Sunday, December 11, 2016

Good News from a Far Country

“Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see.”  St. Matthew 11:4

They ran a picture with his obituary in The Washington Post on Tuesday, “Star of the Green Hornet Dies at 82.”  I’d never seen Van Williams, the masked man with his gun pointed at the camera.  His starring role lasted only one season, back in 1966, more than a decade before I was born.  That had been the high point of his acting career, one show that no one really liked as much as Batman.  Williams had played a character here and there after that, and then hung it up to be a deputy sheriff and then a fireman in Southern California.[1]

I’ve read quite a few stories like this lately, as we slowly bid farewell to so many who stepped briefly into the public eye in that great flourishing of popular culture in the decades after World War II.  A few weeks ago, there was a famous dancer who had married a respectable dentist in her early twenties.  He didn’t like the way men looked at her on the stage, and she hung up those satin slippers for decades of ferrying children to music lessons and a hand of bridge once a week at the country club.  There was a man a few months before that who hit 23 home runs one golden summer in the mid-fifties.  He hurt his shoulder, and spent the rest of his life selling insurance in Western Nebraska.

Second acts can be very hard indeed.  Our talents fade.  Public taste is fickle.  The next generation always seems a little more clever and ambitious.  We wonder about the thoughts running through their minds as they watched the stop light and turned over restlessly in bed.  Was it all worth it?  Did I do something wrong?  Who am I now?  What will I do with the rest of my life?

John the Baptist could have been wondering something like this as he sat in his dark cell inside the Machaerus, Herod’s fortress palace.  They had all gone out to see him, this man they called simply “The Voice—the voice crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  He’d baptized them by the thousands, as they confessed their sins and prepared to meet the long-promised redeemer.  He had spoken the words God had given him, a humble servant of the truth.  He looked all men square in the eyes, feared none of them, not even the king.  He called the king to account for his sin, not because he liked the sound of his own voice, but because he loved Herod enough to hope he would make his peace with God before the great and terrible day came.

The king had arrested him, and thrown him in this dark cell.  The voice had no one to hear him now.  The rangy man of the wilderness was cramped and cold.  He wasn’t the first prophet to suffer for his message, of course.  Jeremiah had been thrown in the pit for denouncing his king generations before.  They’d stoned others and sawn Isaiah in two, those who had ears but would not hear.  Better to be threatened than merely ignored, John might have told himself. 

He had reason for hoping it might be different in his case.  Those prophets had merely gestured toward to God’s chosen One.  But John had seen him face to face, baptized him with his own hands, pointed him out with his own finger, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.[2]”  From the very beginning of his life, John had been marked out for this unique role.  Saint Anselm wrote a prayer to John laying out those marvels from the beginning:
            You are that John who baptized God;
you were praised by an archangel
before you were begotten by your father;
for you were full of God
before you were born of your mother;
you knew God before you knew the world;
you showed your mother the mother bearing God
before the mother who bore you within her
showed you the day[3].

He had known God before he knew the world.  But now, perhaps, he wasn’t so certain any more.  He sends ahead two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”  We’d be wrong to say that John has lost his faith.  He is still prepared to wait for God’s Messiah.  He doesn’t consult palace gossip but sends for a word directly from Jesus.  He gives Jesus a chance to speak for himself, perhaps to say just what kind of redeemer he will be, or even how much longer John must wait in this cell for his deliverance. 

Jesus tells John’s disciples to look around them, to see blind men recovering their sight, the lame walking again, the poor brought the good news of salvation.  These are signs the prophets had promised long before, as our Old Testament lesson shows.   They may have been a little less than John had hoped to hear—after all, he had promised that the Redeemer would baptize with fire, clear Israel’s threshing floor, sifting the wheat from the chaff once and for all[4].

In time, Jesus is hinting, but not yet.  He sends a word back to John, go and shew him what you have seen…Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended at me.”  The one they called the voice, you see, must learn to be comforted by listening.  He who gave the word revealed by God will now receive it from others.  They have seen, but he can only hear, and for now that must be enough.

For John it was enough.  The message came back to renew his hope.  It was as his old father Zechariah had promised long before, “through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us; To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.[5]

 The Gospels tell the story of his death, an arbitrary execution at the whim of Herod’s bloodthirsty wife, who felt threatened by his preaching.  John was steadfast to the end, giving back his life to God who had given him his message.  He never saw Jesus again in this life, though “the Dayspring from on high visited him” through the words of the men Jesus sent.  Like Moses, John had glimpsed the promised land but did not enter and possess it.  That would be for others.  But John died a man of faith, strengthened and comforted by the Word.

It is one of the great themes of Advent, that God sends us His Word to renew us as we wait for the fulfillment of His promises.  Saint Paul reminded the Romans that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.[6]”  It was just this passage that Archbishop Cranmer had in mind as he wrote his great Collect about the Bible, “Blessed Lord who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning,[7]” a prayer originally intended for the Second Sunday of Advent.

We do not read the Bible primarily to find new information about God.  In fact, the more often we read it, the more thoroughly we know its words, the more useful it becomes for us.  We read the Bible for the same reason that John listened so intently to the messengers that came to his prison cell.  We also need the word that comes from beyond us, that tells of beauty and joy still to be revealed.  We need the assurance from those who have heard and seen, who touched the Lord of glory and heard the words fall from His lips. 

We are those like John who, as Jesus would say elsewhere, “have not seen and who yet still believe.[8]”  We believe by listening to the message sent us from God, who works still through His Spirit, to help us cling to His promises.   All of us will face some days when the glory to come seems very far away indeed, when our prayers seem only to fall on deaf ears.  Our faith, like John’s will be shaken.  “Who am I now?,” we will ask ourselves, “Did I do something wrong?”  “What will I do with the rest of my life?”

Above all, these are the times to open these pages again, and to hear the good news that comes from a far country.   This message comes to us also as light in the darkness, as a beautiful melody over the din.  It shows what we long for, and urges us to remain steadfast. Our Lord tarries yet, but He will come.  “He who has called you is faithful, and He will do it,[9]” and blessed are we, “if we take no offense at him.”

[2] Jno. 1:29.
[3] Anselm, “Prayer to St. John the Baptist,” qtd. at “Soulwork toward Sunday: Advent 3A.” At the Edge of Enclosure,
[4] c.f. Mt. 3:12.
[5] Lk. 1:78-79.
[6] Rom. 15:4.
[7] Collect for Proper 28, Book of Common Prayer, 184.
[8] Jno. 20:29.
[9] II Thess. 5:24.

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