Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
On the Last Sunday in Advent, you and I are called to come to know the Word made flesh and to Rejoice. Our recognition of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh and our rejoicing are gifts coming to us from the heart of John the Baptist. Today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s coming into his Body, the Church, and especially for His first coming, which we remember on Christmas Day. We are called to discover the character which both knows Jesus Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh and to rejoice in Him.
But first, in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist teaches us to know ourselves and our need for Jesus Christ. The Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. John the Baptist never pretended to be Christ, and neither should we. He confesses that he is not even Elijah the prophet. Malachi had foretold that Elijah would come before the Second Coming of the Lord. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. (Mal. iv. 5) But the Angel Gabriel insists that it is John who shall go before [Jesus Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither one of them is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming and Elijah for the second. But John shares with Elijah the vocation of the precursor and preparer. John Baptist says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. (St. John i. 23) John has come to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Lord. His preparation begins with a confession of who he is truly. He calls us too to know ourselves as those who need always make straight the way of the Lord. (Idem)
John comes and teaches us to know who we are. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. (Matt. iii. 2) John teaches us to repent because we are always sinners in need of the Saviour. With John, we are called to confess our sins. John, like Elijah, is a messenger of repentance. Because we are neither righteous nor virtuous, we must make repentance an habitual part of our spiritual lives. But his confession also reveals to us that repentance is only a beginning. Repentance prepares us for the salvation that Jesus Christ alone can bring into our lives. John tells us: I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 26) From the depths of John’s heart we come to know that repentance empties us of all power and strength. John has a baptism with water for repentance, but Christ shall baptize…with the Holy Ghost. (St. Mark i. 8) John’s baptism will cleanse us; Christ’s baptism will sanctify and save us. The one removes sin and the other infuses righteousness.
With John the Baptist, you and I must move out of the world and into the soul. We are too much at home in this world. John comes to teach us that this is not our home. Christians ought to know that this world is a place of passage and pilgrimage, from wilderness and exile to the true homeland and City of our God. Like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, you and I must become courageous searchers and seekers, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring they would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time? (Eliot, Little Gidding) With them, we must earnestly prepare for the Lord’s coming? We live in a time when the human heart seems so far removed from any need to seek out and find God. We live in a world whose idolatry conceals the knowledge of God. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from our idolatry. Anything which claims our time, attention, and money more than God is an idol. Anything that consumes, owns, and possesses us more than God is an idol. The idol could be a political platform, a romantic notion, or even an arrogant assertion of our own will to power. It could be a large house, an expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, or an addiction to another person. None of these things must ever claim our hearts more than our love for God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must know to get rid of them. Anything which does not reveal to the world our humble, unmerited, and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything with which we cannot part is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Not only does our attachment to idols stand between us and God but it might very well turn others away from Him also! Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew vi 24)
John Baptist comes to join him in that spiritual journey that calls us to sever our ties to the false gods and idols of this world. He knows also that repentance and self-denial might be dangerous. We might become proud of our good work of repentance and self-emptying while failing then to undertake the more difficult labor of embracing God’s goodness into our souls. Bear fruits that befit repentance, he cries, for even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (St. Matthew iii. 8, 10) With John’s contemporaries, we might ask, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us not only to repent but to purge. He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. (St. Luke iii 11) He tells us also not to desire more than is our fair share in the earthly city. Collect no more than is appointed you. (Ibid, 12) To the soldiers he says, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. Why? Because while John baptizes…with water for repentance, He who is coming after me is mightier than me, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Ibid, 14-16) This is serious business. It might even get confusing. Charles Williams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give one to the man who has none. But what if the man who has none, or for that matter the man who has three, wants to take one from the man who has two- what then? Grace of Heaven! My Sainted Aunt! Why, give him both. If a man has stolen the pearl bracelet, why, point out to him that he has missed the diamond necklace in the corner! Be content…
The outside world and our dependence upon it could land us in Hell. With John, let us know that we have been too attached to the things of this world. Let us repent. The old man must quit splicing hairs and counting the cost! The old man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (St. Luke vi 31) John wants us to know that the character of the soul must be prepared to know and welcome the coming mercy of God. We must know also that it is more than we either desire or deserve. God’s Mercy is coming to us and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to know the pattern and movement of perfect love. John tells us to share everything and if we think that we have given too much, we must interrupt our self-congratulations and know that the most that we can give is nothing in comparison to what Christ comes to give us! The Virgin Mother of our Lord has a nice rebuke for us: The rich he hath sent empty away. (St. Luke i. 53) It is all consistent with John Baptist’s insistence that our souls should know Christ’s coming.
John also exhorts us to mourning. When we acknowledge our sins, we ought to mourn over what we have done to ourselves and others. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves and prepare more seriously for Christ’s coming. We must pray for the gift of tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin, as St. J. Chrysostom says. Our repentance and mourning promise to play the greatest part in our coming to know God and rejoice in His coming. Our bodies will begin to heal and our souls will be altered for the better. The water that John pours over the heads of penitents symbolizes the tears that purify the soul that awaits the coming of Christ.
The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional. (Philokalia) Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (St. Matthew v 4) Rejoicing and Joy constitute our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ heralded by St. John the Baptist intends to make us new and ripe for rejoicing in Christ’s Holy Incarnation. He longs for us to rejoice in Jesus Christ’s coming to the soul. John’s cry for confession, contrition, and compunction prepares us to run the race that empties us of ourselves and longs to be filled with the salvation that Christ’s birth brings. Only then will our souls receive Christ’s coming with rejoicing. If this power becomes operative in our lives, we shall instinctively perfect confidence and hope in God’s future glory. Today, Christ promises to infuse us with His presence to generate to deepen and perfect our belief and hope that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. So let us close by praying with St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Fill us, we pray, with Your light and life,
that we may show forth Your wondrous glory.
Grant that Your love may so fill our lives
that we may count nothing too small to do for You,
nothing too much to give,
and nothing too hard to bear.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons