Homily delivered at Evening Prayer at the annual retreat of Eckhart House, Anglican Order of Preachers, February 26, 2021
You gotta love John the Baptist. The guy lived in the wilderness. He dressed in clothes that were not anywhere near the latest fashion. Too be honest, he may have smelled a bit. And he ate weird food. Not somebody you’d invite to a polite dinner party, for sure. To top it all off, he called people names. One of my favorite advent memes on Facebook is a picture of a hairy, disheveled man with the caption “HAPPY ADVENT, YOU BROOD OF VIPERS.”
Yeah, he called people snakes. And he told Jews that being a descendant of Abraham was pretty much worthless. These don’t seem like a great way to win converts. As the saying might go back in the hills where my father grew up, “Them’s fightin’ words.”
The strange thing is…people were eating it up. John attracted crowds. He was a prophet in the Old Testament style, and the people of Judea were touched at the core of their being by his message – repent and be baptized. So the crowds came.
In this evening’s Gospel reading, John’s followers were worried. For quite a while, he’d been the center of attention, the big news. He’d attracted huge numbers of people, and had great response. People were being baptized right and left. John has been the center of attention. Now this other guy had come along. “Master, that guy you pointed out to us? Everybody’s following him now!”
I’m struck here by the way in which John the Evangelist portrays John the Baptist’s humility. In essence, John told his followers to calm down, that he had completed his task, that his time in the limelight was over. John recognized that he had done what he had set out to do. He had pointed people toward Jesus, the Messiah.
As Dominicans, as preachers, we can take some lessons from John. Preachers can often become the center of attention. And let’s face it: we kind of like it. It feels good. It makes us feel like we’re contributing something, like what we’re doing is worthwhile. But we need to remember some things. For instance we can fall into the trap of preaching sermons that people like, rather than sermons that channel the Holy Spirit. We can become too in love with being in the limelight. And we can try to hog the stage.
John shows us a better way.
First, we have to remember that we are not called to please people. When the Holy Spirit leads us to preach happiness, that’s all well and good. We should certainly follow. But there are times when the Holy Spirit tells us to speak out, to demand justice, to bring things to light that have been kept in the dark. To tell people things that aren’t comfortable. When this happens, we must have the courage to do so. We may be less popular because of it, but the Old Testament prophets – and John the Baptist for that matter – didn’t seem to be particularly worried about popularity. And neither must we be. We are called to preach the Word, not make people happy. John had no problem telling people what was what.
Second, we must remember that it isn’t about US. John recognized this. John said all along that his message wasn’t about him, it was about the one who was coming, the one who was greater than he was. We need to remember what – or who — our sermons are pointing to. In one way or another our sermons must always point to Jesus, and to the kingdom of God. Not to our ministry, our parish, our Order, or to ourselves. To Jesus.
And lastly, we have to know when to fade into the background. There will be times when someone else’s message is more important than ours. Like John, we need to be prepared for that to happen. In fact we should want to happen, because it means the kingdom is working and will continue to work even if we are not there. We must have the humility to let someone else take the lead.
John didn’t try to please people. John did think it was about him. John pointed to someone greater than he was. John was ready to fade into the background. May we all seek to follow John’s example in our service to God, and in pointing people to Christ. May we always be ready to point at Jesus and say “Listen to him.”