The Prophet of the Most High.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022 at Holy Communion
1 Corinthians 4:1–5, Matthew 11:2–10
“Thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
John the Baptist is the essential Advent character. He is the focus of the Gospel for this week and the Gospel for next week, the two Sundays before Christmas.
And John the Baptist actually has a big role in Christian worship beyond Advent as well. We keep the commemoration of John’s birth as a holy day on June 25. There is a separate date, August 29, when we remember his beheading by Herod.
If you were to go into an Eastern Orthodox Church, where there are painted icons of the saints on all the walls, three figures are given special prominence: Jesus himself, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.
And to cap it all off, John the Baptist is part of the church’s prayer every single day. At Morning Prayer, after the second reading, we say the “Benedictus,” a biblical song that begins with the words “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” It is the Song of Zechariah, which John the Baptist’s father sang when he was born. The second part of the song says, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High.” At every Morning Prayer, we address John the Baptist.
What is so important about John?
In our Gospel reading, John is in prison. He has been arrested for criticizing the immorality of King Herod. But he hears from his visitors that his cousin Jesus is working miracles, so he sends a message asking Jesus directly: ”Are you the Christ, the one we’ve been waiting for, or is it someone else?“ (Matthew 11:2). Jesus tells him that he of all people should know how to read the signs—yes, Jesus is doing everything that the coming Messiah will do.
John the Baptist is the one who watches for and announces the coming of the Word of God. That is his entire role, which is what Jesus tells the crowds who followed John. They didn’t go out into the desert to see the scenery. They didn’t go out into the desert to see a rich man in his finery. They went out to see a prophet, and to hear him preach about the coming Messiah.
If John is the one who waits and watches for the coming of the Word, that puts him exactly where we are in Advent. We have set aside these four weeks to reflect on our need and our hope for God’s coming into our lives anew.
John is also the one who *announces* the coming of Word, and there too we can share the role of John the Baptist. I have pointed out before that, in Advent, the pattern of our readings is that the Gospel gives us something about the past (Jesus’ earthly life) or about the future (his second coming), but the Epistle reading and the Collect turn that Gospel into a teaching and a prayer for the present.
So in our Epistle, we have Saint Paul telling us how to interpret his ministry and the ministry of all the apostles. He tells us that they are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). He’s just a servant announcing the good news, that’s all.
Paul’s teaching is not just about the apostles. It’s about how we all think of ourselves. Every Christian is a servant, and every Christian is a steward. We have been entrusted with good news. It’s our job to be faithful to it, and to announce it. That’s all.
The reason that John the Baptist is such a large presence in the church’s worship is that he represents us. We are waiting for the coming of the Word in our lives, into our minds and hearts, into our world. But we also, like John, know that Jesus is that Word, and we announce it, preparing those we encounter to meet Jesus for themselves.
This is why we say those words at Morning Prayer: “Thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High.” We are speaking to John, yes, but more importantly we are speaking to our own souls. Every morning, we wake up to the reminder that we are prophets of the Most High.
Christians talk about Jesus. Every time you go out your front door, whatever your other business may be, you need to be ready to prepare the way for Jesus in somebody’s life.
If that seems like a tall order, you’re not alone. For any Christian, speaking with friends and family about your faith can be a challenge. We don’t like to seem pushy or over-enthusiastic. The trouble is that this attitude is killing us. Outwardly, our reluctance about explicit evangelism is one of the principal reasons why congregations shrink rather than grow. And inwardly, just as a tree that doesn’t bring forth fruit withers, so a Christian that doesn’t speak about faith begins to forget what faith is about.
But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier. So here’s a place to start. When you’re having a conversation with someone, and silently in your mind you make a faith connection, something like, “That reminds me of when I was struggling with a similar thing and found comfort in praying about it,” or “That reminds me of what I was reading in my Bible last week”—you can say that. You’re already saying it in your mind. Just say it out loud. And second, invite people to church. You don’t have to have a full-blown “faith conversation”; you just have to believe that a church service or church event is worth going to—and I assume we all believe that attending church does us some good, since we’re all here—and share that with somebody.
Speaking about our faith is not an obligation placed on us by God “from outside,” a law. It grows naturally out of who we are. If we think of ourselves, like John the Baptist and Saint Paul, as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” speaking about our faith can become a source of deep joy.