December 13, 2015
Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?
(St. Matthew xi. 2)
We have said that Advent season is all about our preparing for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas time. Our preparation is rooted in history and hope. Historically speaking Jesus Christ, the Desire of God, was made flesh some two-thousand years ago in ancient Palestine. That event was the culmination of a long history of God’s calling and summoning of his people through his Word. The Word having been made flesh, He quickly proceeded, in the span of a brief life, to overcome all obstacles to man’s salvation through the offering and immolation of Himself, the single action that alone could atone for man’s sinful rebellion against His Maker. From the perspective of salvation history, humanity could now be swallowed up into eternity. For, from heaven Christ is continually communicating and expressing His unceasing love, primordial yearning and desire for all men’s reconciliation with His Father. Having overcome sin once and for all, Christ continues to send His love down from Heaven into a people whose hope is their destiny with Him. But in Advent we are preparing specifically for His coming once again as new birth in our souls, that with Isaiah the Prophet we might sing, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation. (Isaiah xxv. 9)
If Advent is about making ready for a Christmas birth, today we learn how John the Baptist helps us to open up to Christ as our coming Saviour. John’s vocation or mission is to prepare us for the true and lasting coming of Christ –that birth that matures progressively into spiritual adulthood where man can become a true child of our Heavenly Father. John’s life is preparation only because it involves man’s limited response to the power of Christ’s coming salvation. He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor and the Preparer is on a mission to lead us into self-denial or self-emptying. I must die, that Christ may come alive, John exclaims. Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (St. Matthew iii. 2), he insists. Repentance reveals the desire to die to the world, the flesh, and the devil. To do so we must, with John, remove ourselves from the commerce of our noisy world in order to repent. John came to know himself in stark contradistinction to God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. First in the barren wilderness or desert, and then within the abandonment of a lonely prison cell, John repents of his sins, empties himself of himself, and then waits and watches for the One whose coming alone can give new being and meaning to his evacuated nature. He must increase and I must decrease. (Idem)
Repentance is the acknowledgment of our self-willed alienation from God. Repentance involves the naming and claiming whatever desire or passion lends itself to the ignorance, neglect, or willful refusal of God’s will in human life. Repentance cleanses and purges man’s inner being of the sterility and impotence that self-will harvests habitually in human life. Self-will is sterile and impotent because it prefers temporary and impermanent pleasures to the joy that Christ’s coming promises. When we empty ourselves of our worldly hungering and hankering, we acknowledge that we need to be made new, born again, and regenerated according to God’s intention and plan. But if we repent, we must also take the necessary steps to ensure that we are willing to die to whatever is not of God. Jesus says elsewhere if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee…if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (St. Matthew 5. 29, 30) Repentance must be followed by the real intention to go and sin no more because what we desire truly is the birth of Christ’s new life in us.
Yet we must acknowledge that repentance does not promise immediate consolation. Oftentimes the man who repents and calls others to imitation must be prepared for additional suffering before he is healed and saved. When John Baptist called King Herod to repent of the sin of marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was yet alive, he was cast into prison. When we urge others to take up the call of needful repentance with us, we should be ready to be punished. The world in all ages tends to be far too enviously insecure and frail to heed the its call. Herod was a fragile, immature, insecure, and apprehensive self-possessed man who lived in fear of losing what little power he had. We are the same when we reject the call to serious repentance.
What we must learn with John is that repentance is not an end in itself. The English word repentance comes to us from the French repentir, meaning to show contrition, sorrow, remorse, and regret over evil or sin committed. Repentance responds to Christ’s coming light and is a confession of deepest sorrow over complicity in idolatry. The idol or false god might be a besetting sin or the idealization of family, friends, the condition of earthly life, and even noble human ideals. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus cannot come to us as long as there is anything in the way either of goodness of badness. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22) Repentance confesses surrender to the stubborn darkness that threatens to extinguish Christ’s coming light. Repentance then confesses utter helplessness. Finally repentance claims utter unworthiness in the face of a love that longs to conquer its sin. Repentance cries: He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me…I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord…He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoes’ latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 15, 23, 26, 27) Repentance brings a man to his own undoing. John thinks to himself: I was indeed this and that, but He came, and a marvelous thing happened. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22)
Of course what happened to John cannot occur before his repentance has pushed to the extreme of being undone. According to St. Gregory, John wonders if his impending execution and death can be reconciled to Jesus’ coming. (Greg. Sermones…) Gregory says that John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another’ (Idem), that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below. (Idem) Can this hell that I suffer be consecrated to and reconciled with the essence of Christ’s coming, John asks? Can a loving and compassionate God allow self-emptying repentance to yield only an anguish of unjust suffering that ends in death? Will suffering and death that precede knowledge of His full coming be taken up into Christ’s salvific life? Will Jesus come into death and carry the righteous into salvation and reconciliation with God the Father? Jesus answer is gentle but firm. Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (St. Matthew 11. 4,5)
Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) How can John Baptist, who had baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, who had seen the heavens…opened unto him, and the Spirit of the Lord descending like a dove and lighting upon Jesus (St. Matt. iii. 16), ask this question? Has his faith failed? Has his imprisonment overwhelmed him in a sea of doubt and potential despair regarding his vocation? John is indeed emptied but must be filled with the true nature of Christ as Messiah. John, with the other Apostles, is no doubt looking for a Messiah who would establish a Messianic Kingdom upon earth. Such a Messiah should deliver His people from all injustice, not the least of which is being endured by the imprisoned John Baptist!
Needless to say, Jesus will correct any expectation of worldly redress. Rather, blessed is he who while suffering and dying for the sake of Jesus Christ can see the future of his new life imaged in the healing and salvation of others. Blessed is he who suffers gladly for Jesus and sees his own suffering as a gift from God to be endured as a trigger and catalyst for that trust and hope in the new birth that Jesus Christ brings. Jesus comes most effectively to those whose sense of utter unworthiness renders them so helpless that finally they open to Christ’s coming on God’s terms alone. Finally John’s repentance brings him into consciousness that his suffering and death must not stand in the way of the new birth and life that Jesus Christ brings to his soul.
We learn this morning that John’s is the only way for those who would welcome Christ’s birth inwardly and spiritually. Jesus asks His own disciples, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. (St. Matt. xi 7,8) John was not shaken by the natural shifts of the physical universe, nor was he pampered, coddled, and caressed by the comfort of human riches. John was moved violently within to deny himself and embrace the coming Jesus. Yet his wonder, doubt, and potential confusion reveal his ignorance about who and what Jesus Christ must be if we are to be saved.
So, as Romano Guardini puts it:
Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’
Word have been spoken: ‘Blessed is he who is not scandalized or offended
in me.’ The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message
sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the
darkness of the dungeon is a divine message. John understood.
(R.G. The Lord, p. 25)
At last, John understood. Because of John will suffer and die unjustly, God’s Grace rewards him with new life in another. In the end, John must repent of the false god of his own innocent importance that dangerously threatens to ruin Christ’s coming into his soul. John’s reward is a vision of the new salvation life that Christ is always breathing into the world. Our reward will be the same if we are not offended in Christ (Ibid, 6), and we look for no other to come alive in us. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: