Friday, June 22, 2012

How Would You Prepare? (John the Baptist, June 24 2012)

Homily:  Birth of John the Baptist, June 24th 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  Is 40:1-11; Ps 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Lk 1:57-80

How would you prepare?

In the days of King Herod, right around the beginning of what we call the Common Era, there was a priest named Zechariah, who was married to a woman named Elizabeth.  They were good people, but they were sad and were even scorned by those around them because they hadn’t been able to have children, and now it was too late because they were getting old.  One day when it was Zechariah’s turn to be on duty in the sanctuary of the temple an angel appeared to him, and he was terrified.  But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.  You and Elizabeth will have a son, and you will name him John.  God is coming, and your son John will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for God’s coming.”

And Zechariah said, “Yeah right.”  And he lost his voice for the next nine months.

Now, despite Zechariah’s skepticism, it turns out the angel was indeed right.  A few days later, Elizabeth conceived a child.  And nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.  And the whole family and all the neighbours celebrated with Zechariah and Elizabeth, that is, until eight days later when it was time to name the boy.  You see, pretty much everyone was agreed that since this was likely to be old Zechariah’s only son, they should follow tradition and name the boy Zechariah after his father.  But Elizabeth, for some strange reason, wanted to name the boy John.

“But nobody in your family has that name,” replied all the relatives in exasperation at Elizabeth’s stubbornness.

They turned to Zechariah to settle the matter.  And Zechariah, remembering the words the angel had spoken to him, wrote on a tablet, “His name will be John”.  And suddenly his voice returned and he began praising God.  And now everyone was afraid, and rumours started spreading throughout the village and the surrounding hill country, and everyone started asking “What is so special about this boy?  What will this child become?”

And Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit began to prophesy:

“And you, child, you, John, will be called the prophet of the Most High
 for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us. 
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And the child John grew and became strong in the spirit.

And I can imagine that when he was a bit older, John went to his mother and father to ask them a question.

“Hey mom, dad.  Why is it that everyone else seems to be named after someone in their family, but my name is John even though nobody else in our family is named John?”

And perhaps his parents responded,
“John, I guess it’s about time you knew.  You were given to us by the Lord and it is God who named you John.  God is coming, just like the prophets said he would.  And you have been chosen to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for God’s arrival.”

Now I want you to imagine yourselves in the sandals of young John at that very moment.  Suppose someone was to walk up to you and tell you that God is coming, soon, really soon, and that your purpose in life, the very reason for which you were born is to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for God’s arrival.

What would you do?  How would you prepare?  What would you say to people?  If you had to choose something, what would be the single most important thing that you would focus on?

These aren’t rhetorical questions.  You should find pencils in the pews in front of you, and you can use the empty pages in the booklet to write down your thoughts.  How would you prepare the way of the Lord?  Take a few minutes to write down some thoughts, and then you can turn and compare notes with the people sitting around you.  What would your first priority be when it comes to getting people ready for God’s arrival?

If we accomplished nothing else with this exercise, I’m sure we all have a lot more sympathy for John than we did a few minutes ago.  When John was told that God was coming and that he’d been chosen to prepare the way and get people ready, I wouldn’t have been surprised if his reaction had been “you’ve got to be kidding”.

It’s not like John had a lot more information than we do.  He didn’t know what God’s coming would look like.  He didn’t know that God was coming in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth.  He just knew that his job was to get people ready.

So how did he go about that?  How would you go about that?  How would we get people ready for God to come?  Any ideas that came out of your reflections?
We might have all sorts of ideas.  We might encourage people to go to church (in John’s day the temple and synagogue).  We might teach people about what God is like.  We might exhort people to live lives of justice, to live ethically.  We might encourage people to spend more time in prayer, to get to know God.

I imagine that John thought about all these things and more. 

But it seems that, perhaps inspired by the power of the Spirit, John the Baptist made one thing his priority.  And that one thing was forgiveness.

When it came time for John to prepare the way of the Lord, he went into the region around the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

John’s priority was forgiveness.  His way to get people ready for God was to teach them about, and help them experience, and give them a ritual, for forgiveness.

Now most of us know from our own experience that forgiveness is hard.  Forgiveness is complicated.  But forgiveness is essential if we are to have good relationships with God and with each other.

John isn’t the only one who makes forgiveness a priority.   Jesus also makes forgiveness a priority.  In fact, it was one of the first things that got Jesus in trouble with the authorities.  And in the prayer that he taught us, the one that we say together every Sunday, Jesus tells us that in order for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, we need to forgive others in the same way that God forgives us.

That sounds like a challenge.  Forgiving others isn’t easy.  Accepting and really understanding that God has forgiven us isn’t easy.  Even forgiving ourselves isn’t easy, in fact that might be the hardest one of all.  It seems that we have a natural inclination for “tit for tat”.  It seems that the idea that people should get what they deserve is deeply engrained in our psyche and in our societies.  It seems that we like to hold grudges in our back pockets, just in case we ever need to take them out and use them.

But John invites us into something new.

I think that the reason that John makes forgiveness a priority is that he’s inviting us into a new way of living, in order to get us ready for the coming of God into our lives. 

A way of living, a way of being, a way of relating, that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.

It’s a way that requires repentance. It requires us to change our way of doing things, in fact, it requires that we change ourselves.  It requires that we turn toward God and towards each other, and let go of those things that burden our relationships, things like guilt and resentment and keeping score and anger and fear and so on.  And not just to let go of them, but to lift them off each other.  The Hebrew word for forgiveness that John would have used has exactly this sense. To lift up.  To remove someone’s burden.

Know that you are forgiven, and learn to forgive others, so that we can all experience a new way of living.  That’s how we prepare the way of the Lord.


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