A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent
Grace and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who will lead us on the way of the Lord through the wilderness to the Kingdom of God. Amen.
As the house lights dimmed, the spot hit the back of the theater and my classmate belted out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” as he processed down the center dressed like John the Baptist – or rather, like John the Baptist as imagined by a Broadway producer in the late 60s. The tempo picked up and other cast members danced their way onto the stage. The Leavenworth Senior High fall musical for 2004 – a production of 1971’s Godspell – was, by most accounts a smashing success.
Of course, dramatic depictions vary widely, and so Strauss’ opera Salome (performed by the Atlanta Opera in January), we see John the Baptist not as a cheerful, dancing holy fool but a dirty, tortured, wretch of a man bound in Herod’s prison.
Today, Saint Mark shows us a depiction of John the Baptist that hits all the high points that we remember:
- A voice in the wilderness? ✔Check.
- Crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord? ✔Check.
- Preaching Baptism and Repentance? ✔Check.
- Wearing his famed camel hair, leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey? ✔Check, ✔check, ✔check, and ✔check.
(We’ll hear a very similar description in John’s Gospel next week.) But absent from today is the sort of confrontational polemic that would anger the political and religious leaders of the day to the point of landing someone in prison, let alone losing their head. Sure, we see a little bit of John’s character: he preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but this year’s depiction is missing the Baptist’s fiery passion, denouncing people as a “brood of vipers” and demanding to know who warned them to flee from the wrath to come (as seen in both Matthew and Luke). In Mark, by comparison, the Baptist pops in as an opening act, baptizes Jesus, and then drops out of the narrative (which is why, less than a month into the new liturgical year, we’re already taking a break from Saint Mark to supplement him with Saint John next week).
The John we see in the other texts is more of a “grass withers” sort of guy than one tenderly speaking words of comfort to Jerusalem. The Baptist we saw last Advent in Saint Matthew’s Gospel and will read about next Advent in Saint Luke’s telling is more like the first half of Isaiah, prophesying about a coming cataclysm and judgment. (For Isaiah, this was the coming onslaught of the Assyrian empire which would destroy Israel and shake Judah to its very core; for John, it was religious and political tension of living under pagan Roman oppression and the eager expectation for the Day of the Lord when the divine warrior would march forth, causing the foundations of the world to quake.) By comparison, the Baptist we see today is more like the second half of Isaiah, prophesying about the fall of the Babylonian empire and the return of exiles to Jerusalem some two centuries after the events of the first section (and we read the opening lines from this portion this morning).
The John we see today is more akin to a robed child in a nativity or the cheesy Sergeant-Pepper-type dancing in the fountain at the start of Godspell more so than the wild-eyed preacher doomed for Herod’s prison shown in Salome and also the other Gospels.
And those other depictions can be frightening. We like to think that we’re more like the folks going to be baptized by John, but in actuality, we’re probably more like the Pharisees – striving to follow the Lord’s commandments, but unable to do so perfectly and prone to put our sense of piety before loving God and neighbor.
Broods of vipers are as terrifying as last week’s darkening sky, falling stars, and trembling mountains, and we have to ask (let alone to realize that you may very well be part of that brood): What comfort is there for vipers and withered grass?
John’s message is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This repentance is not mere sorrow, a recognition of guilt, but rater a transformation, a change of direction. It is, to borrow Isaiah’s image, the turning from the path of sin and traveling the way of the Lord towards the Kingdom of God. It is not merely a new way of life but also life itself!
And oh that it were so simple! Were that the desire to repent enough to achieve such renewal! If only we could travel this way, could live this life. Alas, it is our very need to repent that keeps us from being able to do so! If we could travel the way of the Lord, if we could live as the Lord intends for us to, if we could keep God’s Law, then we wouldn’t need to repent! Instead, our repentance – or rather, our attempts at repentance – so often gives way to old, sinful paths, or perhaps we do what is right – and then our piety becomes a source of pride and arrogance.
What, then, can we say of John the Baptist? What hope does he offer? Something beyond himself: One who is coming who is greater than him, the very person of Jesus, the Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. It is Christ who proves that God’s faithfulness remains steadfast even as flowers fade and grass withers, that God upholds the covenant even as we break it through sin. It is because Christ came that the call to repentance is good news, because of Jesus that we may repent. It is because he brings us the grace of God that we may follow after him. It is this more powerful one who will transform us through baptism into his death and resurrection, who will forgive all sins, who will lead us a s a shepherd leads the flock. He is coming again, and when he returns in glory, we will say with all the ransomed exiles, “Here is our God.”