Sunday of Advent on December 11. (Just a bit of church trivia for you!) 

Today is also called “Rose” Sunday--rose for the color of vestments the clergy wear. It signals a lightening up of Advent, which begins as a more somber season but turns gradually more joyous as we approach Christmas. 

There’s still another name this day goes by. Some of our older or perhaps English members will know this one: “Stir-up Sunday” after the opening Collect (or prayer): stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. This prayer was a reminder to begin stirring, on this day, the Christmas pudding--and if you’ve ever made a proper English Christmas pudding (I know I haven’t, probably neither have you, but if you have), then you know the third Sunday of Advent is actually way too late for starting it. For centuries this Collect was placed not here but on the Sunday before Advent even began. Apparently that’s how long it takes to prepare a pudding. And to be honest I’m not even sure I know what a “Christmas pudding” is. I just like that it takes us back to a time when food, the preparation of it, the preserving of it, was a marker of time. We might otherwise forget that were it not for the church, which ties us to our ancestors and to ancient rhythms unlike our own.

One more occasion that makes today festive here at St. James is that we have a baptism! In just a moment we’ll be baptizing little Lachlan Harbut, son of Mike and Alison, new to the area and to our parish. I’ve gotten to know them and am very excited to have them here at St. James. A warm welcome to all of you, and friends and family with you. It’s a lovely day to be baptized into the church.

Seeming to resist, still, all this festivity is the persistent presence in Advent of John the Baptist, the dour, no-frills prophet and forerunner of our Lord. John this week, moreover, is in prison when we meet him in Matthew’s Gospel. He got carried away with preaching against King Herod and Herod’s (in the view of some at that time) illicit marriage. John was a well known and very vocal figure in Judea already by that point, and so Herod, finding John to be a headache and not worth the trouble, threw him into prison. 

In the church we know well that John preached both baptism and repentance, and the coming of a Messiah. Only his vision of that messiah was of someone fierce, winnowing fork in hand and ready to separate the wheat from the chaff, good from evil. From last week’s Gospel reading, John’s words: “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit *and fire.* His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This week we find John disappointed that the man he thought was the Messiah wasn’t anything like what he had expected. He sends out his messengers from prison to observe Jesus, and to ask him this question: “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus knows John won’t like the answer. To me, this is one of the most heartbreaking and psychologically rich passages in the Gospels, this exchange between two people so close and yet so far from understanding each other. Jesus tells the messengers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And then, as if anticipating John’s disappointment to this reply, Jesus adds, for his benefit: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Who of us would want Jesus to be anything other than the peacemaker and healer that he was? And yet, I sometimes find myself in the position of John, thinking, It can’t be that this is it. God’s central manifestation and revelation in my Christian faith is … a man who patiently, quietly urged us to love, to cease with our worry, to turn the other cheek. Who, one person at a time, sought to make the world better.  

As if that’s going to change the world.

Look at Christian history, and you find many who felt the way John did, wanting to make Christ more imposing, more powerful than he wanted to be. Our churches have dressed him in kingly robes he never wore or saw the likes of. We put him with a fierce mien in a seat of judgment that he never seemed eager to occupy. And then we created positions of worldly authority in his name. Whole armies have marched and slaughtered under the banner of the cross. Many of us, we follow John: we want power, and effect. 

But all that does is set us further back from Christ’s vision of a world changed not by power, but by patience, love, gentleness, building and healing. 

Advent returns us to this message each year. Today we leave behind John the Baptist. We’re grateful for him, but it’s Christ’s mission and vision, not John’s, that we follow. It guides us, as it will (we pray) guide now a new Christian, whom we baptize into this faith we share. Amen.