“Rejoicing Sunday” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, December 11, 2022

Poor John the Baptist!

When we encounter him in today’s gospel, he is at a real crisis point in his life and his ministry. He is already in prison for speaking truth to power, telling King Herod that he was wrong to take his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, for himself. Now he knows that any moment could be his last. Herod could send his soldiers at any time to cut his head off. There is no judge or jury, prosecution or defence, no right of appeal . His very life is in the hands of an unstable king, who veers between compassion and ruthlessness from one moment to the next.

To add to his blues, he is facing a nagging doubt that it has all been worthless, his whole life has been for nothing. The whole justification for his life’s ministry hinges on whether Jesus is the “One to come” or not. In other words, is he the Messiah, the promised Saviour of the people, or not? John has bet his life on the belief that Jesus is the one God promised to send into the world to save his people from their enemies. John has transfixed his hearers with the bold proclamation that the time for the people’s deliverance and salvation has come, and that right now in their midst is the one who will come to execute God’s wrath on all who have defied God’s authority – the Messiah, aka the Christ. In blood curdling terms, the Baptist has described the vengeance that this Messiah is going to take on those who have rebelled against God’s will. In an action of bold defiance, or tragic stupidity, depending on how you saw it, John has saved his greatest threats for the religious and political leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees. In our gospel today, we see that John describes them as a “brood of vipers” and warns them that the Messiah is coming to sift them through with his winnowing fork and cast them as worthless chaff into “unquenchable fire” , an image of Hell itself. This is not going to win John any friends in high places, that’s for sure, and he makes things worse by denouncing the king for immoral conduct. But all that is ok, and it will be worth facing arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death, because his cousin, Jesus, is the promised One who will save the people, including John, and destroy all enemies of God, such as the king, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. 

But is he?

Or has John the Baptist got it horribly wrong? Because John is now in jail, facing death, and the one he has dedicated his life’s work to preparing the people for, that is Jesus, is not at all behaving in the way that John expected. Fiery, impetuous, defiant John has set the people up to expect a Messiah who would come in equally bold, intimidating fashion and sweep the present political system away at the edge of his sword – and Jesus is doing nothing of the sort! Instead he comes, in the words of Matthew’s gospel, not to “crush a bruised reed or extinguish a wavering flame”, in other words, to heal and not to destroy, to deal with the real enemies of the people, not the Romans, or the Pharisees or Sadducees, but the devil and all his works. Instead of seeking to pick a fight with the religious and political leaders of the day, Jesus withdraws from public view when he hears that they are looking for him. Not because he is afraid, or running away, but because it is not yet the time to face his enemies and confront the evil driving them on. “His hour has not yet come“ (John 2: 4).

And so, John the Baptist, in prison, in fear of his life, has to know that Jesus is the One he proclaimed to be the Messiah, the Saviour of his people. For him, Jesus will be respected and welcomed and accepted when he wins. When he destroys the enemies of his people and redeems Israel and establishes the kingdom of God. And Jesus responds to the Baptist by showing him that a king does not always have to win by violence and  conquest to be assured of victory. That there is a battle to be fought to win people’s hearts and minds, before you win their wills. (When Princess Diana was asked if she would ever rule over the people of England as their Queen, she responded that she only wanted to be “Queen of their Hearts”. And so she proved to be.) Jesus shows to John the Baptist that he has won the battle to claim people’s hearts by the wonderful miracles of healing that he has performed. And he challenges John the Baptist not to “take offence at him”. 

Jesus will come in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, he will establish his kingdom by the overthrow of all his enemies, the devil, the world and the flesh. But before that, he is inviting each one of us to open ourselves to him as the King of our hearts, and to allow him to rule our lives in holiness, love and truth. Jesus reigns over us from the cross. At his death, Jesus gives us all an example of how to offer our lives to God, as a sacrifice to him of suffering , obedience and patience. That makes us “the least in the kingdom of heaven” but, at the same time, “greater than John the Baptist”. This is the challenge of the cross to each one of us. Will we always and everywhere, insist on winning every argument? Do we need to see those who oppose us destroyed by the strength of our reasoning and logic? Can we give way graciously and with pardon to those who enjoy favour with others?

Must we always be right, every time? 

Very much, our joy at this Third Sunday of Advent will depend on whether or not we allow, in the words of our first reading, “sorrow and sighing to flee away” and “everlasting joy to be upon our heads“ as we obtain “joy and gladness” through seeing, not victory for our point of view and opinion, but others set  free from depression, oppression, vindication, and self-serving, to attain forgiveness for their sins and everlasting freedom in hope for salvation.