a sermon preached on 16 December 2018 at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. +In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is our third of four weeks in this sermon series titled “Chaperones Through Advent.” In our first sermon we took a closer look at Isaiah and what that important Old Testament prophet has to teach us about how to Advent well. Last week we considered the prophet Jeremiah and his contribution to our Advent imaginations. And this week, we will be looking to the first of our New Testament figures: John the Baptist.
Please turn in your Bible with me to Matthew 3:1-12. I would like to read for us today’s passage.
Proclamation and Principles.
Here, in this third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is the first time we explicitly see the ministry of John the Baptist, but as the text says, it is not the first time we hear of John the Baptist. Isaiah foretold of John’s ministry in Isaiah chapter 40. As the themes of today’s passage indicate, John the Baptist is following in the work of the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah. And so similar to Isaiah and Jeremiah, John the Baptist is important for a faithful and proper posture during this Advent season. There are five characteristics of John the Baptist which are also major themes carried throughout Advent.
First, like John the Baptist, Advent is a forerunner for Christ. As was stated in the two previous sermons, Jesus appears in a story, in a context, and not just at a random plot point of earth’s existence. It is also the case with Christmas. Christmas indeed, as a festival, springs upon us. As G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes...It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.” (All Things Considered) But although Christmas breaks upon us as a festival, it should not surprise us. Christmas does not occur in a void. Christmas occurs at a purposeful and important part of the Church calendar. If there is no Advent, there is no Christmas. If there is no Christmas, there is no Epiphany and there is no Lent and no Easter; there will then not just be no ordinary time, but there will be no time whatsoever. If there is no Jesus, there is no John the Baptist. As Christmas will soon triumph over the humility and lowliness of Advent, even in its own paradoxical lowliness and humility, so Jesus’s ministry triumphed over the humility and lowliness of John the Baptist, even in Jesus’ own paradoxical lowliness and humility.
Second, like the John the Baptist, Advent brings a message of repentance. This is in keeping with some of the themes in Isaiah and Jeremiah we looked at the past two weeks. We may even consider John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the first of the New Testament witnesses. And so John came to preach a message of repentance. This was the spirit of John the Baptist, and it is the spirit of every Advent. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17).
Third, like John the Baptist, Advent is all about water, most especially the waters of baptism. John the Baptist came with the initiation rite of baptism, of repentance and righteousness, and so he faithfully baptized even our Lord before Jesus began his formal ministry. This is not because Jesus needed to repent of anything but rather because Jesus saw it fit to “fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:15). Water matters to Advent like it mattered to John the Baptist’s ministry: Advent, like baptismal water, is about life and death, is about repentance and righteousness, is about becoming a people for the child-king, is about reflection and cleansing, is about rituals of preparation which sanctify us in Christ and put us in right relationship with God. Therefore, in as much as John the Baptist is a proper chaperone through Advent, then Advent is a season which carries with it an expectation of cleansing, of purifying, of new life, of something greater than itself, something sacramental even. As Jesus says in Acts 1:5 and 11:16, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
Fourth, like John the Baptist, Advent expects of us a child-like faith, even a fetus-like faith. There is perhaps no verse on child-like faith as jarring as the one involving John the Baptist.
- “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." (Luke 1:39-45)”
Let us then, like John, before the birth of Christmas, before the birth of our Lord, sit within the womb of Advent and leap at the faithful voices which God has ordained to prepare the world for the Incarnate God.
Fifth and finally, like John the Baptist, our Advent season will run its full course only when our heads are presented on a platter to the world. Indeed, there is no need to make light of this, of John’s martyrdom; but what we must do is see the symbolism and its importance for us and the season of Advent.
- “But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter." And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. (Matthew 14:6-12)
When we act like faithful Christians during Advent and Christmas, we will be mocked, whether we eat little or much, whether we celebrate with humility or with cheer, whether we fast or feast. The world hates God’s ways, and so we ought not to determine our actions because of the world’s approval. As our Lord states from Luke’s Gospel chapter 7, “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.' For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by all her children." Let us be children of wisdom this Advent and Christmas season, and that means children who seek the Father’s face and not man’s approval.
But there is one way Advent differs wildly from the model John the Baptist set for us. Today we feast, and yet what we see of John the Baptist’s dietary habits were plain and sparing, mostly eating locusts and wild honey. In this way, Advent, like John the Baptist, is a time of self-denial, but not on a day like today, on Sunday. Wine and bread are much greater than locusts and wild honey, not only as foods but as spiritual symbols and points of sacramental focus. Today we feast at the Lord’s Table because we celebrate something that was greater than John the Baptist. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John the Baptist states, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt. 3:11) As Jesus Christ was the perfect prophet, fulfilling and completing the work of Isaiah and Jeremiah, so he is the perfect call, the perfect voice, the perfect messenger of grace, fulfilling and completing the work of John the Baptist. So prepare yourself to come to this table, the Table of our Lord, who did not just to come prepare a way but who is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Now hear and consider a poem by C.S. Lewis
“The Nativity” by C.S. Lewis
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Savior where I looked for hay;
So may my beast like folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baaing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!