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 sitting in the gallery as St. John the Baptizer 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 toleration for the strange Hebrew religion as long as it kept the people in check. St. John the Baptizer was upsetting this religious and political balance by claiming an authority unregulated by the temple, and thus unregulated by Rome. Any kind of popular uprising, even if doomed to failure, would mean Rome would just 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 questions our Lord will receive on His way to the Cross. Who St. John the Baptizer thinks he is has massive importance in a world where there was no separation between politics and religion. It may, at first, be difficult for us to imagine such a world, but it is so very important for us 21st century Christians to recognize that those who wish us to separate our politics and our religion are attempting to control and convert us by forcing us to live in ways which counteract the only hope we have. How can we dissect our hearts and souls and minds in such a way that we somehow become one person when we are in church and another person when we are voting or talking with a family member or commenting online? Whatever means by which we decide the ultimate morality of a law or the justice of a political action is the religion—the rule of life—we have chosen: it is the master we serve. Compromising with evil in order to gain a moment’s peace in our lives is a public witness to the world that we are not so sure that the God we worship will deliver on His promise of “a peace which passeth all understanding;” it is to show the world a white flag.
St. John shows us, 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 king 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 enquiries 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 men to repent, not by praying that God’s will be done in His own time; no, we get things done by gaining power and followers and flexing our muscles. We get things done by winning, not by being martyrs in solidarity with losers like 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. and, sadly, this madness is what we see modeled in so many churches and secular religious groups which claim our allegiance.
However, we need not look far to see what terrible consequences occur when we abandon the humble witness of the voice in the wilderness. This week a megachurch conglomerate named Bethel has been running a series of what they are calling “resurrection services” whose stated goal is to bring back to life the dead two year old daughter of one of their worship leaders. One can find clips online of hundreds of men and women in a darkened auditorium bouncing up and down as their leaders run across the stage like Mick Jagger, and the idea is that these performances, combined with the leaders’ magical declarations, will bring the dead little girl back into this world. Now, let’s be clear, if God wants to bring one of His dead creatures back into this world, He doesn’t need you or I to give Him permission, but that’s not what’s happening at Bethel. What we are seeing is the final stage in a false religion which has replaced Word and Sacrament, humility and patience, with the terrible gods of entertainment, manipulation, and emotion. If worship is all about the feeling I get inside me when I’m at church then that feeling has become my god, that emotional response becomes the cruel almighty to whom I am most devoted, and I will chase that feeling wherever it leads me. Tragically, we begin to believe that if we can just feel enough, scream enough, want it enough, we can bring people back from the dead 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 daily act like gods, we 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 does what I say or abandon it all to worship myself in the dark. In this 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. There is no hope in this false religion; there is only the dark terror which waits for us when the dopamine rush ends.
Where then can we draw true hope? Our hope comes not from rock concerts and magic spells, but 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. 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 demonstrated His sovereign authority over life and death in the victory of Jesus, 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: we aren’t special (I’m sorry, Kindergarten teachers tell that to every kid). If St. John the Baptizer, 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, “Hi, I’m Fr. Richard, and I’m 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 which taketh away the sin of the world.”
When we are united with that Lamb, that sacrifice for our sins, we can joyfully add our voice to the Baptizer’s, we can add our voice to all those crying in this fallen wilderness until Christ returns to give us something so much better than a temporary reunion with those loved ones sin and death have ripped from our hands. 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.