John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose (St. John 1:26-28).
In today’s Gospel, we all are invited to be spectators as St. John the Baptist is put on trial for his life. An official delegation of priests and Levites had trudged out to the wilderness to see just what exactly was going on with this strange man demanding repentance and ritual cleansing. These interrogators were the official representatives of the temple: the priests being those who presided over the daily sacrifices, the Levites their assistants. These men were the living embodiments of the greatest religion the world had ever known, but they were also desperately compromised by their collaboration with the Roman Empire who by this time was choosing the temple’s high priest as a fail-safe within a wider program of measured toleration for the strange Hebrew religion—a useful program as long as it kept the Jews in check. St. John the Baptist, however, was upsetting this religious and political balance by claiming an authority unregulated by the temple, and thus unregulated by Rome. The religious leaders feared any kind of popular uprising, even if doomed to failure, would mean Rome would simply find a new group of collaborators picked from the rubble of what was left after they made an example of those who dared stand against her and her legions.
These questions then, asked in rapid-fire succession, are not just esoteric theological musings from people who have nothing better to do; no, this interrogation is deadly serious, as deadly serious as the one our Lord will receive on His way to the Cross. For all of human history up to this conversation between John and his inquisitors, it had been a pretty solid strategy to keep power by killing your enemies. They die; you win. But, here, in the fullness of time, on the banks of the River Jordan, God has said enough. John the Baptist is not some man who can be silenced by violence or intimidation. After all, with his words of judgment he is signing his own death warrant, but John doesn’t care. These small and pathetic men can arrange to have him executed, but they cannot silence his voice, for it is his voice which heralds the great vengeance which will come upon all those who persecute the weak; it is his voice which signals the beginning of Earth’s final days; it is his voice through which God Himself speaks to clear the way for true love and peace to enter a lost world. Who is John the Baptist? He is a living, breathing penitential season; he is a living, breathing Advent.
St. John shows us then, in his answer to these questions, what it means to reject compromise even unto death. How much easier would it have been for St. John to have cooperated with the religious authorities? He could have toned down his rhetoric and made common cause with the powerful men who held his life in their hands, the men who would scheme with Herod Antipas to eventually have him decapitated. Instead, what does he say to the them: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (St. Matthew 3:7). Calling people “the children of Satan” has never been a very good way to make friends or triangulate power, but St. John is entirely uninterested in becoming a celebrity or a thought leader, a senator, or a president. We see this utter unwillingness to become the focus of the Trinity’s mission to save the world in His solemn denials of any prophetic titles his inquisitors offered, each denial revealing a growing irritation at these inquiries into who he is rather than what he is saying. How much power could St. John have grabbed for himself if he had said, “Why yes, I am the Christ!”? Or, as is more common in our own day, how much power could he have grabbed for himself if he had just acted like he was the Christ? Sure, it wouldn’t have been true, but think about how many more followers and influence and power he could have gathered around himself; after all, isn’t that how we are told things get done in the world? Not by baptizing people, not by calling sinful, powerful men to repent, not by praying that God’s will be done in His own time; no, we get things done by gaining our own power and followers to better flex our muscles. We get things done by promoting ourselves, not by being martyrs in solidarity with the victorious St. John. Or, at least that’s what we are told by a dying world desperate to gain our participation in its madness, desperate to get us to raise our hands along with everyone else volunteering to die for nothing.
Sadly, what we are seeing is just one more example of the false religions which have always sought to replace Word and Sacrament, humility and patience, with the terrible gods of entertainment, manipulation, emotion, and violence. If worship, nay life fulfillment, is all about the feelings conjured inside me then those feelings have become my god: the cruel almighty to whom I am most devoted. And sadly, in the worship of this idol we will chase those feelings wherever they leads us. In fact, we begin to believe that if we can just feel enough, scream enough, want it enough, we can do anything: make our favorite politicians win or make ourselves less sad or make more money or feel less guilty or any of the other crushing burdens this dying world puts on our shoulders. In our world of instant gratification, in a world where we are daily told to act like little gods, we just don’t have time to wait for God to act, we don’t have time for the second advent of Christ and the general resurrection of the dead, we don’t have time for the new heaven and new earth where every tear is wiped away forever; no, I feel hurt now and I want to feel better now, and I will find a god who will give me what I think I need. In this false religion, there isn’t any room for prophets who won’t step up and perform for us, there isn’t any room for the God who dies on a Cross, and there certainly isn’t any room for us to take up our own cross and die alongside Him. Of course, there is also no hope in this false religion; there is only the dark terror which waits for us when the false gods abandon us.
Where then can we draw true hope? Our hope comes not from self-righteous posturing or temporary saviors, our hope comes from the unshakeable promises of God. We need nothing else, and our desire for more is a symptom of our fallenness: a sin for us to repent, not a need for the church to fill with tricks and gimmicks and idols. God has nothing to prove to us today or tomorrow or the next day; He doesn’t need to win our allegiance because He has already won our salvation on the Cross: death is dead, and we need no longer fear its sting or despair in its horrible application. Yes, it’s been 2,000 years since God so dramatically demonstrated His sovereign authority over life and death in the victory of Christ’s resurrection, and maybe it will be another 2,000 years until the victorious messiah returns in his second advent to raise the elect and the damned from their graves, but we are not called to speed things up because we’re so special. The truth is we aren’t special. If St. John the Baptist, the prophesied harbinger of the Kingdom of God, if he calls himself a voice who’s only role is to announce the coming Messiah, if he compares himself to a slave unworthy to remove a dirty sandal from the Messiah’s foot: where do we think that puts you or I? For me it would go something like this, “Hi, I’m Fr. Richard, and I am not worthy to sideways glance at the guy whose unworthy to unloose the sandal of the Messiah.” The preposterous idea that we are too good for the worshipful waiting of the saints who came before us is a cancer we must purge from the church and from our hearts; we are privileged to live in this age of mercy wherein we find ourselves, the age in which we can hear the Word of God and know it’s all true because God has shown us the truth in Christ, the age in which we can go out into the world and tell friends and neighbors and enemies, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him that taketh away the sin of the world.”
When we are united with the Lamb sacrificed for our sins, we can joyfully add our own voice to the Baptizer’s, we can add our own voice to all those crying in this fallen wilderness until Christ returns to give us something so much better than a temporary peace so we can better enjoy our things. Christ is returning to give us a joy and love which will never end: a new world where lives forever the joy and love we have been waiting for.
Let us then be humble, let us be patient, let us have the strength to lose in the eyes of the world, for we have already won forever in Christ.