Luke 1: 1-80, 3:16-20, Malachi 4, Romans 13:11-14:4
Jesus began his ministry in full awareness of the dangers of telling the truth, and being the Truth. As God, He knew the human heart and the depths of evil to which it can sink. As man, He surely took notice of the sacrificial life of his slightly older cousin, John the Baptizer. His cousin spoke the truth to everyone—including the compromised religious leaders (that “brood of vipers!”) and the political leader Herod, whom he “rebuked” for marrying his brother’s wife and for “all [the other] evils which Herod had done.” This prophet, Jesus’ cousin according to the flesh, was shut up in prison for his troubles (Luke 3:16-20). Let’s consider the readings for St. John’s Nativity feast, as a way to understand this courageous figure, and then reflect on the challenges of truth-telling.
When the evangelist Luke begins his story of the gospel, he interweaves the double stories of the Messiah and the fore-runner John in such a way that we understand how inter-related they are. Both babies are announced by an angel, conceived in an astonishing way, and given a unique calling. Even in the womb of Elisabeth, John recognizes the God-man, and spends his entire ministry seeking to prepare the people for this great visitation of God in their midst. Our gospel reading for this Saturday’s feast day of John’s nativity reminds us of the wonder of those early days—of this amazing prophet who would “be great in the sight of the Lord,…drink neither wine nor strong drink, be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” The angel tells the priest Zechariah, John’s father, that his infant son, when grown, “will also go before [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15-17 NKJ).
This John surely did. Though he was imprisoned by Herod, and executed at the whim of Herodias, Herod’s wife, Jesus the Lord praised him, saying, “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28a). This high praise from our Lord came at the time when John was shut up in prison, and when it seems that he had begun to doubt—so John the righteous sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus is indeed the Messiah that Israel had been expecting. It would seem that John did not understand how God’s triumph would come through suffering—not only his own suffering, but the suffering of the very King of Israel, the very King of the angels, the very King of the entire cosmos.
But we know the story. We know the way that the Lord “turns the hearts of the disobedient” to wisdom and “prepares” his people: He does this by entering deeply into our tragic lives, and conquering death by death. Not only did John give his life for the truth, but so too, with infinitely more power, did the God-Man.
It is only sometimes in retrospect that the grandeur of truthful and righteous actions come into focus. I suspect that John’s friends and family, and maybe even his followers, wondered why John took the strange course of life that he did: staying away in the desert, dressing poorly, eating and drinking food that could barely keep him alive. Why not go into the cities, and proclaim God’s coming? I am quite sure that some of them were skeptical about how he even “spoke truth to power” (as we say today). Why waste breath on accommodators, like the Sadducees, who had decided to get along with the occupying Romans? Why bother with the Pharisees, who thought of themselves as progressive in Judaism, mistakenly seeing in their minute study and over-scrupulous practice of Torah the hope of salvation? The Sadducees were like Esau, for they had squandered their birthright in the hope of more comfortable living in the Roman Empire. The Pharisees had forgotten the forest for the trees, and were focusing upon the frame rather than the picture—they had succeeded in making an idol of Torah, the very book that was to point them to the living God. And Herod? Well perhaps he had a little of the blood of the chosen people in him, but he was to all intents and purposes a pagan. Why preach to him at all? And if you were going to, why on earth talk to him about the seemingly tawdry and unimportant sin of taking a woman who had belonged to his brother? Surely, if one was going to speak to a political leader like Herod, it would be better to highlight his injustices and his ability to better the life of those whom he governed! After all, Herod was interested in John’s message, and liked to hear about theological matters from him.
But John did not engage Herod in speculative theology. He talked to Herod about sex. And the other affected party, Herodias, had her revenge against the prophet’s impudence. What caused his imprisonment was not his calling the Pharisees and Sadducees “vipers”; what endangered him was not his unorthodox baptism of Jews, or his preaching of the arriving Messiah. What caused the axe to fall was that he spoke the truth to this leader and his illicit wife about a personal sin, about something forbidden in the Torah, and indeed frowned upon in the pagan world (consider 1 Cor. 5:1). It would have been easy for John to focus on something grander, as the prophet of the Messiah—but he spoke the truth, and paid the price. In praising his courage, Jesus reminded the people that John was no “reed shaken by the wind,” but a man of courage, and indeed the greatest prophet known until that time.
This past week I visited the house of Corrie, Willem and Betsy ten Boom in the Netherlands. We could also call these three “prophets”—prophets born not of woman, but of God, for they followed the Lord Jesus. As Jesus put it, “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). (Yes, I know they were not Orthodox, but they lived according to their understanding of Jesus, and gave up everything for Him). All three of these children had learned from their father and grandfather lessons of integrity, love and faithfulness that stood them in good stead during the time of trial. Willem wrote a Ph.D. dissertation describing the rise of anti-Semitism in his day, sounding the alarm for the monstrosities that attended Hitler’s madness, and playing the role of a Christian thinker with prophetic sight in a compromised age. Corrie, the courageous one, who had learned to survive sorrow when jilted by her sweetheart for the sake of social prestige, risked her life daily by working in the Resistance. Her more infirm and gentle sister Betsy worked alongside her, but had absolutely no guile, and insisted on telling the truth to authorities even when it was risky. Their father, Casper, at first wanted to wear the yellow star in solidarity with the Jews, but was convinced by his family that they could do more good alive and thriving in their little town of Harlaam. There, with heroic defiance, they helped hundreds of Jewish refugees before they finally were betrayed. Betrayal – for money! – led to the concentration camp, where the sisters were a beacon of hope, reading the Bible, praying, and modelling gratitude and peace for those around them. Many look back on them with amazement for their fortitude: so many others in Europe were not prepared to identify with those who were being persecuted, and we know why.
It is easy to lie to ourselves when we are faced with the challenge to be counter-cultural. It is easy to say, this has nothing to do with me—my business is in the Church, and what unbelievers do is their responsibility. It is easy to say, “I don’t have enough power or influence at this time, and will bide my time until it is more useful for me to speak.” It is easy to say, they won’t listen, anyway. It is easy to say, there are more important things to do or talk about in society today. It is easy to say, that is the job of real prophets, or of the priests. But John the Baptist did not take these routes. That same reading from Malachi which Jesus applied to John the Baptist speaks about those who “fear” the name of the Lord, and says that, for them, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” It promises, “You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall,” and looks to the time when evil will be defeated, and when God’s reconciliation shall take place (Malachi 4). Of course, we know that this was fulfilled in a tangible way when Jesus, by his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brought in the new creation. As John the Baptist’s priestly father Zechariah described it, “Through the tender mercy of our God… the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79) We see light of the Dayspring in Jesus, his glory among us, guiding us into the way of peace. We are part of a reconciled and new family in which “there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free.”
Of course, not all is accomplished. We, like John and Jesus, are called to have courage, even to take up our cross. And so the epistle reading for this feast of St. John the Baptist warns us also to rouse ourselves:
“Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:11-14).
Perhaps we would like simply to rest in the light, and celebrate the victory accomplished. But we are being roused out of sleep, and have work to do which requires armor of light, and the clothing of the Lord Jesus Himself. Being sons and daughters of the kingdom does not simply mean dwelling in that reign, but participating in it.
Friends, I don’t know what that means for you. We do know what that meant for St. Mary of Egypt, for the numerous martyrs, for the ten Booms, and for those who live in dangerous places today. I know that for me it means being willing to say things in academic contexts that most people would rather not hear. I know that I cannot shrink from speaking out against the killing of unborn children. I know that I have to speak about the uniqueness of our Incarnate Lord, about the cross and resurrection, and about the community that He has called out of the world. And I have to do this in a time when many would prefer not to hear about atonement, about the scandal of Jesus’ particularity, or about the Church of the apostles.
Most recently, I find myself yet again being called yet again to speak about something that I had hoped to leave behind when I was chrismated—God’s creational purpose (“from the beginning”) for the joining together of a single man and a single woman for life, with all the challenges and joys that this can bring. We are called to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh”—not because the body is bad, but because it is holy. It is meant, in its actions among others, to glorify the Lord. I have friends who “co-habit”, friends who have divorced for reasons (other than those reluctantly permitted in the Bible and tradition), friends who act out sexually in homosexual and heterosexual ways. Society tells them that these actions are natural, and that they do not come with a price-tag. Some Christian leaders admit that these actions are not according to God’s perfect will, but think that leniency or tolerance is the route by which these who profess faith while continuing to act in these ways may be embraced by the Church, in their weakness. But for centuries Christians have been taught otherwise, both as a simple matter of morals, and in terms of pastoral response. It is because I care for those who take the wrong path that I am compelled to speak the truth about these matters—principles that have remained coherent from the time of the Scriptures through the Holy Tradition of the Church up until our time.
(I realize that I am here not answering the objections of those who think that we have been mistaken about sexuality up until the present age. Much has been written on this subject and continues to be written, refuting those who say that the NT does not address our current situation, or that St. Paul may have been mistaken, or that the “Holy Spirit” is leading us into a “deeper” truth of “inclusion.” For my own popular discussions of these matters, see, for example, http://edithhumphrey.net/articles.htm, under the topic of “Same-Sex erotic relations and Sexuality.” Other of my more academic articles are not available via internet, but I would be happy to share these, plus my select bibliography of the best books and articles on the subject, for those interested. Not all of us will join explicitly in this controversy—at least publically—but all Orthodox Christians should be informed as to WHY the Church teaches as she does, when asked by outsiders and by those within our walls who are confused or rebellious.)
All of us ARE called to pray continuously for our metropolitans and bishops, who continue to speak of God’s call to celibacy, chastity and fidelity, and who cleave to the dominical description of a marriage (Mark 10:6-9)! Let us pray, too, for those Christian professors, teachers, pastors, and “ordinary” Christian witnesses who brave not only the scorn of society but sometimes the loss of their positions because they continue to hold out God’s purposes for sexuality in an age of confusion and sexual brokenness. And may we thank God for those who have chosen celibacy and remind us that erotic love, despite its wonders, is not the greatest power in human experience! John the Baptist was set apart by God to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” We come AFTER that great Light of lights, and yet still must witness to His call, for not all have been gathered in and not everything has been fulfilled yet. Knowledge concerning repentence, remission of sin, transformation, and the hope of theosis, is offered to every one of us, and to everyone around us — whether single, widowed or married; whether called to celibacy; whether struggling with heterosexual or homosexual desire. Christ’s invitation is to heed the call “repent and believe” and so to be healed and changed (John 12:40): this is true inclusivity.
We should make it our business, whether by lifestyle, word or action—or all three—to be vehicles by which God’s gracious invitation can be heard. Fear of what others think can muzzle us, if we allow it to. Fear can also make us strident, and deform the message of transformation and freedom. But perfect love casts out fear. After all, of what are we really afraid? We are not in the place even of the ten Boom family, or of our brothers and sisters across the seas: we “have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Heb 12:4). The “strife,” in this matter, includes not simply encouraging brothers and sisters (and ourselves) to stay pure, but also thinking in an Orthodox manner about this topic: it is a battle not just about actions, but about ideas, and indeed about the shape of the gospel. Let us take to our hearts the courage of John and others as we remember the gift that he was in his own day, and speak up for truth—not because we fear what society will do to so-called traditionalists if we don’t put our finger in the dyke, nor because we want (like the cults) to make a clear demarcation between “us” and “them.” No, we will act and speak the truth out of love. For love and truth live together, and find their meeting place in the One whom John announced. He may be the greatest prophet born of woman—but we have been born of the Spirit, and so have even more to tell!