We must be both outwardly, inwardly repentant

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Dec. 7 for the second Sunday in Advent.

Years ago I visited second cousin Don Roth and discovered that he decorated his house with a tree every year in December, which seemed odd to me because he’s Jewish. But when I asked him whether this was a Hanukkah bush, he said, “Oh no, that’s a Christmas tree.”

I said, “But you’re not a Christian.” And he replied, “Yes, but it’s a national holiday, so we participate.” That pretty well sums up an attitude shared by many inactive Christian Americans as well. In fact, there is sometimes an inverse relationship between the amount of decorations and the degree to which the faith is actually practiced.

In today’s Gospel we have John the Baptist, whose adult ministry prepared the way for that of Jesus. From the questions he asks, for instance, “Are you the one or do we wait for another?” and by the vague way he describes the coming of an as-yet-unnamed Savior in today’s Gospel, “One mightier than I is coming after me,” it is clear that initially John did not know that he was preparing the way for his own cousin.

He walked by faith and called people to repentance without really knowing very much at all about what God was actually doing with his ministry. Maybe that’s why he was so effective.

God let him know everything he needed to know in order to prepare the way for Jesus but left him in the dark about many of the other things I’m sure he’d have liked to have known. God knows that it’s often easier for us to leave him in control of our lives if we don’t have any alternative but to trust him. Sometimes he leaves us in the dark so that we will learn to listen to him better and trust him more.

That’s how God prepared John the Baptist, so that he would then be better equipped to prepare others for the completely unexpected way that God would fulfill his promise to send them their long-awaited Messiah.

And how did John prepare them? By putting the fear of God in them. He was a scary-looking guy dressed in camel’s hair and eating bugs (locusts). He threatened people with disaster unless they repented and then washed their sins away in preparation for the arrival of someone far mightier than he, someone not even he was worthy to serve.

John fasted and prayed constantly, denying himself all the pleasures of life, even though he was not worthy to loosen the sandal straps of the one who is coming.

If even he was unworthy, woe to all lesser mortals when this mightier one finally comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit — and according to Matthew and Luke, fire. The Holy Spirit for those who are prepared and eternal fire for those who are not.

You and I are citizens of that kingdom whose establishment John the Baptist prepared and Jesus accomplished. We were reborn into that kingdom by dying and rising with Jesus sacramentally in the waters of Christian baptism, and we received Jesus’ baptism in the Holy Spirit the day of our confirmation.

Not only were we washed clean of sin like those who received John’s baptism, we also gained eternal life by being adopted by Jesus into the very soul and divinity of God, the Trinity in whose name we have been reborn: children of the Father, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and temples of the Holy Spirit — the sacramental fulfillment in our lives of God’s promise on the lips of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel.

Even so, we must never forget that what is true for us sacramentally must now be lived for God’s general promise of eternal life to become a reality in each of our own lives. John’s baptism was of no lasting benefit for those who didn’t really repent and change their way of life.

John said very clearly in the Gospel of Matthew that the mere fact of baptism by itself would not keep the inwardly unrepentant out of hell: “When John saw that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were stepping forward for this bath, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give evidence that you mean to reform!’”

And this is even more true for us. Unlike Jesus’ adversaries, we do have the full story, we have been given the gift of faith. Everything now depends on whether we live it.

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