Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I have an icon of St. John the Baptist which I keep in a spot in my office where I can always see it from my desk (though today I’ve set it on the stand in the back of the church, in case you’re interested in looking at it). It was an ordination gift from a dear friend who is a parishioner at the church in Brooklyn where I did my internship during seminary. It is in almost every way different from the painting on the cover of our bulletin this week by Mattia Preti, Il Cavalier Calabrese (the Calabrian Knight, which I think is a pretty cool nickname).

The icon shows a decidedly hirsute, disheveled Baptist, while the painting strikes one as depicting what must have been the 17th Century equivalent of the contemporary men’s fashion trend of having intentionally slightly messy hair (sometimes very ill-advisedly- see, Johnny Depp or Boris Johnson). The icon shows John alone, while the painting shows the horrified crowd at the bottom and a cherub in the upper-right corner. (You can’t have a renaissance painting of a biblical figure without a superfluous angel or two, after all.) The icon sticks to the biblical description, dressing John in a simple camel’s-hair garment, while the painting drapes a red cloth or cape over him, which Preti often put on his subjects as an allusion to the red tabard of the Knights of Malta, of which the artist was a member, hence his cool nickname.

One thing which the two pieces have in common, though–and which most depictions of John the Baptist do–is that he is pointing away from himself. Capable artists have made a point (pun very much intended) over the centuries of drawing the viewer’s eye away from the Baptist and to the hand and the usually empty space to which it gestures. I think both the Greek icon and Preti’s painting succeed in this, and you might have noticed the same thing in Da Vinci’s famous painting or in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.

Anyway, the reason I keep that icon where I can see it is not because I like it, though I do. It’s because when I’m meeting with parishioners or writing sermons or making decisions that affect the life of the parish or whatever else I do in that office, I need the reminder that I need to point away from myself toward Jesus in all those tasks and interactions. I need John the Baptist to remind me that it’s not about me, just as he knew it wasn’t about him. It’s all about Jesus.

There’s an old often misquoted saying that the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The quote was actually about what newspapers ought to be doing, not clergypeople. One of our prayers in the section of additional prayers and thanksgiving towards the back of the prayerbook gets close to the sentiment–“strenghten the faithful, arouse the careless, restore the penitent”–though it is unmistakably God who is being asked to do those things, not some little vicar with a “John the Baptist” complex. Even so, we are all of us called to point away from ourselves, toward Jesus, and sometimes this will mean either speaking or living into hard truths which may not be popular.

I doubt many of us will be in a situation where we must call a crowd a “generation of vipers” or lecture tax collectors and soldiers about how to do their jobs or get thrown in prison for disturbing the peace, as indeed John does right after this morning’s gospel lesson closed. Nevertheless, pointing to Jesus and to what he stands for rather than exalting ourselves (or even just going along to get along) can be an uncomfortable proposition. Maybe it’s forgoing that brand new luxury item, the flat screen television or whatever, because the old one works fine, and giving the money one would have spent on that to the poor, knowing that those in poverty are in a very real spiritual sense, Christ to us. Maybe it’s as simple as checking our tongues, interrogating our motives before we speak, and asking “is what I’m about to say meant to impress people or is it meant to speak a word of grace and truth and love?” Maybe it’s pushing back when Uncle Jimmy makes a racist joke at Christmas dinner after he’s had one too many seven-and-sevens, remembering again that Christ is known to us in the abused and marginalized.

Today, despite the rather tough words from the Baptist in our Gospel, we are invited to take a small break from the penitence of the season and remember there is still joy in the midst of our lives of longing and expectation for Christ to come to us again. (That’s the point of the rose-colored vestments on the Third Sunday of Advent; it literally lightens things up a bit.) I truly believe that when we succeed in following John’s example, pointing away from ourselves toward Jesus, we find our best shot at achieving that joy in this life. When we practice that approach, often failing but sometimes succeeding despite ourselves, we find the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians has become a palpable reality in our lives, that “the peace of God which passeth all understanding [is] keeping [our] hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.