By my friend, The Rev. William Martin of All Saints Anglican Church, Mills River, NC
December 18, 2009
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
The theme of this Sunday is truly one of repentance and mourning. The Gospel and Epistle for the day do not exactly reveal these spiritual habits, but they are clearly present. They are to be found under the surface of our Gospel text, in the heart of John the Baptist. For today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s “always coming” into his Body, the Church, and especially for his first coming, which we will remember and greet at Christmas time. So today, moving under the words of our text, and moving beneath the skin of our Saint, we shall find a spiritual expression of those beings which we must become if Christ will come to us, be for us, and live in us. We shall learn to repent and to mourn.
In today’s Gospel lesson, taken from the first chapter of St. John, we learn who John the Baptist is from his own confession. 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. He does not try to be as God, he is not God’s solution made flesh in the world. Furthermore he confesses that he is not Elijah the prophet. In the Book bearing his name, Malachi 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. In Mal 4:5-6 Elijah shall come later. But John, according to the prophesy of the Angel Gabriel shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming, Elijah the second. But John is coming in the spirit and power of Elijah as the Precursor of Jesus. You see, in person, John is not Elijah, but in spirit, under the text, and beneath the skin, and in the heart he is one with Elijah. He says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. John has come to prepare the Jewish people and to prepare us today for the coming of the Lord. And his preparation begins with a confession of his truth self. He is the messenger, the herald and Precursor, who moves beneath his own skin, and into his heart, to confess his true nature- what moves him in the interior man.
John comes then leads us from the outside of our lives and to the inside. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. As John confesses his true nature, so should we. We are not God, but have behaved as gods, and so must repent. Repentance is the outward expression of the inner truth of who we are. Once on the inside, when we repent, orally and audibly, we take our inner selves and expose them to another. With John we admit who we are as persons, and what we have become as interior spiritual beings. We have gone under the skin and into his heart to discover who John is. At the urging of John, coming from his heart, we confess who we are. He is not Elijah, but is the messenger and herald of repentant preparation. We are not righteous and virtuous men, and so accept the duty of repentance. With our repentance, John offers to us the Baptism in water. He takes the element needed for cleansing and for enlivening and pours it over the heads of his followers. This is the first baptism, that of repentance.
But his confession, from his heart, also includes admitting his nothingness before the presence of the Coming Jesus. He tells the Priests and Levites, 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. From the depths of his heart, beneath the skin, John tells us that he is not worthy to stoop down and become a slave for Christ Jesus. John confesses who he is and draws us into repentance and cleansing. But this cleansing is not complete. I indeed have baptized you with water, he says in Mark 1:8, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. John Baptist prepares us for another cleansing. In making us ready for the coming of Christ Jesus, John teaches that we must move beneath the surface of our skin, into our hearts, if we will truly welcome the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. We must move from the outside to the inside, and once there to confess ourselves- our sins and our nothingness.
But what does it mean to move out of the world and into the soul, beneath the skin and into the heart? John takes his followers into the wilderness, a place far removed from the commerce and exchange of earthly ideas and business. John takes us today into a place removed from the noise, the incessant communication, questions and responses, problems and solutions. Can we find this place? We must. Where is it? It is anywhere and everywhere; it is that place from which, in quietness of soul, you and I begin to question our relationships to all people and things, all false gods of the gut, the heart and the head. To be sure, it will be challenging. We are so comfortable in this world of ours. “We are at home here.” But John comes to teach us that this is not home. This is more truly, for us Christians, a place of passage, from wilderness and exile and towards the true city and homeland of God. If we live on the outside of ourselves, then for us, this is home. And isn’t this true for most of us?
Why are we so at home here? Why are we not like the courageous wanderers and seekers of old, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time.? What stops us from earnestly desiring to please the Lord and to prepare for his coming? Perhaps never before in the history of man, has the human heart and mind been so far removed from the meanest intention or faintest will to seek the Divine. And I fear, it does all come back to the tyranny of technology, and its mass production of “necessities” and “luxuries” which possess and control our human life. We lie in a world of millions and millions of idols. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from all such things, from such idols.
We live in culture of idols. Anything on which we spend attention, time, money which is exceeds what is needed to express and reveal Christ’s kingdom is an idol. Anything that consumes us, owns us, possesses us and holds us more than God precious presence is an idol. This could be a political platform or philosophical ideal, a romantic notion of religion or ethics, an obsession with the arts and entertainment. It could be an unneedfully large house, a ridiculously expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, an addiction to a spouse, lover, family or friend. None of these things must ever come before and between our souls’ relations to God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must rid ourselves of them. If any of these things gives off to others an impression of worldliness and materialism, we must rid ourselves of them. For anything which does not reveal to the world our humble and lowly, unmerited and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything from which we cannot part, that then becomes a stumbling block to others, be it a created being or thing, is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Furthermore if it stands between us and Christ, and if we cannot live without it, we reveal what commands and possess us on the inside to outside world. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew vi:24. And John Baptist comes to begin that spiritual journey in us, which compels us see our dependence on this world, and its threat to our salvation. Charles Williams writes, The denial of the self has come, as is natural, to man in general the making of the self thoroughly uncomfortable.( He Came…51.)
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.” You may ask, with the multitude of his own day, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collectors he says,
Collect no more than is appointed you. To the soldiers, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. I baptize you with water for repentance, 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 with fire. Luke 3: 8-16. This is serious business. Charles Willliams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give to the 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, given 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 repent of our attachments to things of this world. The old self must stop existing so strongly. The old inner man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. John calls us to repentance, and then to mourning. We mourn over the lost opportunities to welcome kindness, and to extend generosity. Kindness and generosity are coming to us, and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to become part of the pattern and design of perfect love. Share everything, defraud no one, let your generosity be known unto all, says the Christ. He might even have used the words of the Empire’s poet, Virgil, impose the habit of peace, be merciful to the downtrodden…overthrow the proud. Or with the Virgin Mother, the rich he hath sent empty away. It is all part of the preparation.
We have said that mourning is our second theme today. When we confess ourselves before God, when we repent of how we have sought out God’s kingdom and his righteousness first, we mourn over what we have done to ourselves and others. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves, in order that we might do good to all men- a goodness which has been threatened by our worldliness and materialism, a goodness forfeited because the world sees that we cannot shed our earthly gods. We are saddened by our sins. We are saddened by the potential loss of eternal happiness for others fomented by our sins. Hopefully we shed tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin. St. J. Chrysostom. Our repentance and mourning, our tears shed, play the greatest part in our transformation and transfiguration. Our bodies become changed. As Evagrius say, such a process becomes a “small resurrection” preparing us for the coming of Jesus Christ. John pours water over the heads of the repentant. They symbolize the tears that emerge from beneath our skin and from the heart.
But mourning turns into unspeakable joy. The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional –Philokalia. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Joy is our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ given to us by St. John the Baptist, through repentance and mourning, prepare the inner man for joy and deep generosity. He takes us into the wilderness; away from the things of this world- its occupations, its ambitions, ideals, materialism, etc. in order to reach beneath our skin to attack the heart of the matter, our hearts- our inner selves- from which emerges all evil. He prepares us to welcome the all giving, all loving, all merciful made Flesh, Jesus Christ. And then, our idolatries abandoned, we shall become new. We shall love and give, in Him, with joy. We shall become the empty vessels through which the love, generosity, and kindness of Jesus Christ shall flow. So let us close with the prayer of 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.
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