Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, December 29, 2019, the First Sunday after Christmas

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

The Incarnation of Our Lord and His Resurrection to eternal life mark human history in a way no other events have or ever will.  One of the two big events in human history has just happened.  God Almighty has broken through space and time and come into the world.  Be careful, because if you look around you may decide that it’s not a big event at all.  You may come to the conclusion that it’s not as colossal and world-shaking of an event as it was supposed to be.   Here we have had the Birth of the Son of God and the world pretty much looks the same.  One would think that we should experience major differences in the lives of men and women.  At least there ought to be major shifts in the Earth’s crust, or some enormous changes in weather, or some loud noises, something worthy of a press release. We look around outside and see none of that. 

This is probably no different from the morning after the Birth of the Savior in Bethlehem two thousand twenty years ago.  When Mary and Joseph looked outside the lowly stable, or cave, after Mary had given birth to God’s Son, the world pretty much looked the same.  Shepherds had the dreadful episode with the multitude of angels and were directed to go and see the Child Jesus.  Some were made aware of the birth because the shepherds ran to tell them what they had seen.  Yet, all this was the night before, now the world looked the same.  The daylight dawns, Joseph, Mary, and the Babe need to keep moving.  Where is the dramatic difference? 

Are we any different?  After all of our preparations, and some of them frantic, for the great twelve-day celebration of Jesus’ birth, may now not notice much of a difference.  The decorations are coming down. The trees are appearing on the sidewalks.  It’s back to work or school, back to the routine, back to the way things were before what was supposed to be a huge event.  Each year I try to preserve the wonderfully warm feelings and sentiments that come every Christmas.  It is not possible.  Christmas comes quickly and goes quickly and the surroundings go back to looking and feeling the same.  Maybe that’s why there is this phenomenon of a kind of letdown or slight depression after big holidays.  The surroundings just do not let us hold on to the enormity and indescribable excitement of the Lord’s birth. 

This problem of not seeing a real difference after the Birth of the Savior is really the result of Christianity being a religion that has to be revealed.  Believing in Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, the Word made flesh, has to be shown to us and perpetuated for us because all the action begins and ends in God.  To see it, to believe it, to act on the belief of the Word made flesh requires revelation to us by words and images.  These are the best way for the Christian religion to come to us.  They are the best way because they are the way chosen by God.  God comes to us by the words and images of the Bible.     

We know this quite naturally.  Don’t we rely on pictures to show us events all the time?  Pictures are so powerful and we know it.  How many beautiful Christmas cards do we receive with family pictures taken over the past year?  When they arrive at our homes we hustle to have them reveal what our families, friends, and loved ones look like now.  Consider how frequently we take pictures and consider them a blessing.  Especially now that picture taking, preserving, and sharing are so easy and expertly done with the sophisticated cameras on our mobile phones. Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright and director, first said A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed.  This was later paraphrased into A picture is worth a thousand words and the truth of the adage is strong when considering religion that is revealed. 

We will not see nor remember the power of the Incarnation without the images of Scripture.  We will only know what Saint John proclaims in the Gospel when he writes,  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth;  John the Evangelist goes on, No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.  God must be revealed or we are not going to know Him.  We in fact do know Him, because He has been revealed by these images given to us by God.  Artists, poets, and writers understand and grasp this principle of receiving and giving proper imagery to convey truth.  C.S. Lewis, one of the most popular twentieth century Anglican writers, describes this necessity of using proper images to even understand the nature of God.  In a collection of his essays he writes,  ….we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit.  How do we even come close to knowing the all powerful, all knowing, ever-present God without the proper images?  The images are important because they are the images chosen by God therefore they are inspired. 

Think of just some of the images revealed to us by the Bible:  Israel as a chosen nation and people;  The suffering servant from the Prophet Isaiah as Christ Himself;  Noah’s Ark as the Church; The Ark of the Covenant as a symbol of the Lord; The Church as the New Israel; The Church as the Bride of Christ and Christ as her husband;  God the Father from the Lord’s Prayer; or one not from Scripture, but from our own liturgy, the Babe carried to the creche this past Christmas Eve.  All these are images and symbols that convey to us the nature of God and how He loves us.  These images are essential to helping us understand something of the Word of God.  We will not know the difference in the world.  We need the words and images of our religion from the Bible to learn, live and pass on our religion. 

When the Gospel of John proclaims And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John bore witness to him and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”)  And from his fullness have we all received, grace for grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  There it is.  That is the difference.  That is how things are not the same for those who believe.  God reached out to the world by His Son in one of the greatest acts of love the world has ever known.  He reached out to us so we could share in His life.  He becomes part of humanity so we can have some part in His divinity even now.  John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the founding fathers of the catholic revival in Anglicanism, when describing how the Holy Ghost comes into our lives, writes…He pervades us (if it may be so said) as light pervades a building, or as a sweet perfume the folds of some houourable robe; so that, in Scripture language, we are said to be in Him and He in us.  It is plain that such an inhabitation brings the Christian into a state altogether new and marvellous, far above the possession of mere gifts, exalts him inconceivably in the scale of beings and gives him a place and an office which he had not before.  He has ‘power’, as Saint John says,’to become the son of God’.  That’s how the world, the universe, our whole human state is different.  To finish Cardinal Newman’s Scripture quote, but to all who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; That’s how things are changed now.  He came to us so we can get back to Him. 

The world, the universe, is different and that is Good News for us and all mankind.  The Good and Loving God who is all powerful, all knowing, and all present is with us and in us.  We are able to have Him in our lives and we are able to share in His life.  His powerful act of love in reaching out to us means that He is with us in every aspect of our lives.  All the conditions in which we live will have the love of God in them.  Are we battling loneliness?  Is a friend or loved one close to spending the last days of life here on earth?  Are we in a financial crisis from which there seems no end?   Is there a health problem that is medically unmanageable and draining all resources for treatment?  Jobs, neighbors, taxes, illnesses all try our patience and strain at our lives.  The act of love that is the Incarnation allows us the privilege of having God in our lives no matter what. 

Thank God for the perfect revelation He has provided in giving us the Christ Child.  Let us find Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, in our hearts and minds by all the ways He reveals Himself to us, and the lives of all faithful believers.  We can now find Him and know Him and that makes all the difference. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen. 

This Week at the Advent, December 29, 2019-January 4, 2020

Welcome to the Church of the Advent! If you are new to the area, visiting, or seeking a church home, we are glad you’re here and hope to have a chance to greet you in person. Please join us downstairs following the service for a coffee hour.

Child care is offered during the 9 am and 11:15 am services; an usher can guide you to the nursery.

Welcome cards are located in each pew; please fill one out so we can keep in touch.


TODAY!


9:00 Coffee Hour: Hosting today are Barbara Boles with Will Joyner & Linda Jones. If you would like to sign up to host coffee hour, please contact Barbara Boles by phone, 617-501-7572, or email, bbolesster@gmail.com, if you’re interested or have questions.

11:15 Coffee Hour: Hosting this morning are Philip Le Quesne, Bud Scheffy, and Deb Hanley & Frank McGuire. We are always in need of more volunteers; to view the schedule and select a date to co-host, visit www.theadventboston.org/1115-coffee-hour-signup/. If you have any questions, please contact Frederick Ou (frederick.ou@gmail.com), Roxy Hanson (roxenewu@yahoo.com) or Betsy James (ejames4@nc.rr.com).

For those who have requested them, pledge envelopes are available for pick-up in the back of the church.


THIS WEEK!


Tuesday, December 31 — New Year’s Eve at 5:00 pm: The Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols by Candlelight. Sung by the Choir of the Church of the Advent, including works of Bednall, Chilcott, Darke, Filsell, Handel, Leighton, McDowall, Ord, Palestrina and Victoria. (childcare available)


COMING UP!


The Feast of the Epiphany, Solemn Mass. Monday, January 6, 6:30 pm.

Parish Office Nominations: At the Annual Meeting on January 26, there will be elections for four Vestry seats, Clerk, Treasurer, and two Diocesan Convention Delegates. This year’s nominating committee includes the Wardens (Tom Brown and Paul Roberts), Maria Denslow, and Dustin Henderson. Please submit any proposed names to one of them before Epiphany.


Please submit all annual reports to the parish office by Friday, January 10. Electronic submissions are preferred and using MS Word is greatly appreciated.


What Is Saint Michael’s Conference?: On Sunday, January 19, we will have the opportunity to find out. At 10:15 Father James will lead a presentation about the Conference with the help of parishioners who have attended the Conference, served as counselors, or are senior staff members. Every young person who is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one ought to attend this presentation, but more importantly, the parents ought to attend too. This week-long conference for teaching, learning, worship, and recreation has been offered each year since 1960 and has been a force in the spiritual lives of thousands of high school and college-aged students. Come and find out why.


STEWARDSHIP


As of Friday we have received 170 pledges, pledging a total of $468,927. 60 have increased their pledges by an average of over 15.5%, and there are 22 from those who did not pledge in 2019. We have yet to hear from 61 parishioners who pledged a total of approximately $125,000 last year. You can pledge online by going to the parish website, www.theadventboston.org, and clicking the “Pledge Online” button, or pick up a pledge packet in the church.

Please note also that 2019 contributions to the Advent must be received by December 31 in order to be eligible for 2019 tax consideration.


ODDS & ENDS


Discount parking vouchers for the Boston Common Garage are available for $9.00 each from Deacon Daphne or Nola Sheffer. You can find them between the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses at the Coffee Hour or Entr’acte. The vouchers can be used after 4:00 pm weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Questions? email: nsheffer@newview.org.


THIS WEEK AT THE ADVENT
December 30, 2019-January 5, 2020

Monday, December 30

Tuesday, December 31
5:00 pm: Christmas Lessons & Carols
6:00 pm: Community Supper

Wednesday, January 1
The Holy Name (Parish Office Closed)
11:00 am: Mass

Thursday, January 2

Friday, January 3
11:30 am: Rosary

Saturday, January 4

Sunday, January 5
The Second Sunday after Christmas
7:30 am: Morning Prayer
8:00 am: Low Mass
9:00 am: Sung Mass
11:15 am: Solemn Mass

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Christmas Eve 2019, Midnight Mass

I have some bad news: Much of what you think you know about Christmas is wrong.

But I also have some good news. In fact, I have the good news. Because the truth of Christmas according to Saint Luke is both more ordinary and more wonderful than what we get from countless carols and paintings about the birth of Jesus.

Contrary to our sentimental greeting-card notions about Christmas, straightforwardly Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth quite straightforwardly. Joseph and Mary are an ordinary couple whose lives play out under the influence of the distant impersonal demands of Roman imperial power. They go to Bethlehem in all probability because they own property there, almost certainly not a house (otherwise they would live there when they arrive) but taxable agricultural holdings.

Upon arrival in Bethlehem at the orders of the occupation Roman government something quite natural comes about: Mary gives birth to her son. The word “inn” in our translation is a terrible choice. The Greek word Luke uses means a public room in a house. Joseph and Mary are not denied a place to stay by a mean innkeeper. They are neither homeless nor refugees: They are given a place to stay, possibly by relatives, but this space is not private and so not fit for a woman to give birth to a child. Jesus is laid in an animal’s feed trough because animals would have in most homes been kept very close by, and Joseph and Mary are improvising.

So in one way the birth of Jesus Christ is in fact an entirely ordinary affair.

But it is also wonderful. Because heaven itself witnesses to the historical importance of this birth.

You may have heard that shepherds were particularly lowly in the estimation of the time. This too is not really fair. Abraham, Moses, Rachel, and King David himself, with whom Luke already compares Jesus even in infancy, were all shepherds.

You also probably are picturing the angels being arrayed in the heavens, looming above these shepherds, but this too is unlikely. Luke simply says that an angel appeared, which in the Greek suggests that the angel stood on the earth, alongside the ordinary shepherds.

While we are at it you can also toss out your mental image of an angel. The reason in the Bible that angels always tell people “Be not afraid” is because an angel is not a glowing blonde candy-colored creature but rather is entirely terrifying.

An angel in the Bible always is terrifying because an angel bears a message from God. In this case the message is good news. And in fact the word here for “good news” is none other than what we call in English “gospel” so the gospel we go on about in church so much is in fact about to be revealed.

So what is this good news, what is the gospel at its very heart? It is nothing less than the very meaning of Christmas. In fact, it is the meaning of everything.

It is “Good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

What is the good news? It is great joy.

Many people find it hard to be joyful at this time of year. Perhaps you come here tonight in great weariness. Or great despair. Or great fear. Maybe you are sick to death of a sentimental Christmas message, of being told that Christmas is about family or giving or some other sugar-coated nonsense.

Fortunately the great joy of Christmas is deeper than all that. And it is for all people. That means it is for anyone who is suffering right now. For anyone who is addicted or in pain or alone.

This day. Right now. This day is born “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is the good news for all people.

And no matter who you are, that includes you.

The phrase in Greek “for you” is used three times by Luke, a fact that is obscured in our translation. The angel says “I bring you good news” and “to you is born this day” and “this will be a sign for you.” All of them read the same in the original language.

Because the good news of Christmas is quite simply for you. Not just for Luke’s original readers. Not for the powerful, rich, or high-functioning. But for all people. And that means you.

The good news is for you.

The birth of Christ is for you.

The sign of his birth is for you.

This is the real meaning of Christmas: God entered into human life and loved every part of it from birth to death. God was born to an ordinary mother in an ordinary place at an ordinary time.

And yet everything about Jesus Christ’s life was wonderful. He is the Lord, but he spends his whole life serving others. He is the Christ, the chosen one of God, but he chooses to suffer and die for humanity. He is the savior, but he saves us from our sins by refusing to save himself from the cross.

Christmas is a cosmic, wonderful truth made entirely personal and ordinary. It is the coming together of the earthly and heavenly. So if we agree that on this day God became human, that the wonderful became ordinary, then together we truly can celebrate a very happy Christmas indeed.

Amen.

This Week at the Advent, December 22-28, 2019

Welcome to the Church of the Advent! If you are new to the area, visiting, or seeking a church home, we are glad you’re here and hope to have a chance to greet you in person. Please join us downstairs following the service for a coffee hour.

Child care is offered during the 9 am and 11:15 am services; an usher can guide you to the nursery.

Welcome cards are located in each pew; please fill one out so we can keep in touch.


Dear Members and Friends of the Church of the Advent:

We are writing today with a special note of thanks to our Deacon, the Rev’d Daphne Noyes.  After almost a decade and a half of service to the Advent, Daphne will retire from her pastoral and liturgical duties on Sunday, January 26, 2020.  We will plan appropriate festivities to celebrate Daphne and wish her well in retirement. 

While we are sad that the time for her departure has come, it is really a well-deserved and hard-earned retirement.  Daphne’s official canonical retirement date was almost a year ago.  But with no small amount of urging from us, and in the spirit of love for and service to the Advent community that Daphne exemplifies, she sought a year’s extension.  Our bishops consented.  And that has had an immeasurable effect on our transition.  As the longest-tenured member of our clerical staff, Daphne has been a source of calm and hope as we have studied, searched, and waited—all while continuing to carry out the mission of worshiping God and preaching the Gospel of the Risen Christ to this community and to the world.  This time has also reminded us of the grace and quiet confidence with which Daphne has carried out her office as our Deacon, including the challenges inherent in being the first and only woman on the Advent’s clerical staff.

Daphne’s love for the Advent has also been on full display in the highly successful Advent 175 festivities.  It was her work, her energy, and her devotion that brought things together.  The whole Advent family is thankful for the great gift that all of the presentations, histories, and events connected to Advent 175 have been to our community.  Daphne will continue to work on the archival and organization end of Advent 175 for several more months to ensure that project—her labor of love for this place—comes to a successful conclusion.

Daphne: thank you for presence among us, and for your faithful service to the Advent.  You have our deepest gratitude, and will always remain a beloved member of our Advent family.

Faithfully your brothers in Christ,
Thomas Brown, Senior Warden
Paul J. Roberts, Junior Warden

Printed copies of Deacon Noyes’s letter to the parish are available in the parish house.


The flowers in the Parish House are given to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Ellen Brockman.

The Advent wreath is given to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Norman MacGregor Post, priest, and Jane Irene Post.


TODAY!


9:00 Coffee Hour: Hosting today are Nola Sheffer and Betsy Ridge Madsen. If you would like to sign up to host coffee hour, please contact Barbara Boles by phone, 617-501-7572, or email, bbolesster@gmail.com, if you’re interested or have questions.

11:15 Coffee Hour: Hosting this morning are Michael Oliveri & Eric Aho, and Daniel & Marcos German-Domingues. We are always in need of more volunteers; to view the schedule and select a date to co-host, visit www.theadventboston.org/1115-coffee-hour-signup/. If you have any questions, please contact Frederick Ou (frederick.ou@gmail.com), Roxy Hanson (roxenewu@yahoo.com) or Betsy James (ejames4@nc.rr.com).

For those attending the 11:15 Coffee Hour, if you have a few minutes to spare, the Flower Guild could use some help carrying all the Christmas material out of storage and up into the church. Making one or two trips before you leave would be a big help.

For those who have requested them, pledge envelopes are available for pick-up in the back of the church.


THIS WEEK!


The parish Flower Guild needs your help! Decorating the church for Christmas is a lot of work, and the Flower Guild can’t do it alone. We need volunteers on the following days; floral design skills are not required ‑ if you can carry a bucket, climb a stepladder, or fill a trash bag, we can use you! And if you can spare an hour or two, but not come for the entire block, that’s perfectly OK.

  • Today, around 1:00 pm. After the 11:15 coffee hour we need help carrying all the Christmas material out of storage and up into the church. Making one or two trips before you leave is a big help.
  • Monday, December 23, 10:00 am to noon and/or 1:00 to 3:30 pm
  • Tuesday, Christmas Eve, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm

Every year stuffed animals and infants’ clothing are presented at the crèche during the 4:30 pm Mass on Christmas Eve. Donations go to the Fragment Society, who, since their inception in 1812, have been distributing clothes to Boston’s poor and needy.


Christmas Service Schedule


COMING UP!


Parish Office Nominations: At the Annual Meeting, there will be elections for four Vestry seats, Clerk, Treasurer, and two Diocesan Convention Delegates. This year’s nominating committee includes the Wardens (Tom Brown and Paul Roberts), Maria Denslow, and Dustin Henderson. Please submit any proposed names to one of them before Epiphany.


As we near the end of 2019, please remember that annual reports are due in the office at the beginning of January.


What Is Saint Michael’s Conference?: On Sunday, January 19, we will have the opportunity to find out. At 10:15 Father James will lead a presentation about the Conference with the help of parishioners who have attended the Conference, served as counselors, or are senior staff members. Every young person who is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one ought to attend this presentation, but more importantly, the parents ought to attend too. This week-long conference for teaching, learning, worship, and recreation has been offered each year since 1960 and has been a force in the spiritual lives of thousands of high school and college-aged students. Come and find out why.


STEWARDSHIP


Thanks to all those from whom we have recently received pledges. As of this past Thursday we have received 163 pledges, pledging a total of $460,227. 60 have increased their pledges by an average of over 15.5%, and there are 22 from those who did not pledge in 2019. We have still to hear from 68 parishioners who pledged a total of $137,366 last year. You can pledge online by going to the parish website, www.theadventboston.org, and clicking the “Pledge Online” button, or pick up a pledge packet in the church.


ODDS & ENDS


Book Store News. In celebration of Advent 175, all Advent Choir CDs are on sale for $10.00 each throughout the month of December. Advent Calendars, Christmas cards and music, 2020 “Churchman’s Ordo Kalendars” and Christian Pocket Diaries are now available at our Parish Book Store, which is open after each Mass on Sundays in Moseley Hall.


Discount parking vouchers for the Boston Common Garage are available for $9.00 each from Deacon Daphne or Nola Sheffer. You can find them between the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses at the Coffee Hour or Entr’acte. The vouchers can be used after 4:00 pm weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Questions? email: nsheffer@newview.org.


ADVENT 175


The centennial of the Oxford Movement was celebrated in the Diocese of Massachusetts from October 15 to 22, 1933. The opening service was held at the Church of the Advent, with the Right Rev. Henry B. Washburn, Dean of the Episcopal Theological School, preaching. The following week, the Rev. Julian D. Hamlin, rector of the Church of the Advent, preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Rev. C. Winfred Davis, Mus. D., Hon. Canon of Fond du Lac, gave the sermon at the Advent. Hamlin wrote, “It is deeply significant that the Diocese of Massachusetts, which for many years has been known as the center of liberalism in the Church, should be officially commemorating the Centenary of the Oxford Movement. The party divisions of twenty-five years ago do not fit into the picture of the Church to-day. It is time that we all began to absorb the lasting contributions which various groups have made to the life of the Church.”

At the close of the centennial observations, he wrote, “What shall we do in the next hundred years? To me the Anglican Communion has one reason for its existence apart from Rome. That reason is the ideal of a liberal Catholicism, speaking to every age with the voice of authority in the name of Christ, and with a social conscience enabling it to interpret historical Christianity to the great social movements which in these latter days are sweeping though the world. The fulfillment of this vocation implies a free Church in a free State.”


THIS WEEK AT THE ADVENT
December 23-29, 2019

Monday, December 23
10:00 am: Church Decorating
7:00 pm: Advent Choir Rehearsal

Tuesday, December 24
Vigil of the Nativity
10:00 am: Church Decorating
4:30 pm: Sung Mass and Procession to the Crèche
6:00 pm: Community Supper
10:00 pm: Musical Prelude
11:00 pm: Procession and Solemn Mass

Wednesday, December 25
Christmas Day (Parish Office Closed)
11:00 am: Mass

Thursday, December 26
St Stephen (Parish Office Closed)

Friday, December 27
St John the Evangelist
11:30 am: Rosary

Saturday, December 28
The Holy Innocents
11:00 am: Richard Baptism
2:00 pm: German-Domingues Baptism

Sunday, December 29
The First Sunday after Christmas
7:30 am: Morning Prayer
8:00 am: Low Mass
9:00 am: Sung Mass
11:15 am: Solemn Mass

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Collect for the season:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 15, 2019, the Third Sunday of Advent

In traditional artistic pictures of John the Baptist and Jesus, John the Baptist is always shown pointing toward Jesus.
This traditional depiction reflects a deep theological truth about the relationship between the two men. John the Baptist’s whole message as recorded in the Gospels consists of pointing to Jesus.

It is John the Baptist who first hails Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the world’s sins.

It is John the Baptist who calls Israel to repentance because the kingdom of God is at hand, a Kingdom that Jesus will establish.

It is John the Baptist who says that he must decrease in favor of Jesus, who must increase.

John’s whole message is one that points away from himself and to Jesus, his and our Lord.

But all that was a long time ago. That was at the beginning of the Gospel story, and all of sudden here on only the third Sunday of Advent we are way ahead in Matthew—chapter 11. A lot has happened since those early days when John and Jesus were together in the desert.

In fact, things have gone very badly for John. He is in prison at the order of King Herod. He may know that he will die in this prison. And it’s from that prison that John the Baptist—who so confidently proclaimed Jesus the Messiah—now sends a question that suggests he is not so confident any more. “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

In the beginning John the Baptist seemed so sure. Now he sounds unsure.

And we can understand why that might be. John the Baptist prophesied the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the one who would save the world with a baptism of his own—a baptism of holy spirit and fire, as Sarah Coakley so powerfully preached to us about last week.

So where is that fire now? You can imagine that John is asking himself whether this is the way things were supposed to go. Herod is still king, John is in jail, facing execution, and maybe he could use a little reassurance.

Because John the Baptist has spent his prophetic career pointing to Jesus, and now he needs to know that it was not a waste to do so. Because doing the kind of work he does can be discouraging. There is a sense in which John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. He willingly takes a place of subordination to his Lord, and he devotes himself to pointing the way to the Lord Jesus, but in doing so he claims nothing for himself. And now that’s all he has left: nothing.

I said before that traditionally in artistic depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus John is shown pointing to Jesus. There’s something funny though about the Church of the Advent’s stained glass windows of John the Baptist and Jesus. You can see them in the baptistery. They are a little funny because John is pointing away from Jesus, which is backwards, but it also looks for all the world like Jesus is pointing at and blessing John. And that is odd.

baptistry windows depicting John the Baptist and Jesus

But I have decided that today’s Gospel reading makes it a little less odd. Because in answer to John’s understandable question, Jesus for once does in fact point back to John the Baptist, and he blesses him. 

In fact Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest person who has ever been born.

So we would do well to try to figure out why.

What did the crowds find when they went out to the desert to seek John? A reed shaken by the wind? A guy in fine clothes? No, John the Baptist is anything but unstable; and he hates luxury and indulgence.

John the Baptist stuck to his message and to his conviction about who Jesus is, and even when things got tough and his confidence was shaken, Jesus reassures him that prophecy is being fulfilled. Just as Isaiah foretold, so now the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the sick are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought to life, the poor hear good news preached to them, and all thanks to the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ, in whom Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled.

Jesus’s message to John is straightforward and strengthening: “Don’t waver now, John, everything the prophets promised is coming true. Everything you promised, John, is coming true.”

And almost as an afterthought Jesus adds, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” What does this mean? I think it may mean that Jesus is encouraging John not to be offended now at this late and desperate moment.

Because it might have been pretty easy for John to be offended at Jesus. We don’t know how long the two of them worked together in the desert before Jesus asks John to baptize him, but it seems that the call to repentance comes first from John and that Jesus is at the outset just another one of John’s followers. It would have been much easier for John to keep the spotlight focused on himself rather than share it with his upstart little cousin. Yet he does the opposite: He focuses all the attention away from himself and onto Jesus because he is not offended by who Jesus so evidently is.

Because John was himself a prophet and in fact the last and greatest of the prophets. And even more than that he is the greatest person who has ever been born.

Yet even if John the Baptist is the greatest person who was ever born, still, incredibly, Jesus says that “the least person in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John the Baptist.

That means you and I, small though we may be in the kingdom of heaven, are in a way greater than John the Baptist himself. Not that we are saintlier than he. I am sure I am not. But there is a blessing available to us as members of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus established that is simply not available to anyone outside it, no matter how great they may have been.

To be perfectly clear, John the Baptist is not outside the kingdom of heaven because he does not enjoy its benefits. I am sure he does, and the church is sure he does, and that’s why we call him a saint.

But he is outside in that like all prophets he was graced to foresee the work of God on earth and yet was not immediately a part of what he foresaw.

Two things it seems to me follow from this recognition.

First, if we are in our small ways greater even than John the Baptist, we ought at least to strive to emulate his example and be worthy of our Lord’s words of praise for John the Baptist. Like John the Baptist, everything about our lives ought to point to Jesus Christ. We ought to make less of ourselves and more of him. We ought to have the stability and firmness of conviction that John the Baptist did, and like him we ought to embrace a life of self-denial and discipline.

Second, we must be prepared to accept the reality of how we will appear in the world’s eyes when we become nothing but a pointer to Jesus Christ. As I said John the Baptist will always be second fiddle. And that can be a discouraging role, even for one as great as he.

I had a mentor back in college who used to say that there is no end to the good you can get done for the church if you are willing to not take credit for doing it. There is a truth to that. Behind the scenes of any flourishing parish there is an army of mostly unrecognized workers who keep the place running. The same is true of the Advent. Our shared life is entirely dependent upon the voluntary service of many followers of Christ who dedicate their time and trouble to pointing to their Savior in some small or great but largely unappreciated way. The sacristan, the sextons, the kitchen staff, all those who serve on Tuesday nights, Sunday school teachers, the search committee, the wardens and on and on.

And sometimes those are discouraging places to be. But while it’s true that you can get a lot done for the church without taking credit for it, the larger truth is that nothing done for the kingdom of heaven really goes unnoticed. Everything you do, no matter how small or invisible in the world’s eyes, everything you do to point to Jesus Christ by word and by deed, all of it is precious and important. Remind yourself of that when you weary of working for him.

Just as John the Baptist pointed to Christ and Christ pointed back to him, so anything you do for Jesus he will bless, even if the world does not notice. I said a moment ago that John the Baptist is in prison and that he is left with nothing. But this is not really so. No one who works for the cause of Christ has nothing. Because if we have nothing else, we always have Christ himself. And blessed is anyone who is not offended by that.

Amen.