Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Zephaniah continues the journey of Advent. He proclaimed that his hearers should rejoice because God decided that the time of their punishment was over. Their future was blessed by God and they will be renewed by God’s love. In Luke’s Gospel we continue to journey with John the Baptist. Here John was approached by people in power who asked for advice and baptism. When a tax collector asked what he should do, John told him he should not demand more than what was charged. When a soldier asked the same question, John told him not to extort or shake down anyone for money. These powerful people listened to him and thought John might be the Messiah. John a told them that he wasn’t the Messiah, and wasn’t worthy. He told them that while he may baptize with water, he was paving the way for someone who would baptize in the Holy Spirit.
Last week I spoke about how I admire John the Baptist because he knew who he was. This means a great deal of me because of a specific event in my life when I was a deacon in San Francisco in 1993 (seven months before I was to be ordained a Catholic priest). That night I had dinner with a dear friend of mine, Peter, who told me that I would be a good priest because “you know who you are.”
At first I knew Peter paid me a terrific compliment but I wasn’t exactly certain what it meant. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what he meant. He knew that I didn’t aspire to be a professional athlete or a doctor. He knew that I recognized that God gave me certain gifts and my life would only make sense or be fruitful if I chose to spend my life in service of the gifts God gave me. And to be fair, this month I celebrate 21 years as a hospice chaplain, providing spiritual care to patients and families who face terminal illnesses.
I say this not to brag about or celebrate my gifts. I did nothing to earn these gifts and my belief in God depends not on my worthiness but instead on the conviction that God’s choice cares nothing for human popularity. In other words, the reason God gifted me with the ability to do my job has nothing to do with me or my worthiness.
I like to think that John the Baptist felt much the same way. Scripture tells us that he was a second cousin to Jesus and they were born within a few months of each other. Scripture does not give us much of a picture of Jesus’ childhood and nothing of John’s but I think we can safely assume they grew up together. And as a I spoke about last week there is reason to believe that John joined a splinter group called the Essenes.
The Essenes believed that they were called to a radical view of Judaism where they were called to celibacy and communal worship, much like modern day monasteries. They didn’t necessarily think that all Jews were called to this radical lifestyle or that they were better because of their views.
Nevertheless they could be understood to expect a certain level of respect because of their decision to live this radical lifestyle. I understand that: when I was a priest I was given an amount of respect out of my decision to forgo a wife and children (even though it puzzled me).
And in the Gospel we see evidence of this. Most modern views of John the Baptist see him as someone on the edge, someone we would pass if he was holding a sign at an intersection. And yet some pretty important people asked him for advice. He told a tax collector not to extort extra money and some soldiers not to shake anyone down and be content with their wages.
It’s easy to read these without fully understand their importance, but we need to recognize that the men who approached John were men of great power. Imagine today a member of congress asking advice of a homeless person at a streetcorner. That’s what it was like.
Let’s face it: if you’re John the Baptist and important people come to you asking for advice, and presumably following it, you could be understood for believing your own press. In fact, those gathered around him were prepared to proclaim that he was the Messiah, the chosen one. They were ready to give John the title that was reserved for Jesus.
But we revere John because he knew who he was and who he wasn’t: he wasn’t Jesus, he wasn’t the Messiah, he wasn’t the anointed one. This doesn’t diminish who he was. He was the one who prepared the name of the Lord. He was the voice who cried out in the wilderness. He was the one who called all of us to repent and return to the path of righteousness.
Ultimately this makes him a man of humility. At the funeral of former American President George H.W. Bush, his friend Alan Simpson spoke of the former President’s humility he said this: “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
That’s really a shame. Earlier in the sermon I spoke about how God cares little for the popularity we assign to some, if not all, gifts. We revere smart stockbrokers with six figure salaries but stand by while gifted teachers have to beg online for classroom help (www.donorschoice.org). I could go on and on.
And so as we navigate our lives and try to figure out God’s plans for us, let us look not to the gifts that we want, but the gifts that we have.