Fr. Michael Keiser:
John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is one. Amen.
Now, back in Advent, we also had a reading about John the Baptist which was a different event, which was after he had been arrested and Jesus had begun his ministry. but here — and what we do, by the way, during the feast of what we call the Epiphany, which means the manifestation, showing forth, okay? An event that people represent — is we commemorate all the ways in which Jesus showed forth His ministry to the world. The first, of course, is when the wise men, the Magi, come and acknowledge Him as being the Christ, the Son of God.
This week is when he comes to be baptized by John. We also have, I think it’s next week, the Miracle of Cana or Galilee, or one of ’em, all the ways in which Jesus shows the world that He was indeed the Son of God.
But here, of course, the gospel of Mark begins with the work of John the Baptist, because he came first. Jesus tells us about John the Baptist. He does that in the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s gospel, in the fourteenth verse. He says — we’ll begin with thirteen — it says, for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John, to the time of this prophecy of the Old Testament is done. But if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who was to come, who has ears to hear, hear.
The Jews believed that before the Messiah came, there would be forerunners. There was someone they called “the prophet like Moses,” who was supposed to be a prophet like Moses, hence the name, who was supposed to come and teach. Another belief was that the prophet Elijah would come and prophesy the coming of the Messiah. Why would they have thought Elijah was going to come? Why would they think that the prophet Elijah would show up before the Messiah, to tell people the Messiah was coming? What happened to Elijah at the end of his life, in the Old Testament? All the way back in the Old Testament. You had the prophet Elijah, and you had his follower, Elisha. And Elijah turns over his work to Elisha and what happens to Elijah?
Child in congregation: He went to heaven.
Fr. Michael: Right. How?
Child: In a chariot of fire.
Fr. Michael: In a chariot. Elijah did not die. Elijah was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot. there was no sign of his having died. So the Jews believed that he was still alive, and that he would come back. It would look like King Arthur coming back to Britain, that Elijah would come back at the time when the Messiah was supposed to come, and Jesus specifically tied John the Baptist to the prophet Elijah. So they believed that Elijah would return and that would be the sign that the Messiah was coming.
And a lot of people — you have to remember that the Jews knew their Bible a whole lot better than most of us know ours — they knew their theology a whole lot better than most of us. So they knew what to look for. When the Apostles, after Pentecost, run around preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, these were Jews talking to other Jews about a Jew [Jesus], whom they said fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament, and people understood what they meant. Even if they disagreed with them, they understood what they meant. They got it exactly, in ways that you and I read through some of the stuff the Apostles say in the New Testament, and say, “What are they talking about?” Because unfortunately, when it comes to the Old Testament, we have become illiterate, compared to the New Testament, many are illiterate, but even the Old Testament, you know.
Back in the last century, when I was growing up and was going to Sunday School in the Episcopal church, we had at least had stories about the Old Testament. We learned about Moses and we learned about the exodus, and I don’t know if they do that anymore. But we at least had some idea that two thirds of the Bible that we didn’t read was the Old Testament, but we should.
So Jesus specifically ties John the Baptist to one who is to come, and to prophesy His coming, but he was much more than that. He laid the foundation for the teaching that Jesus is going to build on. He can only take us so far. It would take Jesus the Christ, it would take the Messiah, the Word made flesh, to make these things possible, but he taught what was going to be needed to be done. He gathered his own group of disciples with him, and they wandered around — he had his own groupies, just like Jesus would — and they traveled with him all of the time, and some of them went to join Jesus, and some didn’t.
I think I mentioned to you back in Advent that there are still followers of John the Baptist who exist in the Middle East today. They never did go away. . . . they do the baptizing over and over and over again, as kind of a way of washing themselves clean. But what he taught his disciples, and all of them who came out — because apparently he had large crowds of people coming out from Jerusalem and Judea to listen to him preach — He said, “Number one, you have to repent because the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus is going to say exactly the same thing. “Repent, because the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But when John the Baptist says it, he’s kind of saying, “Repent, because the Kingdom of heaven is coming.” When Jesus says it, He means the kingdom of heaven is here. “I brought it. I have brought the Kingdom into this world.”
But the requirement for living in the Kingdom — the requirement for entering the Kingdom — is going to be repentance from our sins. You know, you hear a lot of preaching, unfortunately, in a lot of churches today, God bless ’em, about how God accepts everybody, and about how a church needs to be diversified, how we need to have diversities of lifestyles and what-have-you. God says absolutely no such thing. Jesus says absolutely no such thing.
It’s one thing to say that God loves everybody, because that’s what He is. He will love us, even if we choose to go to hell. I suspect He loves Satan, because He created Satan. Satan is a fallen angel, remember. Satan and the demons were created as spiritual, bodiless powers to do God’s will, and to carry His word. And I imagine it’s impossible for God to hate. He is love by nature, so I imagine he loves Satan and the demons still, but they are fallen. They have completely and absolutely en toto rejected Him, so His love—unless you’re one of those universalist types who thinks that there’s no consequences to sin—His love can’t save them, though. His love cannot save us, unless we choose to respond to it. I mean how many of us have had people in our families that we have loved and loved and loved, and just seem to wander through all kinds of misery and tragedy and regret, because they wouldn’t respond to us?
My sister’s a recovering alcoholic — now, she’s been dry now for 22 years, thank God, but for 20 before that, she was our snare. You know, we didn’t know what to do. She’d go through program after program — she had to make a decision to respond to the love that was offered. So when people say, “God accepts everybody,” this is not true. God accepts those who do precisely what He told them to do — to repent. If you’re going to enter the Kingdom, repent. If you’re living a lifestyle that is contrary to the commandments, repent. You have to be willing to change.
You may not do it all at once. Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way, but you have to recognize there’s a difference between sin and righteousness, and if you’re sinning you have to repent and try to overcome that. The word in Greek is metanoia, and what that means is literally to be walking in one direction and just make a 180 and go back the other way. That’s what repentance is, okay? You try to go back to the other way.
So John the Baptist lays down the first requirement for us, and Jesus says the same thing, so you gotta figure they knew what they were talking about. And that is: if you wish to enter God’s kingdom, you must repent. That’s why when people have not been baptized, we baptize them. That’s why if they haven’t been Chrismated, we Chrismate them, and before all of that if they want to become Orthodox Christians, they must confess their sins. That’ll be easy — you’re not going to have to stand here in front of the congregation and do that. You just do it in my presence and God’s, but you’re going to have to repent and say, “I’m sorry for these things that I have done that were not godly, and I will try to change.” And then we’ll start working on it.
The second thing he did is say that you have to be baptized for the remission of sins. Now there are people who say that baptism is just kind of a symbol of something, a symbol of joining a congregation, or a symbol of joining a church. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus teaches that. The Bible does not teach that. John says you must be baptized, in his case, for the forgiveness of sins, because that’s all that he could offer: you repent, you’re baptized, God will forgive you. Jesus, of course, goes beyond that. He says you have to be baptized in order to be born by the Spirit, okay, in order to become a spiritual new child of God. But they’re both clear: this must happen. First you repent, and then the membership initiation rite is baptism, and you get your card, okay. You get your union card. You belong to it, but the fact is you have to do this. There has to be a public acknowledgement that you are entering in a new kind of living, a living that’s going to be for God rather than against Him and for yourself.
So you have to repent; you have to be baptized. We have to act out our desire to be changed. And the third thing that he said is a requirement is that you have to bear fruit indicating righteousness. In Luke, it talks about this. John never took the course about “how to win friends and influence people”, so you know, he’s fairly blunt about the whole thing. He’s out there preaching up a storm, and people are coming out, you know, I mean word gets back, “Hey, you got to hear this guy in the weird dress; he’s very smooth.” And the Pharisees who are of course one of the religious parties in Israel, came out to hear him and he sees them coming, and he says to them, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our father’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones – the very rocks on the ground – to raise up children – new children, to Abraham.”
Now sometimes we slip into the idea that, “Well, okay, I’m baptized. I kind of get it. I go to church, you know, I go to the right church. I do the right things. I’m set. I’m ready to go. okay? I belong to the right ethnic group, you know, we got the right history, you know, we got the true face, all that good stuff. I’m in, man.” That’s not how it goes. We can repent. We can sign on the dotted line, be baptized, you know, we can do all kinds of things, and we can follow all the rules, all the rules. We can follow all the fasting rules in their strictness. (I don’t. If you want to, go ahead.) But I mean we can follow all the fasting rules in their strictness. We can do all the feasts. We can do all the right stuff. We can pray at the proper times. We can do all of the things that we’re told we’re supposed to do as an Orthodox Christian, and we can still go to hell, because you have to bear fruit that befits repentance.
If you had gone to John the Baptist and said, “Hey, it’s faith, not works, that matter,” he might have hit you, because he was not a subtle man. He would have said you’ve gotta bear fruits that befit repentance. You know, you have to be doing, and changing, and doing actions that show that you’re a changed person. You can’t just talk about this. And he gave them very specific examples. They asked, “What should we do?” The multitude said, “What, then, shall we do?” And he answered, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none. And he who has food, let him do likewise.” In other words, you gotta be at least as concerned about the well-being of the poor around you as you are about your own. You share, you help, and what-have-you.
To the tax collectors who came to be baptized — boy, there’s an image! — and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” he said, “Collect no more than is appointed to you.” Now the practice frequently was–because the tax collectors were working for the Roman state, and they weren’t particularly well-paid–it was expected that they’d make up their salary by taking more tax than was necessary. I mean the equivalent today is if you went to the IRS and they acted like H&R Block and said, “Let me see what deductions we can find for you here.” The IRS doesn’t do that. You’ve gotta look up somebody else to do that. If they were following John the Baptist’s advice, they’d do that. They wouldn’t take any more tax from anybody than they could conceivably get — you know, they would try very hard to get them the minimum tax possible.
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” He said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Okay, none of those unionist rights here, you know, but again, the point was soldiers of an occupying army — remember, this was occupied territory. Rome had an army there. Herod had his own troops there. And the way of occupying troops everywhere: you tend to take from the people around you. You know, there’s something in the Constitution of this country, which says you cannot billet a soldier in someone’s home — you cannot make them have a soldier live in their home and support them. Because during the Revolutionary War, and prior, British soldiers — the British government would make local people take soldiers into their home, and feed them, and shelter them, and house them, at their expense, not the British Crown’s — Well, that’s the sort of thing they’re talking about here. You know, it was assumed that they’d take food from the local people. They’d take women from the local people. They would live with the local people. They basically lorded over them, so John said, “You’ve gotta change” being the way soldiers normally behaved in this day and age. “You have to do only what you are required to do, by your orders and by the law.”
So he gave very specific examples to us. In other words, we have to treat everyone fairly. We have to treat people with kindness. We have to treat people with mercy and with compassion. We have to see everybody else around us as needing just as much mercy and compassion and love as we think we need. That’s how we do it. That’s how you look around at people and see that. You have to bear fruits that befit repentance. And the last thing, of course, the fourth thing — these are four things: repent, be baptized, bear fruits of repentance, live a life of spiritual discipline.
Now John the Baptist took that very seriously. He may have been a Nazarite. A Nazarite was somebody who took a solemn vow before God that they would fast, and they would pray, never cut their hair with this — Paul took one once, but that was temporary — There are also guys who are lifelong Nazarites, and that might have been what John the Baptist did. John the Baptist made no attempt to fit in. He wore clothing made out of camel skin. He ate bugs and honey. He ate locusts and wild honey. Have you gone out and eaten any grasshoppers lately? That’s what John the Baptist ate regularly. One would assume he didn’t put on a lot of weight. He looked odd, I’m sure, but then there was a reason for it. But Jesus did not, by the way. Jesus made no attempt to be odd, but John the Baptist was the one who was ringing the fire bell in the night. John the Baptist was the one who was trying to get across to people, “The time is coming. You’ve gotta pay attention. You’ve gotta listen. You’ve gotta prepare for what’s coming.” And so he looked probably as weird as he could. That helped attract people. He preached as strongly as he could. That helped attract people. But he taught himself and he taught the disciples to adopt a very strong spiritual discipline. It’s what — the Greek word is “ascesis” — basically the kind of training an athlete would go through if he was going to prepare for a contest, going to the Olympics; these guys trained almost fulltime, professionally. They’re professional trainers, as well as professional athletes. They do everything they can to prepare themselves, and that’s the kind of spiritual discipline that John the Baptist tells us we have to have, and we have to. Jesus says the same thing. He says it in slightly different terms, but all of us must develop a spiritual discipline, what we would call a “rule of life.” And the next time I’m here, I’m going to talk a whole lot more about a rule of life and spiritual discipline. What that means is you have to develop a lifelong habit of praying, of talking to God. Talking to people is how we learn about them, how we come to know them. And if you never talk to God, in your own words — or in somebody else’s, if you’re using written prayers — you can’t really come to know Him. You have to develop a lifelong habit of reading the Scriptures, reading the Word of God. Not the whole thing this weekend. You can take it slowly, but you have to develop the idea, not just of reading the Word of God, but interacting with it, thinking about it, meditating on it. You know, the ancient world, probably up until the 14th or 15th century, when people — more people began to learn to read — they read differently than we do now.
If they read the Scriptures, or if they read any kind of book, they would do this: <<reads aloud to self, softly, in a monotone, pausing to think about what he just read>>. In other words, they read out loud to themselves. Like if you’re learning a part in a play, or if you’re one of those people who rehearses their sermon way in advance, and try to get every word right, and what-have-you, you know what I mean. . . . You know, Winston Churchill did this. He wrote his [speeches] out, but he memorized them. So when he stood up in the House of Commons, a lot of people I guess thought he was just speaking off the top of his head. He’d spend hours writing and then rehearsing and learning those speeches word-for-word. Now, I know guys who preach likes that. That works for them. That’s cool. But the point is they would read it out loud and think on it, think about what they had read. They’d read a little bit more out loud to themselves, and they’d think about it.
In those days, the signs at the library didn’t say “silence,” they said, “mumble.” You know, so you don’t disturb other people, who were also mumbling at the same time. You know, the story was told about St. Augustine, who was wrestling with whether or not he should stop being a licentious pagan with his mistress, and turn to God or not, and he was out praying in his garden and it says he heard someone reading. Well, they were reading in the next garden, they were reading to themselves, but they were reading loudly enough he could hear, and they were reading from Scripture, and it just happened to be something he needed to hear. That’s called, by the way, lectio divina, in the Latin. It’s what many monasteries still do. That’s how the monks would learn, and you would be amazed at how much you commit to memory, but also how much you come to understand.
There is nothing that says you gotta sit down and read the gospel of John in three days. but if you take four or five verses at a time, if you’re careful, if you think about what you’ve read and if you pray over what you’ve read, you can come to an amazing understanding of what the Scriptures are. So try that, reading the Scriptures, fasting, and all the things that the Church enjoins us to do.
And I bring you good tidings of great joy: we’re making the fasting rules harder. Yep, we’re doing that for you. We know how much you enjoyed suffering through Lent, so it’s gonna be even stiffer now. I’ll explain that to you as we get closer to Lent. But the fact is, it’s not just the idea of learning to fast; it’s self-denial. You know, we live so much for ourselves. We think we don’t. Most of us think we’re pretty decent people. And on many levels we are. I’m not suggesting you’re evil. but the fact is that we tend to think of ourselves first.
Even as parents, those of us who have children, or those of us who have had children, and those of us who are coming out on having great-grandchildren, you tend to think, “God, that kid’s annoying. You know, I mean, how much more annoying could he be if he tried? And I’ll bet he’s actually trying, you know, because he’s distracting us, and I want to read my Bible. Yeah. Is the football game on?” Yeah, probably. You know, [with] all kinds of things we tend to respond to our children as if they were personally out to distract and annoy us. At least you probably do. I never do that. We tend to live for ourselves.
You adopt spiritual discipline. You adopt self-denial. You don’t eat as much as you would like to eat. You don’t drink as much as you would like to drink. You don’t sit down in front of the TV and watch six hours straight. We begin to deny ourselves and we start to think of other people, and about their needs rather than ours. So this lifelong habit of spiritual discipline, this is why you should teach your children as young as possible, that you give to the Church whatever you have to give. You fast with the rest of the Church. You say your prayers, you read your Scriptures, you inculcate these things when they are young, and as it says in Proverbs, when your child is old, he will not forget this.
So, you repent, be baptized, bear fruits that show you’re repenting. Okay, faith must work itself out in love. You know if you drive by an accident scene, and [go] straight past it ’cause you’re on your way to church, and don’t stop to see if there’s any problem, or render aid, you’ve got it wrong, okay? You have to bear fruits befitting repentance and try to develop a lifelong habit of spiritual discipline.
And you’ll say, “Gee, well, that’s a hard thing to do.” Yeah. It really is. But anything worthwhile doing is hard. Anything that’s important should take the time you need to give it and become a part of us. This was John’s witness then. It is John’s witness to us now. Jesus takes that and builds upon it and takes it much further down, but all we need to know are those four things: repent, be baptized, bear fruit, and discipline yourselves. And you’ll be living the life of the Kingdom you were called to live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one. Amen.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, January 20, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.