Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
One of my favourite weekly sabbath day activities is bookstore hopping around Toronto. Although there are not as many bookstores as there once were in the city, a few favourite stores of mine remain. I will often go to the bookshops and spend countless hours reviewing new titles and add them to my very long list of books to read.
This past year my favourite priest friend has begun to join me as I make my pilgrimage. We frequently begin our trek at a cafe near Union Station and make our way from there to our favourite shops across town. Inevitably our path will take us across the busy Yonge-Dundas Square and we will pause to enjoy a few moments of crowd-watching and listening to the various speakers and entertainers.
As can be expected in any major urban intersection, we will come across a street-preacher or two calling out to those of us in the crowd to repent and hand our lives over to Jesus Christ. I must be honest, I scurry by those preachers whenever I see or hear them, in hope that I will not be caught by one. On one occasion however, while on our way to another bookshop, my friend and I were overwhelmed by a particular preacher’s animate and passionate preaching. We paused for a few moments and quietly listened to the man.
My gut reaction was like that of so many times before. I cared little for his preaching style, and to be honest, rather preferred to continue on my way. I remarked to my friend that I thought the man to be too blunt, harsh, and ‘in your face.’ Simply put, I thought it was a bad practice that did little to proclaim the gospel.
My friend disagreed. Although the man’s style was not her style, she noted that perhaps we need more people like the man; people willing to witness to their faith and proclaim the good news that the God of life has proclaimed to us. Not wanting to ‘lose’ a good argument, I persisted in my position. Yet my friend continued to emphasize the need for more public preaching and witnessing than what we encounter today. “Were only more people to share their faith,” she noted, “how different the Church would be today.”
Although I didn’t want to admit it at the time, I knew my friend was right. How different things would be if we Christians proclaimed not only by our actions — but also with our words —the good things God has done for us Christ? What would happen if proclamation of the gospel — the good news of Jesus Christ — was once again the primary mission of the Church?
What if we had another John the Baptist today?
I am afraid to say that I’d likely consider him crazy as I do with all the other street preachers I encounter along the streets of Toronto. And I wonder what my reaction says about my faith and hope in God if I am uneasy with the steet-side evangelists?
Surely John the Baptist had to of been a strange sight to the people of his day. Although he was likely one among many prophets of his day, people sensed something profound about his message, regardless of his appearance, for even Luke writes the “people were filled with expectation.”
Yet because of the unfortunate division of his story between two Sundays of Advent, we fail to hear his story in its entirety and instead focus on the first part of his message, the passage from Isaiah 40, traditionally read on the second Sunday of Advent:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
We are soothed by the prophet’s words and sing the lovely and melodic hymn “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.” We are deceived by the lectionary cycle into thinking Advent to be a time to prepare for Christmas, a joyful, peaceful, and calm season. Yet, as I shared last week, Advent is anything but a preparation for Christmas. Instead, it is a time to stir us from our slumber and get us ready for Christ’s coming again in glory.
What we don’t normally hear today is the part that traditionally comes on the third Sunday of Advent: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Or “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” If we kept the readings as they were appointed, our impression would be that John the Baptist started off all fair and well, but gosh he must’ve had a bad day, for his message turns seemingly bitter and angry a week later. Fortunately — or you might think unfortunately — I decided to read the narrative in its entirety this week, for we can’t understand John if we don’t read his message in full.
The authors of the synoptic gospels present John the Baptist as a messenger of good news. At the time this text was written, kings would tour parts of their dominions. Before doing so, they would send a courier ahead of them to tell the people to prepare the roads for their arrival. The author of this text plays off of that theme and regards John as the courier of the Messiah. But unlike the other couriers, John’s message is about the preparation of the heart. His cry is “Mend not your roads, but your lives.”
While the gospel writers present John the Baptist’s preaching as good news, to our ears John’s messages seems anything but good news, with his talk of wrath and repentance. Yet when we look at his message closely, John’s message is hopeful and liberating.
Sin, both in it’s personal and communal forms, is not freeing. As St. Paul so emphatically writes in Romans, we were once slaves to sin. Sure we might have felt liberty to do as we wish, but were we to be truthful with ourselves, we are not free when we are trapped into the cycle of sin. Nor are they who suffer from our sinful actions. Just consider the stories we’ve heard in recent months of the refugees attacked at borders, the women assaulted by men’s sexual aggression, or the children wounded by pointless wars.
Yet if we transform our hearts, if we seek to live justly and humbly, we will experience true freedom and encounter the life-giving grace of God. True joy and happiness, John the Baptist reminds us, can only be experienced in a heart transformed by grace. Then we shall see the face of God and live. And if we are eagerly awaiting to see our king again, as we sang last week in our closing hymn “Soon and Very Soon,” we would do all we can to align our hearts with God’s heart. For then we shall see God.
So what does this mean for you and me, members of the Body of Christ, the Church?
I return to my earlier questions: What would happen if proclamation of the gospel — the good news of Jesus Christ — was once again the primary mission of the Church?
What if we had another John the Baptist today?
There has been much talk in recent years of Church decline. Even in our own community we’ve seen our numbers sharply drop in the past decade. We are quick to blame the decline to the fact that society is more secular and argue that no one wants to go. But I wonder if we’re not missing something much more significant. Have we forgotten to proclaim the Good News as John the Baptist once did, as the martyrs of the early Church once witnessed to, and as the victims of justice have done in recent times, such as Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King?
My friends, the more I reflect and pray about our Church and the role of our humble parish in the life of the Church, I can’t help but wonder if decline is not due to changing landscapes, but a loss of mission? Consider the churches that are growing; they are likely places rooted in the Gospel and compelled by the Good News of Jesus Christ to proclaim his desire that all might have life, and have it to the full.
Churches that are growing are ones deeply rooted in the Good News and the witness of the faith received in the Creeds. They are communities vivified and compelled by the grace encountered in Word and Sacrament to go out into the world to proclaim both through word and action the good news that the God of life has come and will come again to give life to our mortal bodies.
We are to embody in our life and ministry the proclamation of the Gospel, just as John did so long ago. We are to point not to ourselves, but to the one who comes, Jesus the Christ. As theologian and pastor John Phelan once wrote,
The gospel contemplates and intends both individual and corporate transformation. It calls the church to proclaim, through Jesus Christ crucified and raised, the forgiveness of sins as well as the reordering of communities. It calls for congregational and national leaders who wrestle long and hard with the Scriptures, the theological reflections of the past, and the new challenges of post-modernity to proclaim that gospel with integrity and love.
Growth will come not from a new programme but from a new mission. But this mission is not really new; it is as old as Galilee and as fresh as Easter Morning.
Let us commit ourselves to prepare the way for the Lord, mend our hearts, and commit ourselves to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Bolton and the surrounding area. Let us be John the Baptist in our world today. Amen.