Be Another John the Baptist

Mark 1: 1-8

As people who ourselves have received mercy from God, we need to grant mercy to others who are fallible and in need of forgiveness. In the Gospel, John the Baptist prepares the people for a new and fresh path to freedom that begins with a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sin. Each of us are called to be another John the Baptist.

 

Along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist always plays a big role in our Advent liturgies each year. God sent prophets like John to prepare Israel for the arrival of the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of the world - Jesus.

 

Isaiah's prophecy in today's First Reading was made more than five hundred years before John the Baptist's prophecy, but their substance is very much the same. That is: God has not forgotten his people, and in spite of their sufferings and failings, he will come and save them, shepherding them to a happiness beyond anything they can imagine.

 

The consistency of the message throughout so long a period of time puts into context the intriguing line from the Second Reading, which is actually a quotation from the Book of Psalms where we hear: "With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day."  God is very patient, and will follow through on his plans.

 

As we know, when we use the expression “prophets”, we are speaking of those who are messengers of God. John the Baptist was considered the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the first of the New Testament prophets. And continuing through the New Testament times to this day, each and every Christian has been sent as a messenger of God. And so every one of us, as Christians, are prophets.

 

During liturgy, we’re reminded of this when we come to Mass, when we make the sign of the cross over our lips before the Gospel. This symbolizes our mission as Christians to communicate the Good News of the Gospel. In other words, it's not just for us to consume for ourselves.

 

John the Baptist delivers a valuable lesson about how to be a prophet. Sure, he called for people to turn away from their sins. We may recall his rather stern exhoration, ”You brood of vipers!”.  But he also had a positive message, turning people's attention towards something - the greatness, the beauty, and the transforming power of Christ.

 

With not all that much creativity, we can always find a way to help turn peoples' attention to Christ, to his goodness, love, and transforming power.  There are so many people that we come into contact with that are burdened by something - their suffering, their sin, their failings. By simply being present for others, we can help in a small way to lift their burdens, to allow them to be reconciled to Christ.

 

I was at an event last Saturday, where a few of us ordained deacons visited with the most recent class of deacon aspirants. One of our ordained deacons, Deacon Mark, spoke about a John the Baptist-type encounter that he had one day back when he was a deacon aspirant. This happened 12 years ago during what might have seemed on the surface to be a rather normal lunch hour conversation.  But, the result of the conversation was anything but normal. Let me share it with you.

 

Just as John the Baptist prepared people for a new and fresh path to freedom through repentance and forgiveness, Mark, with no special powers or giftedness did just that by simply being present for someone.  

 

Mark led into this story up by reminding us all that we all have people that we encounter in a day’s time that seem to seek us out, to engage us in conversation, maybe at the worst times, and we know that if we stop to hear their latest anecdote or story, we’re going to be there a while.

 

As a visual, if you saw the movie Ground Hog Day, you may remember Bill Murray, in his role as Phil Connors, is innocently walking down the street in downtown Punxsutawney, when out of the blue, a guy with an overcoat and a fedora hat races up to him and annoyingly pesters him says, “Phil!, Phil Connors, don’t you recognize me? Remember me – Ned, Ned Ryerson, Needle Nose Ned?” You might remember the scene.

 

And of course, Bill Murray is doing his best to keep moving and avoid this guy, especially when this scene happens in successive occasions. (as you know in Ground Hog Day the same scenes occur over and over again).

 

Well, Deacon Mark similarly had an acquaintance who was kinda like this Ned, only a few years older. Whenever he encountered him, he knew that it was not going to be a short conversation – he’s known him for years. This is one of those guys that (as Mark said) there’s just something not right about him.

 

One day, Mark was just wrapping up having lunch with some friends at a little diner, and he saw this fellow (I’m going to go ahead and call him Ned too) entering on one side of the diner. Noticing this, Mark smoothly slipped out the exit on the other side of the diner. As Mark got into his car and attempted to pull out onto the street, a large construction vehicle moved into a place that blocked him from leaving. So, Mark was stuck in his spot, and there he sat.

 

And finally, moved by the realization that the construction vehicle was going to be a while longer, and possibly the whispering of the Holy Spirit, Mark got out of his car and went back into the diner. And sure enough, his friend, Ned, saw him reenter. What ensued was an even longer conversation than what he would have anticipated - it was an hour long. But what ended up happening, as Deacon Mark reflected on it, was one of his most memorable, spiritually moving events of his life.

 

It turns out that in the midst of this one hour conversation, Ned asks Mark, “Mark, can you hear my confession (not understanding that Mark wasn’t even a deacon yet, let alone a priest)”?  Mark said, “Well, I can hear your confession, but I can’t do much about it” But feeling comfortable enough to reveal his burdens to Mark, Ned went on to tell him that he’d been carrying tremendous guilt inside him for over 40 years. 

 

In his earlier days, Ned apparently had done some awful, sinful things. He had gone to confession back at that time, and confessed them all, but he still felt like he was destined for hell.  You see, during this conversation, Ned ended up confided in Mark that one day watching TV 40 years ago, he heard Bishop Fulton Sheen say in a sermon that “sin puts a thorn in our Lord Jesus’ side. Reconciliation takes the thorn away, but the wounds still remain.” As a result of this experience, Ned never forgave himself - he lived with incredible guilt most of his life.

 

How sad! How especially sad that he carried this burden with him for such a long period of time. Of course, when he went to confession some 40 years ago, Ned received absolution of his sins, but in his mind, he hadn’t been set free from his guilt. Mark was able that day, to set him straight, and set him on the path of renewed life. He assured him of God’s forgiveness and love, and Ned walked out of that diner a new man.

 

As it turns out, sometime later, Mark found out that Ned had passed away only one week after that conversation that they had in the diner.

 

In the midst of the sadness of knowing that Ned had suffered for so long and then his eventual death, Mark was very much comforted by the knowledge that by simply begin present to this burdened soul, he was able to turn his attention to Christ, to give him the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins, and to truly have him be reconciled.

 

The second reading tells us that God is patient with us, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” The message of Advent is that it’s never too late, but there’s no time like the present to be hospitable, to be charitable with our time, and to be a messenger of the good news, in whatever subtle way we can.

 

Do we have any Ned’s in our lives? Do we know of someone who is just not comfortable in their own skin or is burdened by something? Maybe we won’t have as dramatic a story to tell, but we can be a prophet or a messenger none the less, by just planting a seed of hope or goodness in someone’s life, offering a prayer or encouraging word.

 

And so, let us pray today. God, we thank you for the many ways you reveal yourself to us each day. Help us to use the example of John the Baptist to be, like him, one of your prophets. Help us see those opportunities to be your messenger, even if it takes blocking us into our parking space to wake us up. Help us to see what’s below the surface of those around us, those outer facades that mask the hurting that is beneath. And help us to be renewed in spirit ourselves, so that we can remain attentive, as we await the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ!

 

Amen

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