John the Forerunner and the Saints

Romans 13:11-14:4; Luke 1:5-25, 57-68, 76, 80

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our Gospel reading today we’ve met Saint John, the prophet, forerunner, and baptizer of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’d do well to study his life, his teaching, and his example, since the Lord calls John a prophet, more than a prophet, and the greatest man ever born (Luke 7:26-28).

We don’t have time today to tell John’s whole story, but in January at the feast of Christ’s baptism, John will see his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, coming for baptism, and he’ll point him out to the crowd: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one of whom I said, ‘A man who comes after me surpasses me because he was before me.’ I did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:29-31).

John is at the Jordan river, offering the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, and now it’s revealed to him that Jesus is a Man without sins, the Savior of the world. John protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?” “Let it be so for now” (Matthew 3:14-15).

And so Jesus steps into the Jordan River. The water doesn’t make him clean, because he didn’t bring any sins into the water with him – instead he makes the water pure and holy and full of life. Jesus doesn’t get wet: The water gets Jesus. The Gospels speak of a “river of living water” because in Christ the life of God is united to this world.

After Jesus is baptized, John preaches to the crowd that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah sent by God the Father. And from that day, disciples of John the Baptist begin leaving him to follow Christ (John 1:35-42).

After these things, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he remained with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized [by John]… They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” John replied, “A person can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but have been sent ahead of him.’ …He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:22-30).

The prophet John, the most popular religious leader of his day, sees that Jesus is becoming more popular than he is, John is losing his audience to him, and John willingly embraces his role as a footnote to Someone else’s story.

In languages, there is a whole class of words like Here, There, This, That – words whose meaning depends on what they point to.

As a Christian (and even more so if you’re a Christian with any kind of authority), strive to be defined only by the One you point to.

Do we call ourselves Christians? That’s easy to do, especially in a culture like this one. A lot of us can tell you their favorite sports team, their favorite beer. We might be loyal to a particular brand of coffee or clothing or mobile phone. Is Jesus another brand we are loyal to? Or does following Christ make our life so different that our neighbors or co-workers can see the difference?

The Lord says, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13:35). That’s the Lord explicitly permitting the world to identify who belongs to him by how accurately our life points to Jesus Christ. If the greatest of the prophets is willing to step back and become John the Footnote, then maybe we also can serve, listen, and love without any thanks, or glory, or anyone agreeing we are right.

*      *      *

Last week – the Sunday after Pentecost – the whole Church celebrated all the saints who have shone forth throughout the world in every century.

On Mount Athos, the monastic republic in Greece, each of the monasteries commemorates the saints that have arisen from their own brotherhood, but in the nineteenth century the monasteries established a feast, on the Sunday after All Saints Day, to commemorate all the saints who have been revealed or secret in the holy mountain.

Far off in Russia, that seemed like a great idea, so a service for All Saints of Russia was established. Romania and several other local Orthodox Churches have done likewise. And in recent years the OCA has also commissioned a service to All the Saints who have shone forth in North America.

I think that’s a great idea. But the service I really want to sing is All Saints of South Dakota. I want to commemorate and follow the example of the holy and wise spiritual fathers and mothers who have arisen here in Sioux Falls.

I’m not joking. There is an empty spot on the calendar with your name on it. That’s why Saint Paul addresses his letter to the Corinthians “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

If you thought your calling as a Christian is to go to church on Sundays, be nice to people, just don’t sell drugs or rob any banks — then you may be suffering from a small vision. C.S. Lewis said:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (in “The Weight of Glory”).

You know, there is a place and a God-given purpose for the acquisitive, competing drive in our souls. It’s a kind of love called eros, and despite our culture’s abuse of the word, eros is not primarily about sex. Eros is the drive to acquire, to unite… even to compete.

Athletes struggle, both to outdo one another and to beat their own personal best performance. Marathon runners and high-jump competitors cheer for one another’s victories, and find inspiration in them. Saint Paul advises the Hebrews, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and to good works” (Hebrews 10:24).

For those who love God, when we realize how profoundly we are pardoned and accepted and shepherded, a sense of peace and wonder is perfectly fitting: “Be still and know the Lord is God” (Psalm 45:10lxx) and rest in him. But we commemorate the saints, we tell their lives and miracles and their struggles, in part to awaken in us a desire to have something like their fruitfulness and holiness in our lives.

Are you going to heal the sick, raise the dead, and speak words that comfort and heal the nations? Are you going to baptize thousands, speak truth to kings and die for it, like John the Baptist? Are you going to fast and stand in vigil all night like the desert fathers? I don’t know. But when we read the way someone like St Joseph the Hesychast struggled, and the wisdom and peace and firsthand experience of God that he poured out, doesn’t it make space in us for the idea that we too could do one more prayer rope, read one more Psalm, practice the presence of God and be a little more intentionally present with the people who speak to us?

The life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov is a wonder from start to finish, but the reason we love and venerate him is the way this old man – crippled from a beating by criminals, humbled by a life of prayer day and night – how he shines with joy and gentleness. He greeted everyone, “My joy! Christ is risen!” and his genuine wholesome care for every soul made everyone know the welcome of the Lord. This servant of God was purified by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who granted St Seraphim to struggle with diligence and perseverance all his life and to demonstrate what a heart lit up with the life and grace of God looks like.

You and I might not overflow daily with the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit. But seeing the purity and love that the Lord poured out through Saint Seraphim might make space in us to believe that more of the patience, and kindness, and power of God can grow and be poured out. We can learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness – and we can be filled – if we allow the lives of the saints who have gone before us to makes us thirsty.

Don’t imagine we are going to impress God with our mighty ascetic struggles – but the lives of our holy fathers and mothers in the Faith open us up for a wider, greater vision of what we could permit God to do in us.

If we have a small vision, if we plant  few  seeds and water them indifferently, we will reap a small harvest. To see increase in the virtues, and in freedom from the passions on the outside, in our words and actions, we have to make room on the inside.

The prophets and apostles and saints finished their course in victory, passed on to us the life they lived and now they’re your audience as you run your lap.

In a stadium where thousands have gathered to watch a foot race, and one runner stumbles, what happens? Ten thousand voices, as one, cry out, Awww! And every single one, whatever runner they came to cheer for, now they’re urging that one who fell: Be okay! Get up! Go! You can still win this!

The saints who endured every torment and conquered every sin and passion, are the ones intently watching you today, and cheering for you. And when they see you fall, they cry out to God for you: Help them! Save them! Have mercy on them! Strengthen them to get up and press on toward the high call of Christ! (Philippians 3:14). And “he who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; 2 Timothy 2:12; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:12; 2 Peter 1:10-11; Revelation 2:26).

After the cross and resurrection, Christ sat at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:11), and all the saints with Him (Ephesians 2:6). Now, in your fight against temptations, not only do millions of saints cheer for you: the Lord God Almighty is well-pleased when you persevere.

Saint Ambrose of Optina told of a woman who was besieged for a long time with unclean thoughts.

When the Lord came and cast these thoughts away from her, she called to Him: “Where were you before now, O my sweet Jesus?” The Lord answered: “I was in your heart.” She said then: “How could that be? For my heart was full of unclean thoughts.” The Lord said to her: “Know that I was in your heart, for you were not disposed to the unclean thoughts, but in time you strove to be free of them; and when you were not able to be free, you struggled and grieved. By this you prepared a place for Me in your heart.”

In a sermon by Saint John of San Francisco, I read these words:

God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched.

What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.

Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian. 

To Saint John, victory is not a goal far off that we hope to gain, if we can just get good enough.  The victory he calls us to take hold of is the victory Christ won when he destroyed death and granted us to be born of water and the Spirit, into the life of the Kingdom of God.

So we are enlisted now in a struggle where the victory has already been won. Now the task is to being that victory out of the book of the Gospels and into our own experience. And “he who perseveres to the end will be saved.”

[I want to] gain Christ, and be found in him, not having my own righteousness from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; so that, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.