A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York, December 14, 2014
“He was not the light…”
The Gospel lesson today is about John the Baptist. Of course he made quite a sensation out there in the wilderness. Lots of crowds, lots of disciples. John was like the rock-star prophet of first century Palestine. Even the people that his harshest criticism was aimed at came out to see him. It was quite a show, people queued up to be baptized. It was the thing to do, the place to be seen. Get baptized, that will prove that you are repentant, you’re not guilty any more of those bad things that John is talking about.
This was not exactly what John had in mind. The Gospel of Matthew quotes him saying to these people: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” One of the ways in which we falsify the Gospel is to look for human heroes, put all the responsibility on them, adulate them, then quietly slip away without taking continuing responsibility for living the life of the Gospel, of standing for justice, repenting and living courageously and humbly with our God every day. John the Baptist was having none of this. So the priests and Levites come up to him and say, “You preach pretty well … you’re really edgy … that’s quite a look … really authentic … hey, maybe you could be the Messiah? … we sort of need one of those … try on that idea, you would be a really good candidate…somebody go find some oil…”
John replies, “I am not the Messiah.”
“Oh… well, yeah, but you’ve got to be something… maybe Elijah? he was pretty cool…”
“I am not.” — “Well then maybe the Prophet? You look like a prophet after all, we could call you THE Prophet, how about that?”
“What then, what are you, we have to have a category to put you in—after all you can’t do marketing without a brand.”
John gives a big sigh: “I’m a voice. One crying out in the wilderness, for crying out loud… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ It is not about me, it’s about the Lord and about how you should live.”
People love to find “heroes” or “leaders” or “saints” who are going to fix things for them. Almost fifty years ago, Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With the internet and social media, that future has pretty much arrived. We go through a cycle of finding, building up and debunking heroes at a dizzying rate. Fame can be both tempting and damaging for individuals who might have their fifteen minutes, but I’m actually concerned about the other side of the question. What is the reason for the celebrity of heroes and leaders? Somehow, a celebrity, whether it is a political leader, or an actor, or a spokesperson for a group is credited with being somehow special, and having the answer for something that ordinary people somehow lack. Of course some people are more talented, or beautiful or smart than many other people. But, the step from saying that someone is really smart, or attractive or loving to believing that they have some solution to problems that you don’t have is a big step and a very dangerous one.
Those guys wanted to treat John the Baptist like he was the light, all on his own: look at John, he’s the prophet, let him baptize you and he’ll take care of everything. We want leaders of one sort or another to be our lights. But they aren’t, or at least, if we treat them as such we will become lost very quickly. How frequently do we see people blame last month’s light for their problems this month? John came to bear witness to the light, not to be the light—and he came to hold people responsible for their own actions and their own lives—thus the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—real sins, our own sins, which we are responsible for.
This Advent we look for the true light, the light of God to break into this world. But we don’t discover that light by just finding the closest shiny object. No. We listen to the testimony of John: make straight the way of the Lord—know and accept the truth of yourself and of this world. Follow no false prophet, and do not succumb to the temptation to assume anyone else can take responsibility for your life or solve your problems.
We follow God and God alone. We look for him, that small light burning in the darkness, that life so small and fragile, coming among us, to lead us in to truth by his living.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”