Sent to Bear Witness

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Advent III – 11 December 2011

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robes of righteousness

From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:
The apostle wrote, Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances…Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every evil.

From the Gospel According to St. John:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

The hymn immediately following the sermon was written to tell the story of the greatest of all of the Old Testament prophets – St. John the Baptist. And a quick comment on the hymn before we get into the substance of this morning’s message. You will notice that a word in the second line of each stanza is underlined. That indicates that the word gets an extra beat. You will catch on after the first try, I’m sure.

Back to John. I said that he was the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets – and that he was. In his lifetime – unlike all the other prophets – the Messianic prophecies had been fulfilled. The old testament between God and His people had been fulfilled. A new testament had been established.

In his day he was know as John the baptizer. He had a reputation. For some, his reputation could not have been more glorious, honorable or holy. Many believed him to be the Messiah sent by God to liberate His chosen people from the Roman oppressors. Although he was not the Messiah, many believed him to be the Messiah – or at least hoped that he would take up that mantle. Hence, he enjoyed a good reputation among those who had placed their hope in him to save them.

But for others – especially for the Romans and their sympathizers, John was seen as trouble maker, a rabble rouser and potential revolutionary; a dangerous threat to the peace and stability of this Roman province – a religious fanatic who boldly proclaimed God’s judgment on the corrupt and perverse King Herod as he also called everyone to repentance.

As he baptized in the wilderness for the forgiveness of sins, he boldly passed judgment on the most egregious offenders. Nothing warm and fuzzy about John the baptizer. Just the opposite. Political correctness had no place in this holy man’s life – neither did mincing words or sugar-coating anything. He served as a prophet – not as a diplomat. He called for repentance, not for compromise or accommodation. He called a sin a sin and pronounced judgment on those who did not repent.

He kept himself out of the general temptations of what you and I would call normal life. He did not marry, had no intimate personal involvements, owned no property (other than his parents home in or near Jerusalem), lived in the wilderness, ate very little and wore rough camel’s hair clothing. He avoided corruption to the best of his ability. He had no vested interest for personal gain from any political involvement. Yet he was profoundly involved in politics – not as a politician but as a judge

John the baptizer judged King Herod for divorcing his wife, Phasaelis (an Arab princess) to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias, who was also his niece.

Now, John’s judgment fell hardest on Herodias. Under Jewish law, a woman could not petition for divorce. Under Roman law, she could. So she did. She chose her Roman identity over her Jewish religion and heritage – for her, a questionable religion and heritage but one on which the entire family laid claim so as to rule over the Jews. Herodias made the terrible mistake of setting Roman law over Jewish law and giving the priority to Rome. Not a good thing in the eyes of God’s prophet, John. Not a good thing in the eyes of the faithful Jews of that generation.

At that time in history, the Jewish population suffered under Roman oppression. Excessive taxation and the general corruption of the government thwarted their lives.

The faithful hungered and thirsted for the righteousness promised by their prophets – men like Isaiah. His words that one day God’s chosen people would be clothed in righteousness and wear the garment of salvation – that they would exult in their God and rejoice in His presence – that’s what the faithful wanted more than anything else in the world. They wanted the Messiah to come and bless them with salvation. Hence, someone like Herodias profoundly offended them.

And the issue of her marrying her uncle – should I say another uncle – her first husband was her uncle as well – added incest to the already toxic arrangement. Among the faithful, none of the Herods could be respected.

Herodias despised John. Her husband, Herod Antipas, on the other hand, feared John. John was the single most powerful man in ancient Palestine – other than Herod. The people believed that, as I indicated before, he might be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans. He might lead a violent revolution.

After the king has arrested John, Herod would visit John in prison. Perhaps he enjoyed the conversation. Perhaps there was something in the man that told him that this strange man, John, just might be a true prophet. Perhaps the corrupt king was searching for authentic righteousness. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he just wanted to know his enemy so to be better defended against him. Herod, like his father, was paranoid regarding his power.

John held impressive and authentic Jewish credentials. He was not part Jewish and part pagan as were the Herods. He came from a priestly family, his father being Zechariah who served as a priest at the altar of incense in the Jerusalem Temple.

People remembered his father and his mother, Elizabeth, as well. An elderly couple known for their righteousness had never had children. Yet they conceived in their old age – a miraculous conception like that of their ancestral father Abraham and his wife Sarah.

People also remembered that when the Archangel Gabriel told Zechariah that he would soon be a father, he couldn’t believe it. So he was struck dumb for his disbelief. He did not speak until after his son, John, was born. So John, like the prophet, Isaiah, had been born into a priestly family with all the credentials of a heritage of righteousness. The circumstances of his conception and birth showed that the hand of God was upon him.

But for all that John was and for all that he did, he had one primary vocation. His true vocation was to bear witness to the light that was coming into the world – the light of true enlightenment – very light of very light – true light of true light – the light of God Himself – the Divine Word made flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth as well as full of light. John’s primary purpose – divinely established and divinely ordained – was to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the light of the world. And John did just that.

He began to fulfill his vocation even before he had been born. When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, pregnant with John, Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb bearing witness to Mary’s unborn child as the incarnation of God.

And, of course, as adults, Jesus went to John for baptism. And John said, You should be baptizing me – not I baptizing you. But Jesus received John’s baptism to sanctify baptism by water and by the Holy Spirit. John again bore witness to Jesus. The people asked him, Are you the Christ? John answered No – But the Messiah will come after me and the thong of his sandal I am unworthy to untie. And John also proclaimed, Behold the Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world!

Well, John continued his ministry without compromising his judgment. Herod had him arrested and in a state of drunkenness and lust, the king consented to his wife’s wish – expressed through her daughter, Salome – to have John beheaded. And John was thus martyred – as so many other righteous prophets had been martyred before him.

For us who live two thousand years later, we look to John for inspiration. We have a similar calling – to bear witness to Jesus Christ. For us, we do so after our lord’s crucifixion and resurrection – after the full revelation of God’s power manifested in and through His Son, the Savior of the whole world.

But for us to be believed, we need to follow the admonition St. Paul gave to the Thessalonians – to hold fast to what is good – to abstain from every evil – to live in the Spirit and not to despise prophecy but to honor true prophecy having tested it for truth – very important – and to rejoice in the Lord always.

St. Paul instructed us to test everything. And that means to evaluate every claim to truth being made today – by any philosopher, religionist or especially by any politician – to test the truth of their claim against the Biblical standard – and most importantly by the standard set in the conception, birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the only Savior of the whole world to whom St. John, the greatest of all prophets, bore witness.

Our job is to bear witness just as he did. It may or may not make us popular. It requires us to avoid, to the best of our ability, all evil. It calls us to constant repentance for all of us are sinners and the opposition will be quick to point that out our short comings using it against us and against our testimony. It requires us to pray constantly.

And if we are faithful, we will not play the current political games but will test everything for truth accepting nothing at face value. That’s what St. Paul means when he says, Do not quench the Spirit – the Spirit being the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit being the Spirit of Truth as Jesus gave that Spirit to us – the Holy Spirit of the living Truth.

Hence, every Christian has a common vocation – to bear witness to Jesus Christ as the only savior of the whole world. In and through His sacrifice on the cross we find our salvation. In Him lives our righteousness. Baptized by water and the Holy Spirit, we can live lives that, in all humility, show those who do not believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.

That’s our job. And like John, unworthy to even untie His sandal, we nonetheless do the best we can to manifest the saving power of our Lord.

With this in mind, let us pray.

Heavenly Father, bless us with the courage necessary to fulfill our calling to bear a faithful witness to you – that in all that we say, in all that we do and in all that we are, we may honor and glorify your Holy Name as we seek a deeper faith and a higher righteousness.

Keep us in the Spirit of Truth that we may test everything and serve as your faithful disciples. We ask this in the name of
and for the sake of your Son,
our Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,

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