Advent 2…Series A
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (December 3&4, 2016)
Title: John BEFORE Jesus!!
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
I don’t know if you are aware of it but, in all four NT Gospels (in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) we hear the voice of John the Baptist (the last of the Old Testament Prophets) BEFORE we ever hear the voice of Jesus. I think this is tremendously significant…so significant in fact that I want to make this the central focus of my homily today. Think about it for a moment…
John the Baptist comes BEFORE Jesus like the Old Testament comes BEFORE the New Testament…like repentance and confession comes BEFORE forgiveness and absolution. all four Gospel writers agree that whenever the story of Jesus is told it is ALWAYS preceded by the story of John the Baptist!
So, what does this mean? Could it be that without the ministry of John the Baptist preaching hell fire and brimstone in the Judean wilderness, there would be no ministry of Jesus? Is it possible that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are trying to tell us that we need to hear (it is absolutely essential that we hear) the strident, abrasive, uncompromising and slightly embarrassing voice of John the Baptist (which is the voice of the angry Old Testament prophets) BEFORE we can hear the voice of Jesus…the voice of compassion and mercy and Amazing Grace…???
Each year on the second Sunday of Advent we are confronted by the bizarre character of John the Baptist who comes storming out of the Judean wilderness, wearing animal skins and eating bugs and shouting at us: Repent…REPENT…turn around…change your heart and your mind… alter the course and the direction of your life…turn from sin and turn decisively back to God before it is too late because the Kingdom is Comingand you are not prepared! In my judgment, this is one of the most important Gospel readings that we will hear all year…WHY?? Because it reminds us of what the church teaches about how we must hear the Word of God…the church teaches that, if we are going to hear the Word at all, then we must hear it as BOTH Law and Gospel…and John the Baptist is the human face of the LAW just as Jesus is the human face…the INCARNATION of the Gospel, and the LAW must come before the Gospel (as John the Baptist came BEFORE Jesus)…BEFORE we can hear and receive the Gospel which redeems and saves us and rescues us from sin and death, we must FIRST hear the LAW which confronts us with the painful and inconvenient truth about ourselves!
- First, we need to hear the LAW which tells us what we OUGHT to do for God…how we ought to live (we ought to love God above all things and with all our heart soul, mind and strength and we OUGHT to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves…we OUGHT to do unto others as we would have others do to us)…First, we need to hear the LAW …if we are going to be able to hear and receive the GOSPEL which tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ…
- First, we need to hear the LAW which confronts us with the truth that, in the courtroom of God’s justice, we are all…because of our persistent failure…guilty as charged and the sentence is death…First, we need to hear the Law which condemns us, if we are going to hear and receive the GOSPEL…the great Good News that, in spite of our guilt, we have been acquitted…JUSTIFIED…declared NOT GUILTY…not on the basis of anything that we have done but solely and completely on the basis of what God, in Christ, has done for us!
- First, we need to hear the LAW which strips away all of our illusions of self-righteousness…all of our defenses…all our futile attempts to justify our moral/ethical/religious failures and presents us naked and vulnerable in the presence of a righteous and altogether holy God. We need to hear the Law before we ever know our deep and urgent need for the Gospel of Grace!
My friends the truth is that we need to hear the LAW which condemns if we are going to hear and receive the GOSPEL which redeems us…we need to hear the LAW which drives us to our knees if we are going to hear the GOSPEL which lifts us to our feet. We need BOTH the Law and the GOSPEL…it isn’t either the LAW or the GOSPEL…we need BOTH…it isn’t either the OLD TESTAMENT or the NEW TESTAMENT…we need BOTH…it isn’t either John the Baptist or Jesus…we need BOTH! Law without Gospel or Gospel without Law is a distortion of the truth. Religion which is all LAW and no Gospel is like the religion of fundamentalism and the Taliban…it is cruel and harsh and oppressive…but religion which is all GOSPEL without the LAW is soft and permissive and unrealistic. The simple truth is that need BOTH Law and Gospel…I know it is difficult this time of the year…we are all trying our best t get into the Christmas Spirit…it is hard enough to face the crowds at the shopping mall, but then we come to church and have the angry prophet point his bony finger in our faces and screaming at us…YOU BROOD OF EPISCOPALIAN SNAKES…who warned you to flee from the wrath that is headed in your direction…But it is true…we must hear (and receive as a precious gift) the strident, abrasive and uncompromising message of John the Baptist screaming at us in Advent if we are to have any hope…any hope at all of hearing and receiving and embracing God’s incomprehensible gift of the Christchild at Christmas…