Advent 3: Stewards of the Mysteries!

Think of us in this way, as of the ministers of Christ,
and stewards of God’s mysteries. 

This morning we can feel the growing anticipation and joy of the coming Feast! We cannot contain ourselves it seems – our Christmas party this Friday, people at work having similar gatherings, Nine Carols and Lessons this coming Sunday!  All a kind of Christmas joy and celebration spilling out before the Feast!  And perhaps this is right – since what we celebrate is something that has happened.

Last week we looked at the gift that God gives us of a holy hope – a hope which is continually renewed and deepened as we read the Bible.  And Jonathan spoke well about this last night.

This morning we are reminded of another gift of God, beyond the Bible, a provision to ensure that the Gospel is passed on through the generations – the gift of ministers.  Elsewhere St Paul reminds us about those set apart with particular gifts for ministering: He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ”. [Eph 4:11]

But every Christian soul, who comes to know the Gospel – becomes “a servant of Christ and steward of God’s mystery”.  Knowledge of the way of life, the way of true freedom, the way of love – as we come to see it and to enjoy it – becomes a most precious possession.  And Love compels us to share it!

St Paul says, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. So how can we be faithful stewards of the mystery God is showing us?

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And in our Gospel today, Jesus gives us the example of St John the Baptist, as the foremost trustworthy steward of the mystery of God.

Jesus points out for us three key characteristics of a faithful steward – he was in the wilderness, he was steadfast, and he was an ascetic – let’s look at each of these.

First, he asks the people who had gone out to see John the Baptist about their motivation for going to see him. Jesus begins, What did you out into the wilderness to see?

You know the story of John the Baptist’s life? At a young age John went out into the wilderness, the desert, and lived on locusts and honey. Why did he leave it all for solitude? To get some distance from the society in which he lived, some clarity.

Through the ages, Christians have followed John’s example. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt, literally fled into the desert to fight head to head with the demons that confuse us – they’ve left to the church invaluable insights into the spiritual life. If we want to see clearly, to the critique the society in which we live and the assumptions that we hold, to be able to distinguish the kingdom of heaven from the kingdom of this world, we must get some distance, to view it, as it were, from a mountaintop.

Whether this is time away from work in a monastery, or times apart at home, we cannot be faithful to our calling, unless we go into a room, by ourselves, regularly, in quiet for prayer, as our Lord has told us in the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt 6:6]

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Second, What went you out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken with the wind?

This is the most difficult one. There is an unyielding steadfastness that is required of us as we live in the world with the Gospel. No one likes to be contrary, and yet, being a faithful steward of the Gospel requires it of us.

Remember when Jesus arrived in the Temple it caused a stir – he could not bear the falsifying of religion in the Temple. When the Gospel of Jesus arrives it brings the sword of division – light comes in and what is evil is seen for what it is and what is good is revealed for what it is. And people make decisions at that point whether to accept the truth or to reject it – there is no other response to Jesus, no other response to the Truth.

It is a spiritual battle that is fought in our own souls as we come to accept and live the Gospel, a battle which we are happy to allow Christ to win in us. But when we turn and try to share that with the world, if we are faithful stewards, we find ourselves continually in a state of battle.

John the Baptist was not a reed shaken by the wind, but a steadfast proclaimer of the truth – he confronted every person with the truth – those who came to him, and he also challenged the rich and powerful – King Herod himself.

This week, if you are following the daily readings, we read the story of John’s beheading by Herod. Mark says,

Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. [Mark 6:17-20]

This is the hardest thing about being a faithful steward.  To speak in and out of season about the eternal moral law in the face of a world that is continually shifting the ground under our feet.  It is exhausting to hold fast continually against that wind, the spirit of the age – not only on a moral front but on basic questions about our origins.

Brian was talking to me last night in our fellowship after the Prayer and Praise service about how in his sociology course he has been confronted again and again by statements in the textbooks they are reading that are contrary to what the Church teaches – like, that marriage is something that comes from human beings – statements boldly made that cannot be proven, only assumed by the atheistic authors.

People are not looking ultimately for a voice that wavers with the times – Herod, when he heard John the Baptist’s critique, was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.  If he had not made a foolish promise to his guests, when he saw his stepdaughter dancing, he might not have agreed to serve up John’s head on a platter.

To be a faithful steward, we need to be unshaken in the wind and unafraid, or courageous despite our fear.

But to speak that truth in love is difficult – we have a fear of offending a loved one, and yet also a fear of being unfaithful to the Gospel we know. We are to pray for the grace to know when and how to speak a word that it may be heard, and for the courage to remain steadfast.

In our congregation – I have said things recently that have been a challenge to some – but surely, whether you are a liberal or a Christian Zionist or a traditionalist, high, low or broad church, my task is not to simply affirm every idea that you already hold, but to question ideas you hold if I believe they are contrary to the Gospel.  Obviously you don’t need to agree with me, but for the sake of the truth, if you disagree, don’t walk away but speak to me – and let us battle together to understand the truth – that together we may be found faithful stewards of the mysteries.

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There is a third virtue that Jesus speaks about finding in John, that one finds in a faithful steward.

What then did you go out to see? a man dressed in soft clothing? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went you out to see? a prophet?

John the Baptist wore a cloak of camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. The image that it brings to mind is the image of the prophets of old – Elijah being foremost in the Old Testament – they wore something rough, not very comfortable.

The point is not that we need to dress ourselves like John. But there is a certain asceticism that is a part of every Christian person’s life, if we are to be faithful stewards.  A recognition of the need to restrict the desires of the flesh if we are to hear a word from above. There is no getting around being engaged in the internal battle between the flesh and the spirit if we are to grow in Christ.  Each of us must think and pray to God about how this should work itself out in our daily life.  Times of fasting – from food and luxury – are a necessary part of every Christian’s life if we are to be a faithful bearer of the mystery.

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So to be a faithful steward of the mysteries of God, Jesus calls on us: First, to know the wilderness, so we can distinguish between the kingdom of heaven and kingdom of this world; Second, to be a reed unshaken by the winds of change, the spirit of the age; and Third, to attend foremost to our soul’s health so that we can be a prophetic witness.

If we find ourselves ever discouraged in seeking to be a faithful witness, following the advice of Jesus to John’s followers [Matt 11:4-6], we are to look again at our own souls and those around us, at the liberty we are beginning to know in Jesus Christ. Look at the countless witness of lives that have been turned around by the Gospel, lives utterly changed by their encounter with Jesus. It happened in Jesus’ day, its happening even more in our own:

  • the blind are receiving their sight – people seeing the truth for the first time;
  • the lame are able to walk –       people unable to love, being released from their paralysis;
  • the lepers are being cleansed – people are knowing the joy and liberation that comes from the forgiveness of sins; and
  • truly the Gospel is being preached even more today than ever before, to the furthest corners of the world!

Our purpose in being faithful stewards is the bringing of Good news, of bringing joy to others – preparing the way for them to receive Jesus Christ!

Think of us in this way, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of God’s mysteries.

What a privilege it is for us to be a part of this great calling from our Lord! Pray that we may be found faithful.

Amen.