Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on January 3, 2021 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
Today, John the Baptist prepares the way for Theophany. I think Theophany might be my favorite feast after Christmas and New Year’s. I especially love the lines about the celestials communing with the terrestrials. But today is the Sunday before. It’s the setup for Theophany.
In today’s gospel we hear John the Baptist calling the multitudes to repentance before Jesus comes to be baptized and the Holy Spirit is revealed. So I would like to take this time to review the remarkable life of John the Forerunner, sticking closely to the various accounts presented in the gospels.
Even before he appears to Mary, the Angel Gabriel appears first to Zachariah in Luke chapter 1. So we meet John before he is even born. Zachariah is rendered dumb by Gabriel for not believing in his announcement. But John comes into the world, born of Elizabeth and Zachariah. And Zachariah is told by Gabriel in the Gospel of Luke that many will rejoice at his birth. John will be great before the Lord. He shall drink no wine but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many to the Lord and will go before Jesus in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Over and over again, we hear John associated with the Prophet Elijah, references to Malachi and Isaiah. John is the one who makes ready a path for our God.
After the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she felt a child growing within her, she rose and went with haste to the hill country and entered the house of Zachariah, and greeted Elizabeth her cousin, just as we heard after the Nativity. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby John leapt in her womb as foretold by Gabriel. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” When Mary greets Elizabeth, the children also greet each other. Jesus’ cousin John in his own way, exclaims even from the womb, “My Lord and my God!” John is known as the greatest of all the prophets, because his whole life, even before his birth and even after his death, he constantly prepares the way for the Son of God to enter into the world. These two men, Jesus and John, clearly knew each other and worked together and apart from each other their whole lives.
In today’s Gospel, Mark chapter 1, we hear how all of Jerusalem and all of Judea and all the region around the Jordan came out to be baptized. This is significant. It’s almost like the Baptism of the Russians in 988. Imagine the entire city of Jerusalem openly confessing their sins, and turning to live a new life. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a call to change your life, a new sacrament, not at all dependent on the sacrifices taking place in the temple. For years the Jews had used baptism in ritual cleansing ceremonies of Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. But John took that baptism and applied it to the Jews themselves—it wasn’t just the Gentiles who needed cleansing. Being baptized by John demonstrated a recognition of one’s sin, a desire for spiritual cleansing, and a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah.
In the Gospel of Luke, John is explicitly aggressive against the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them “a brood of vipers.” He cries out, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now, the axe is laid at the root of the tree and every tree that does not bear fruit is thrown into the fire. The Lord will gather the wheat together and he will utterly burn away the chaff.” The multitude asked, “What then shall we do?” And John answers, He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise. The tax collectors asked, “What shall we do?” and John answered them, “Collect no more than is appointed.” The Soldiers asked, “What shall we do?” and John answered, “Rob no one by violence and be content with your wages.” It’s almost like hearing a proto version of Jesus’ own sermons which are to come.
But the rough and tumble prophet John tells the crowd that is he not what they are seeking. When asked if he is the Christ, he replies that he is only preparing the way in the wilderness, making straight a highway for the Lord. He is preparing the people for the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. When the people ask if John is the Christ, and he replies, “I baptize you with water, but he who is coming is mightier than I. I baptize with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with unquenchable Fire.” The Holy Spirit and Fire that will ultimately be revealed at Pentecost.
What we know is that John continued to preach the good news to the people, that he certainly had disciples of his own, and that he carried on a parallel and complimentary ministry to Jesus after Theophany. Although he pointed to Christ, he was never properly his disciple, but he was soon shut up in prison for reproving Herod.
It wasn’t until the end of his life that John began to doubt whether Jesus was truly the Messiah. Everyone in the Gospel doubts at some point: Joseph doubts, the Apostles doubt, and John the Baptist has his doubts before he is murdered in his cell. Herod imprisoned John because he took Herodias, his Brother Philip’s wife, for himself. Herod took Herodias, and was called out by John for repentance. Not unlike Elijah, John told Herod, “That is not right.” Just as Elijah chastised Jezebel and Ahab, so does John correct Herodias, the mother of Salome. But Herod still enjoyed having John around for his “perplexing counsel.” By this point, John feels like he is wasting away in prison, and so he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This is a really sad question if you think about it. John is reduced to a puddle in prison. John lost his focus on Christ and became distracted by his miserable surroundings. Jesus replied, “Go and tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have heard the Good News. And blessed is he is not offended by me.” This is a direct reply to John to take heart and to believe in the one he had proclaimed in the wilderness. Then Jesus preaches about John. “Why did you go out to see John? To see a prophet? Yes and more than that. This is he of whom it is written: “Behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare the way before thee.”(Malachi 3) John was the messenger who prepared the way for Christ. He brought the people in the country to repentance so that they would be ready to receive the Messiah. Jesus says, “Truly among those born of women, there is no one greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” John is the greatest of the prophets and the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. He is the bridge between the old Covenant and the New. Jesus proclaims, “If you are willing to accept it, John is the Elijah who is to come.” Jesus was referring to Malachi who wrote, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
Then comes Herodias’ daughter Salome dancing before Herod and demanding the head of John the Baptist on a plate. I don’t need to repeat the details.
But do notice that when Jesus heard that John had been beheaded, he withdrew to a lonely place apart. Even there, the crowds followed him. And when he saw the great throng, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. When it was evening the disciples said they had nothing for them to eat but five loaves and two fish. And So Jesus took up the loaves, blessed them, broke them and gave them to his disciples. And they all ate and they were satisfied. I also think it’s significant that the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place on the same day that Jesus heard that John had been beheaded. It seems that even John’s death made Jesus’ coming crucifixion even more clear. John’s death is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry. Before there is a focus on healing. After his murder, Jesus prepares himself to go to Jerusalem to confront Herod and the ruling class himself. So John continued to prepare Jesus even after he died.
And so can we prepare each other for the Kingdom of Heaven which has come, even as we proclaim in the Liturgy, the cross, the grave, the ascension, and the Second and Glorious Coming has already occurred. Let us rejoice that everything has come to pass. Let us not fall into doubt about the Kingdom in this year of the plague. Because we stand together now in the Kingdom of God and everything has been revealed to us. Thanks be to God.