Don’t Shoot the Messenger

john-the-baptist

A long time ago I worked in downtown Buffalo at the Bell Telephone Company at Main Place Mall. I can remember at lunch time there was a street evangelist who used to walk up and down Main Street preaching in the open air. A lot of the business people who worked their found themselves ‘assaulted’ by this urban preacher and tried to have him removed from their view. He was not just preaching, he was preaching with a vengeance especially since he used a bull horn to get his message across. He preached about the evils of corporate greed and of social injustice and how, one day, those who cared little for the disenfranchised of society would have to face the music. Everyone really disliked the guy probably because he was loud, but mostly because he was so arrogant. His message was rejected because nobody liked the messenger. I often wondered why he kept at it, especially when his ‘congregation’ made a mad dash across the street in order to avoid him.
Today, we have much more subtle messages of social injustice. On television we see the faces of poverty and of famine through ad campaigns for different caring organizations. The messages are not loud or arrogant. They are designed to get one’s heart to respond in some way or another. Usually, if we see them often enough, we simply ignore them like any other commercial. But when we see them the first time, there is an inclination to turn the channel, because our hearts cannot bear to see and hear about the suffering that goes on through our complacency. Though we have no direct way of helping the situation, we have guilt (maybe its that white guilt we’re hearing about these days) that perhaps we should be doing something. It is guilt that brings many to open their checkbooks and help Christian Children’s Fund and Church World Service.
A several years ago, I was at a meeting of the Baptismal Task Force where the subject for the night was deacons of which, at the time, I was one. After a lot of input and deliberation, it was resolved that the main difference between being a priest and being a deacon was that deacons had incredibly more freedom than priests in the Episcopal Church at that time, especially in regard to preaching and doing God’s will. One priest mentioned that he could not wait until he could retire because he heard retired priests can actually preach what they genuinely feel without worrying about their jobs. I have known many priests (and a few bishops) who have found themselves in hot water with their vestries because of something they preached from their heart. Sometimes in our own day, just like in the time of John the Baptist, the messenger is killed because the people don’t like the message. That is why God uses so many different kinds of messengers to get his point across. But even messengers of God have their problems.
Forty years ago, I was a much different person that I am today. I have memories of a consuming zealousness for God and a passion to do whatever it was that He called me to do. It troubles me sometimes to realize that at one time I was able to simply drop everything and follow the direction that I felt God calling me. But now as I am getting older it seems it is becoming more possible for me than it once was as I retire within the next few weeks. Although I am still not able to up and move at the drop of a hat, I have been given some freedom to do the things that I want to do rather than what I have to do, which is a very good feeling. Though I am still, and will always be God’s servant, I have found that my faith these days has become perhaps more mature and my ability to give God a definitive YES has become more like a ‘well, maybe’, you know… maybe I can do that if we can work out this and that and then there’s this condition and then there’s that….and well, you know what I mean.
As we grow older, our lives become much more complex. Our work becomes more demanding. Our families become larger and take more of our time. Life itself naturally progresses to a point that many in our society simply say ‘stop the ship, I want to get off’, and jump ship they do. . . in many destructive and terrible ways, leaving their families and friends behind to face their loss due to drugs, suicide, infidelity, or worse, like the mass killings in San Berardino. These tragedies of life are avoidable only through the grace of God and the ability of his Spirit to sustain us in a world that continuously threatens to engulf us in a barrage of pleasure, technology, cheap gimmicks and lies that draw our attention away from where it ought to be.
In my own humble opinion, if there ever was a role model for us to follow beside Jesus himself, it is in the person of John the Baptist. Today’s readings direct our attention to just the kind of person that God uses for his redemptive work. And that kind of person is personified in the life of John. Here was a preacher who grew up in the temple of Jerusalem and was taught by the best scholars of his day. As you might recall John’s father was Zachariah a Levite and temple priest. And Elizabeth, John’s mother, was Mary’s cousin. John grew up within the temple walls, but upon attaining adulthood gave up his destined role as a priest and instead became a wondering prophet in the Judean Hills. There is a lot unspoken about the life of John, but one thing is for certain. He knew the scribes and Pharisees who came to receive his baptism. It is to them who he called out ‘You brood of vipers, who told you of the wrath that is to come?’. Not exactly a friendly greeting in the middle of a sermon, especially to people who he obviously knew. But that was John, and because of his insistence to tell things exactly the way they were, (the truth, if you will) he lost his life because of the message he preached. But that seems to be the way of all God’s prophets in the service of their Lord.
In John, we see three things that we need to have in order to be fully used by God in his service. They all have to do with the nature of God and the way he gets things done in both the natural and spiritual worlds. One is a ‘purity of spirit’, that is a soul that sees only the good in people, whose main ambition in life is to do what is pleasing to God.. . . a person who is incorruptible. The second is an abiding ‘simplicity’, a life uncluttered by the world and all its temptations and gimmicks. A life that does not hold on to the past, nor lives in the future, but is only interested in the ‘here and now’. And thirdly, ‘the willingness to be a servant’, that is the willingness to be directed, no matter what the cost, no matter what the embarrassment, like Don Quixote, ‘to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause’.
These three things . . . Purity, Simplicity, and Servanthood, are what God looks for in all of his children, but when they all occur in any one person, there is the potential for what may described as a ‘living saint’. Just such a person was John the Baptist. It was John who found favor with God because of his purity of spirit. And through the simplicity of his life he was able to become aware of God’s presence within him. And because of his acceptance and willingness to be a servant he took on the role of prophet in the name of God. .
All of us have something to learn from the life of John, and it seems that Jesus thought so too. It was of John that Jesus spoke when he said, “For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Prophets are not only for a time in our distant past. God continually calls each and every one of us to bear his prophetic message of charity, justice and humility even in this age of technological arrogance. He is calling you to offer the world His words of grace and repentance through your lives, through your words, and through your actions to all that you may meet until he comes again. And that is the greatest lesson of the Season of Advent.