14 Dec 2014
“[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)
In the name …
The first part of today’s Gospel that I read just before the sermon should sound familiar to you since we recite it at the end of most every Mass. It tells us that John the Baptist was sent by God to testify to the light that is Christ, but it also says exactly that John is not that light, which really isn’t a necessary addition. Now the way I was taught to read the Bible is to ask the question why something needs to be said. John the Baptist was a powerful presence in the world of Jesus. By drawing people out into the desert to hear his message, he was challenging the Temple priests and the validity of the Temple. He called-out the politicians for their abuses. John even drew Jesus into his circle of followers, and Jesus accepted a baptism of repentance from John.
This is where the story splits in two different directions. One is more familiar to us than the other. The familiar one is that John prepared the way for Jesus and then faded away. The less familiar story begins with the Gospel account that an imprisoned John sends his disciples to Jesus with the question, “‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’” (Matt. 11:3) John knows he’s not long for this world and yet he’s not sure about who Jesus is. John had preached a message that God’s Messiah would come with fiery judgment. Yet here’s Jesus well into His ministry and instead He’s preaching the good news. Plus, this question is asked of Jesus through John’s own disciples. Even in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the church after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we’re told that in Ephesus Paul is still encountering followers of John, and Ephesus is all the way around the Mediterranean from where John preached. It must have been his disciples that carried his message so far. They didn’t disappear or automatically fold into the followers of Jesus like the more familiar story would imply. John’s message and followers stayed intact. And because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Mid East we’re hearing again about a small religious sect called the Mandaeans. They are being persecuted for their faith. They still believe today that John the Baptist is their greatest teacher, and they call Jesus a “false messiah” who perverted the teachings that were entrusted to Him by John.
This may be telling us that John’s message was and remained different than Jesus’. This may hint at Jesus’ discomfort as a follower of John the Baptist. Maybe John’s preaching of judgment and destruction rubbed Jesus the wrong way as He continued to listen in the wilderness. Maybe Jesus’ original enthusiasm faded and this is why he walked away from John. Instead of separating from society like John did, Jesus would go out looking for people. He traveled from village to village. He even went looking for the outcasts. Jesus’ response to John’s message of separation was to build community. Maybe John was confused by the Jesus who enjoyed being surrounded by people, by playing with children, eating dinner in people’s homes, even the ones John would call “you brood of vipers,” the Jesus who touched the ritually unclean and healed them, and who preached, “‘Do not judge so that you may be judged.’” We’re told that some who were healed by Jesus danced away in joy. Can you imagine the happiness of a father reunited with his daughter, a mother with her son, sisters with their brother all because Jesus intervened? Can you imagine that Jesus wouldn’t enjoy being a part of this? Were told in the Bible that some of Jesus’ contemporaries complained that John’s disciples would fast, but Jesus’ would not. Jesus answered them by saying that while He was with them it was time to rejoice. (Mark 2:18-20) Is it any wonder then that John was confused as his disciples told him all these stories?
When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth after leaving John’s company, he went to the synagogue. Archaeologists have unearthed three synagogues from Jesus’ time and place. They are buildings with benches located all around the sides. They can be imagined as gathering-places built with conversation in mind. Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and from it Jesus chooses to read the selection that Emily read for us earlier: “[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” Jesus sees Himself and His ministry not as censure but as encouragement, not as judgment but as compassion, not as separation but as community, not as angry but as joyous. Maybe we need to understand John’s role as testifying to the light of Christ by the contrast he establishes. Maybe Jesus’ message and ministry are better understood when they stand side by side with John’s harsh words of judgment. Maybe John even helped Jesus to realize what He was not going to be. Maybe that’s why Jesus chose to read those words from Isaiah when He returned to His old hometown synagogue after leaving John, those words of good news, healing and freedom.
The Jesus whose birth we prepare for today has brought joy into our world. This is the message we need to proclaim loudly and with conviction. Jesus chose a lifestyle that let Him share God’s joy with others. Jesus is still wanting to do the same through His church, and this is the perfect time of the year to share that message with everyone whom we possibly can. Jesus left John because He needed to be with people. Jesus turned away from John’s harsh message because He shared a vision of God who loved and laughed. None of this has ended, and it’s the same Jesus we need to share. And that begins very often with your words. New or different can be intimidating. It shouldn’t be, but some people may be a bit hesitant to walk into a church not knowing what or who to expect there. For them to find the joy that Jesus brings they may need your invitation or for you to at least broach the subject of church and a church-Christmas. We have the honour of sharing Jesus’ joy with those around us so may our prayer this morning be that we testify to His light so that his joy may be made known to all people. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo