“Father Mead and John the Baptist–Pointers to Jesus” (December 7, 2014: The Second Sunday of Advent–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“And [John] preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I…’”—Mark 1.7[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, was the second anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood. It was a day filled with great gratitude—to God for His call, to the Church for affirming God’s call and granting me the privilege to serve His people in this office, and for all the specific people who were the giants upon whose shoulders I stood throughout the process. One of those specific people who made a huge impression and had a significant impact upon my vocational formation was Andrew Mead, the now Rector Emeritus of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue) in New York City.[2] Father Mead was a parish priest who was committed to Biblical preaching within a Catholic liturgical framework, coupled with an evangelical concern for the hearer, doctrinal orthodoxy in his teaching, the liturgical heritage of Catholic Anglicanism, within the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer, and possessed a deep love “for the care of souls.”[3] It was as a senior at The General Theological Seminary in which Father Mead invited me to serve as the seminarian at Saint Thomas Church, an experience that I will forever be grateful for having had. I remember Father Mead saying these words to me after the first weekday Mass that I served with him: “Brandt, I am glad that you are here with us this year. Throughout this year, I’m going to be saying a lot of things to you. Some of them will be good things; some of them will be things that will probably hurt your feelings. But know that everything that I say to you I do so because I want you to do well.”

Father Mead kept true to those words. During the course of 10 months, Father Mead observed me with a care like that of a father for his son. He applauded and encouraged me for the good things that I did, as well as firmly, yet lovingly pointed out things that I could have been done better and offered suggestions on how improvements could be achieved, all done so with the goal of forming me to be the best Priest he believed I could be. In turn, in my observances of Father Mead, I found him to be a man who really “walked the talk,” in which I saw all that he taught me about what it means to be a Priest being reflected in his own practice. Although Father Mead did disagree with some of the Episcopal Church’s more recent actions, never once did I hear him say a disparaging word against the Church or its leaders, with him once saying to me, “Brandt, you don’t get anywhere by being an angry Pharisee. It doesn’t accomplish anything.” Using words of former Saint Thomas parishioner and former Newsweek editor Jon Meachem, hearing Father Mead’s sermons live from the pulpit, I found them to be “brief…clear and to the point,” focused on nothing else but “the great truths of the faith, struggling mightily to keep the theological and ecclesiastical battles of the day at bay,” and aimed at “focusing our attention not on ourselves but on the crisis at Calvary.”[4] And at the beginning of my time at Saint Thomas, as one who was bound and determined to live out his sacramental life within the lecture hall, it was Father Mead who, while walking to the Saint Thomas rectory for a chili dinner, reinforced to me the importance of parish ministry, cautioning me not to forget about the “front lines,” to which by the end of my time at Saint Thomas, my appreciation for the work of parish ministry was renewed. I remember saying to Father Mead during a parish function, “Father, I hope that I will be as great a Priest as you are.” In response, Father Mead said, “On the contrary, I hope that you will be better!” I credit much of who I am as a Priest to the humble and Godly influence of Andrew Mead and am thankful for the place that he had in my formation.

I mention Father Mead as an example of how much of where we are and come to be, both individually and collectively, is due to others who preceded us and prepared the way. All of us are Christians because of the Gospel witness of someone that came before us. The person who first witnessed to you about the Good News first heard it from someone before them, with them having first heard it from someone before them, going further and further back in time. All of these people, through whom the Good News was passed down through the centuries to all of us in this time, were forerunners to us for Jesus. They were the ones in our lives from whom we first heard the call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [5] Their witness came from a deep belief in the Gospel, a deep belief in Jesus, being touched by Him in the most affective way. These forerunners in our lives were our first pointers to Jesus and through their witness, the path for Him to come into our hearts was prepared and made straight.

In today’s Gospel from Mark 1, we meet John the Baptist, THE forerunner of forerunners, THE forerunner of Christ Himself. It is said of him in the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” [6] Today’s Gospel puts forth John as the fulfillment of what had been foretold by the prophets: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,’” [7] and “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…” [8] In Luke 1, when the Virgin Mary, after being told that she would be the bearer of our Lord into the world, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John, it is said that when she first greeted Elizabeth, the forthcoming John leaped for joy in her womb.[9] Even Jesus Himself gave recognition to John’s role as His forerunner, saying of him: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” [10]

So how appropriate it is that on today, the Second Sunday of Advent, after getting a glimpse of the last things to come on the First Sunday of Advent, we come to the beginning of the Christian story, seeing the prophecies of old being fulfilled. Whereas in last Sunday’s Gospel, where we hear Jesus saying that the Son of man will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” [11] today, we hear of “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem” being called by John to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Today’s Gospel presents John as the voice and messenger in the wilderness making way for the Lord’s coming as prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi. The evidence is adding up. Mark is making it abundantly clear: the time of salvation is now! Whereas it will be through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary in which the child Jesus will make His way to us into this world, it is through the preaching of John the Baptist in which the adult Jesus will first come to us in our belief. John the Baptist is the sign—Jesus, our long awaited Messiah, is coming!

In the ministry of John the Baptist can be seen the Advent themes of waiting and preparation. John’s calling for repentance and baptism highlights what preparing oneself for the Lord’s coming literally means. In calling the people to repentance and baptism, John is conveying the point that preparation for the Lord’s coming requires from us a change—to turn away from those things that are not in line with the ways of God, giving up, in essence, the prevailing of our will in favor of God’s will. What John is asking of us can be a pretty tall order, because, by bending to God’s will, we admit that we don’t have what it takes to make it on our own. John’s preaching forces us to be real with ourselves: “Do I really got this?” “Am I strong enough to handle things on my own and save myself?” If we are truly honest with ourselves, we accept that the answer is “no.” Therefore, John is a preacher whose words we need to heed, for in calling us to repentance, he is putting us in the right focus for our future, pointing us in the direction of the One who will come and be able to save us from the wages of sin and death.

With John’s preaching ministry as successful as it was, how tempting it could have been for him to take all of the credit for himself. John could have been swept away by the attention given to him by those who thought that he was the Christ, or the prophet Elijah, or another of the great prophets come back to Israel. But John doesn’t yield to such temptation. He is quite clear in the fact that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In his ministry of preaching and baptizing, John draws the attention away from himself to the One who truly is coming and will bring to pass God’s plan for humanity’s redemption. John knows that he is not the One and accepts it. He is pointing to Jesus, who is the One. John gives the credit where the credit is due, and he rightfully gives it to Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, we see John the Baptist as a leader who recognizes that he is first and foremost a servant of God. He was humble, looking with those who heeded his call for the coming of Jesus, the One who will ransom, heal, restore, and forgive them and us. Through John, we will first meet the adult Jesus, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” who “will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[12] On this day, from John the Baptist we are hearing of a new beginning, of God coming into our time in a most radical way. Alleluia! Jesus is coming!

To us who wait for Jesus’ coming in this current time, John the Baptist asks these questions: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Hopefully, our answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”[13] If so, then may our focus not be on ourselves but on the coming Jesus, pointing others to Him as our life, our stay, and our end. Amen.

[1] All Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Andrew C. Mead served as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church in the City and County of New York from 1996-2014.

[3] Wright, J. Robert. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (New York, New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2001), 231-232.

[4] Mead, Andrew C. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), viii-ix.

[5] Matthew 3.2

[6] John 1.7-8

[7] Isaiah 40.3

[8] Malachi 3.1

[9] Luke 1.44

[10] John 5.35

[11] Matthew 13.27

[12] Luke 1.32-33

[13] From the Baptismal Covenant in the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 304-305.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: