Sunday, December 17, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from December 17, 2017

ADVENT III - B - 17               JOHN 1. 6-8, 19-28

 “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”

Last week we were introduced to John Baptist at the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel. Today we have St. John’s introduction of the Baptist. St. Mark emphasized John’s preaching of repentance and his appearance like one of the prophets of old. St. John emphasizes the Baptist’s witness and his confession.

John was given a divine role to witness to the “light,” one of the author’s favorite references to Jesus as the light of the world. In today’s reading, John’s identity is questioned by a group of priests and Levites who have been sent by the Pharisees to check him out. They want to know who he is.

He confesses that he is not the one they suppose him to be. He is asked the question of his identity within the specific context of the messianic expectations of the religious leaders of his day. John confounds them by his denying any of the titles they try to hang on him. I am not the messiah, he says. I am not Elijah. I am not another prophet.

Yet he quotes the prophet Isaiah when he says, “I am only a voice…” Stifled by John’s response to their question of his identity, his inquisitors now move to their next question, why he is baptizing.

Ritual purity was a significant category of ancient sacrificial Judaism. A person or a thing had to be ritually pure before they could enter the Temple, that is, to approach the divine. The primary mode of removing impurity was “mikvah” full immersion in a body of living water.

In earlier ages, only priests tried to remain in a state of ritual purity since they went daily to the Temple. The common Jew who went about his daily business found it impossible to remain ritually pure because of the people and the things he came in contact with during the course of the day. Thus, he purified himself only when he visited the Temple.

The Temple complex was surrounded by mikvah baths so that the Jews could purify themselves on the way to the Temple mount. Archeologists have just begun to uncover them at the foot of the Temple steps. I was privy to view their work on my first trip to Jerusalem and was amazed at the number of them.

In the first century, ritual purity became a major aspect of Jewish piety. Some Jews began to see a higher spiritual significance to ritual purity. It represented a state of nearness to God. Since sin generates distance from God and atonement generates nearness, just like impurity and purity, there was by analogy an aspect of penitence in the act of ritual purification.

The correspondence between ritual purity and atonement was made explicit in the career of John Baptist. John was not a Christian but a Jew. His immersions in the Jordan River were not baptisms into faith in Christ, but Jewish ritual immersions. John gave ritual immersions heightened spiritual significance. It was his way of preparing the people to approach the divine - Jesus, the Son of God.

John was the first witness to and believer in Jesus as the promised one. He was a light that testified to the true light. Being sent from God, he spoke for God. But who and what was John apart from Jesus?

By quoting Isaiah, the Baptist gives an answer that comes from the spiritual tradition of his questioners. As “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, the Baptist defines himself as deriving meaning through his relationship with another.

What John was doing and saying down at the Jordan was not about him. It was about the one who was coming after him. His task was to prepare the way, and then get out of the way.

What about us? Who are we in the eyes of the world? Better yet, who are we in the eyes of God? Who and what are we apart from Jesus?

As Christians, we live within the context of our relationship with the Lord, Jesus Christ. John knew who he was and who he was not. John refused all of the titles the priests and Levites tried to lay on him. He knew what God had sent him to do and he remained true to his purpose. “I am only a voice…”

There is his humility, and his true greatness. He was a signpost that pointed away from him and to the one who was to come after him. Such as, it should be with us as followers of Christ. Our witness is not to call attention to ourselves but to Him, who is the light of the world.

God recognizes our unique abilities that enable us to share the good news. Our role, like that of the Baptist, is to be a “voice.” Not that we can speak for God, as John did, but that we can speak about God, especially His Love, manifested in His Son, Jesus, and His grace given that enables us to do just that, and to do it with a sense of joy.

As St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle to the Church in Thessalonica, we are called to be open to doing the will of God in joy. In this passage, the will of God is to “rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all things.”

Giving thanks leaves us open to the leading of the Spirit. Giving thanks will give us the ability to discern good from evil. Giving thanks opens our hearts and minds to the will of God and allows us to let God work in and through us.

Giving thanks in all things prepares us for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, both as the child in the manger whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, and a fullness of the revelation of Christ now and in the age to come as the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

So 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. AMEN+

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