14 Dec 2008
“So [the Jerusalem priests and Levites] asked [John the Baptist], ‘Who are you?’ and “What are you?’” (John 1:19-20) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
I imagine that we’ve all heard about the scandal surrounding the governor of Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It is alleged that he tried to auction off a seat in the United States Senate, although “alleged” seems inadequate when the FBI has actual recordings of the governor attempting to do just that. Gov. Blagojevich thought he should make some money off of this privileged responsibility of his office. He thought it was his due as governor to profit personally rather than to lead conscientiously. What adds insult to injury is that Gov. Blagojevich was elected as a reformer. He was going to clean-up the corruption of his predecessor, a man who is now in prison for also abusing the office of governor. Have these people no shame? No conscience? Aren’t they embarrassed? If they have no personal compunction about behaving in such a manner, wouldn’t you think they’d at least have more respect for the office? More respect for the people who trusted in them? Obviously, the office cannot guarantee the character of the person holding that office. There has to be more. Office is not enough.
This is part of the message heard in today’s Lesson and Gospel as we continue to prepare ourselves during this Advent season of anticipation. John the Baptist has no credentials. As a matter of fact, he’s turned his back to the ones who have credentials. As we said last week, he could have been a Temple priest himself because he was the first born son of the priest Zechariah. Instead, John abandons Jerusalem. He abandons the Temple and the office of the priesthood. On his own spiritual authority as one “sent from God” (John 1:6), therefore with no official credentials, no office, no title, John begins to preach of repentance and change, and to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. His message is harsh and direct. He cares none for the subtleties of polite society. He comes right out and calls the king lecherous for marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother. He tells the people that they can’t count so much on their ancestry. Born into the tribe of Israel is not as important as being righteous whoever you are. God can raise children of Abraham from these stones, says John.
John’s words were dangerous. By leaving the Temple, he called into question its value and all of the official priests and Levites associated with it. By accusing the king, John challenged all of the political powers of his day. And by telling the people that what they do is more important than who they are, John was challenging the whole idea of a chosen race. For these reasons the authorities come down from Jerusalem to question John, and their questions are all about where he gets his authority to speak as he does. “Who are you?” they ask, wondering if John has the authority of the Messiah. When he answers in the negative, their next question is, “Then what are you?” They want to know, in other words, where his credentials are, what office does he claim. For them, office defines legitimacy, not the message, and because of this they would miss the advent of Christ.
To their clip-board questionnaire printed in triplicate John answers in a completely aggravating way: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” What circle do you fill in with that kind of answer, the Jerusalem authorities must have wondered. You can hear their frustration when the Bible quotes them saying, “‘Who are you, so that we can give an answer to those who sent us?’” (Jn 1:22) John does prepare the way for the coming of Jesus because Jesus will also upset the officials of that day. Today’s Lesson is taken from the Prophet Isaiah, but these are also the words that Jesus read in the synagogue of His hometown of Nazareth. After leaving John and going back to Galilee, Jesus reads the words: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” (Isa. 61:1//Lk 4:18) When Jesus tells His old neighbours that this prophecy has now been fulfilled in Him, they become enraged and try to do Him harm. They only see in Jesus the carpenter’s son, not the Son of God. Just as happened to John, these people were also looking for credentials, something official, but just like John, Jesus was anything but official. And again, these people missed the Advent of Christ because they were more concerned about office than the person.
The merits of a faith that springs from the likes of John and Jesus should strive to send congregations away thinking rather than just accepting. The question “why?” is not the doorway to sin, sometimes it opens the way to a deeper faith. Otherwise, the church repeats the sins of the Jerusalem authorities. As we now prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent season, these examples provide us with an extremely challenging message. Office isn’t enough, just remember our honourable Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Advents tells us that we cannot rely only on credentials and office alone. There has to be more. We have to build conscience and character in our members. Formalism cannot replace spirituality. Going through the motions of the faith is not the same as being moved by the faith. When John said he was sent by God as one crying out in the desert, when Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, we can’t then expect today, that in this very same religion, we would turn away from the prophetic and the personal and revert back to trusting only in the official. But this makes faith a bit more precarious because we must then rely upon all of our experiences, and that’s why we have to build strength of character and soul because we have to rely on these and not only on office.
When John tried to explain to the priests and Levites from Jerusalem what he was doing, he did so by saying, “[His] sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” There is so much more to Jesus than we could ever hope to make official. Sometimes awe and astonishment are the best credentials of faithful-ness because they speak of the reality of our faith in Jesus. May we always strive to feel the wonder of Advent as we prepare to come into the presence of Christ. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)