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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Profit in Prophets

Series: Sermons for an Isolated Advent

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: john, listen, baptist, prophet, profit

December 6, 2020    The Second Sunday of Advent

Saint James’ Church, Florence, Italy

Mark 1:2-3a: “‘See, I am sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness...”

All throughout the church today, faithful people are being reminded of someone we are especially fond of here in Florence—John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the cousin and forerunner of our Lord.  John plays a key role in the Advent story; but he is also the patron saint of our city, and indeed our church has an image of him right out on the front portico.

I’ve noticed that living in Florence is a little bit like living with John the Baptist as a neighbor. He pops up in all kinds of places, like that friend you get used to seeing around town. The baptistry is named for him, of course, but there is hardly a church in the city that does not have some image, some statue, some window with John in it.  

We grow up thinking of John as having an important supporting role in the drama that unfolds in the New Testament. But that may not be entirely fair. 

To someone in Jesus’s own day, to any one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had heard him preach or came out to be baptized by him, John stood in the line of the great prophets of Israel.

There was a buzz around John. People talked about him. They wondered about him. Some people wondered whether maybe he was a return of Elijah. 

Some people openly said that he was the Messiah so long waited for. The scholars teach us that some of those groups endured into the second century; and there are still some, the tiny sect of the Mandaeans, who regard John as the final prophet.

We all know what happened next. John does something our own attention-crazed culture could not imagine; at the very height of his influence, he tells people that he isn’t the person they are looking for. In fact he tells them that the person they are looking for is already among them. He just doesn’t tell them who that is.

That’s the story we know. What we miss in that story is what those around John thought of him—that he was, beyond any question, first and foremost a prophet.

The Gospel of Mark, our guide through the year ahead, opens with John bursting onto the scene. But it clearly casts John as a prophet, linking him immediately with the prophet Isaiah. He is a man with a message. 

The people around him don’t have the benefit of all the statutes, and the paintings, and the murals. All they have is that message—or what they’ve heard about it from others. And that is what brings them out to the riverside, hoping for something more.

Like all the prophets before him, John has a message he is urgently trying to get people to hear. He wants people to know they have got to stop living the way they are living, stop doing the things they are doing, because that is the only way they can ready for what is coming. 

He is so intensely focused on getting people to listen to him that he dresses oddly, and acts like someone on the very edge of civilized conduct. 

The word that summarizes John’s urgent message is, Repent. In Greek, the word that we translate as “repentance” is “metanoias”—which literally means, turn around. Stop going in the direction you’re headed, and turn around—back toward God.

That’s what preparation means for John. And that’s why John is the Advent prophet. He is calling on us to turn around. To turn toward the light that is growing in the distance, and that will eventually become the star over the barn where a child lies in a food trough.

Now, we need to confess something here. When we hear that word “repent,” what we really think is: That’s the Bible telling all those people I disagree with to change their lives and act the way I think they should. We are all very well prepared to tell others how they should repent.

But that is not the message of the prophet. John is calling each one of us to repent, to turn around. John is calling each one of us to humility—to asking just what it is we are so sure of that is drawing a veil between us and God’s love.

Prophets are not meant to be comfortable. Prophets are not meant to be polite company. If a prophet has a message that sits easy with you, that gives you a sense of being justified compared with others, you may be putting your trust in the wrong message and the wrong messenger. We are supposed to be disturbed by the prophets. We are supposed to question ourselves, to doubt our certainties. 

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the moment at which that young wastrel who has spent all his inheritance comes to himself and sets himself on the road back to his father—that is a repentance moment, a metanoia moment. 

But never forget that once he gets home, both that young boy and his elder brother end up having to repent. Both of them have spent time lost—one in his waywardness, and one in his self-righteousness.

Each one of us spends time in this life being both of those brothers. Each one of us gets lost-—lost to the devices and desires of our own hearts, lost to our certainties that we have righteousness on our side. Each one of us needs to come to that moment of realization—of turning around.

John is a messenger. He is sent to us, no less than to the people among whom he lived. We are lucky that we live in a city in which he is so easy to find. But he is not so easy to hear. Most of the people who came out to be baptized in the Jordan went home thinking they were justified—and changed nothing about their lives.

God mercifully sends prophets to us to help us see the need to change our lives. We have known them in our own day. But we only take profit from these prophets if we listen to them. We only benefit from the messenger if we consider the message—and not imagine that it has come just to make others more like we imagine they should be.

So for this week in Advent, let us make it our business to listen—to listen to the message of the prophets, the prophets in the Bible and the prophets around us today. The voices that challenge you, that unsettle you, that push you away from your comfortable place—those are the voices most likely to be speaking some part of God’s truth in our hearing. And we will only find profit for ourselves in those words of prophecy if we quiet ourselves, and listen. Amen.