1 Corinthians 4:1-5 St. Matthew 11:2-10
Think of us in this way, as of the ministers of Christ,
and stewards of God’s mysteries.
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
In Advent we prepare to celebrate Christ’s first coming at Christmas, we look to His coming again in glory, and we look to his coming to us in the present.
Last week we looked at how the Bible helps prepare us for Christ’s coming to us, filling us with hope.
Today are readings point to how the ministers of Christ help prepare us for Christ’s coming.
There are particular ministries in the Church to teach and preach, but every Christian soul, who comes to know the Gospel – becomes “a servant of Christ and a steward (een beheerder) of God’s mystery”.
(For our Tolkien fans – remember the Steward of Gondor – who forgets he is in charge only on behalf of the true king – Aragorn – he forgets he is only a steward and wants to possess it for himself – and he comes to a terrible end.)
As a Christian, each one of us possess something from God, a certain knowledge, and a certain Spirit of Christ!
We’re not given these things for our own enjoyment alone – but also to share with others: Knowledge of the way of life, of the way of true freedom, the way of forgiveness, of love, how to attain eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit – as we come to see these things and to enjoy them – they become our most precious possession. We are to share that possession with others (strangely we don’t lose it, but it grows!).
We share the Gospel in a hidden but powerful way by following Jesus - living a life according the truth, with honesty, with humility. And we also share it by letting others know the source of our joy – with words.
Think of someone you can invite to our Christmas service, you might be surprised! That’s one way of being a faithful steward of the mystery.
St Paul says to us today, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
In our Gospel today, Jesus gives us the example of St John the Baptist, as the foremost trustworthy steward (beheerder) of the mystery of God.
Jesus points to three signs of his faithfulness – he was in the wilderness, he was steadfast, and he was an ascetic (een asceet) – 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?
Do you know the story of John the Baptist’s life? John was the cousin of Jesus, born 6 months before Jesus. At a young age John went out into the wilderness, the desert, and lived on locusts and honey. Why did he leave a life of comfort and with others for solitude? He wanted to get some distance from the society in which he lived, to have greater clarity – he wanted to hear the voice of God!
Through the ages, Christians have followed John’s example. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries, fled into the desert literally 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 be able to distinguish the kingdom of heaven from the kingdom of this world, we must get some distance from the world – otherwise we just take up automatically all of its assumptions as our own – we are like sponges – be careful what we soak up!
For us, going into the wilderness might mean taking time away from our work or in our school holidays, to go to a monastery – there are many around us, monks see supporting retreats as a part of their core ministry. If you are young consider travelling, and maybe on your own? If you’re working, consider a sabbatical from time to time? We could also, more easily, set times apart at home – where we shut off phones, internet access, connection with others – for a morning or a day or two. (Harder, I’m discovering with a family! Different times, require different strategies.)
Jesus says we cannot be faithful to our calling, unless we go into a room, by ourselves, regularly, in quiet for prayer. Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” [Matt 6:6] (Contrary to the Harfoots, in the Rings of Power, everybody should go “off-trail”, and yes, everybody should go alone…sometimes.)
Second, Jesus says, What did you go out into the wilderness to see? a reed shaken by the wind?
This is the most difficult one. There is an unyielding steadfastness that is required of us if we are to be faithful stewards of the Gospel.
When the Good News 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.
It is a spiritual battle that begins in our own souls as God’s light comes in. When we turn to follow Jesus, we resist at first and then we gladly allow Christ to win that battle in us. But when we turn and try to share what we know to be true with the world, we find ourselves continually in a state of battle with worldly ideas.
John the Baptist was not a reed shaken by the wind. He spoke unflinchingly the truth – to those who came to him, and also challenged the rich and powerful – King Herod himself. And it was costly. Last week, in the daily readings, we read the story of the beheading of John by Herod.
To speak in and out of season about the eternal moral law in the face of a world in continual flux is exhausting. But there are people looking for voices that are steadfast and true, because they desire to be anchored in unshakable truth. They are not looking for a reed shaken by the wind!
To speak that truth in love is difficult – we have a fear of offending, we don’t just want to be contrary, and yet we also want to be faithful to the Gospel we know. Pray to God for the grace to know when and how to speak a word so that it may be heard, and for the courage to remain steadfast in the face of the world’s wrath.
There is a third virtue that Jesus speaks about finding in John the Baptism, that is found in faithful stewards.
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 – it is scratchy, it’s not flannel, he had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. He was like the prophets of old – Elijah being foremost in the Old Testament – they wore something rough, not very comfortable because they didn’t want to fall spiritually asleep which can happens if we have too much worldly comfort.
The point is not that we need to dress ourselves like John. But there is a certain asceticism that must be a part of every Christian person’s life, if we are to be faithful stewards. We need to restrict the desires of our flesh if we are to hear a word from above.
In the Tradition of the Church, there have been set times of fasting – from food and luxury. We will look at this each year especially in the season of Lent. Times of fasting (from food and other things) to awaken us from spiritual slumber. A certain asceticism is a necessary part of every Christian’s life if we are to be a faithful bearer of the mystery – and it shows others that our anchor is not firmly placed in this world’s goods, that pleasure is not our anchor, but our anchor is in God who is Spirit.
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.
The sacraments of the Church are called by some “the holy mysteries” and we are called upon to be faithful stewards in sharing the sacraments with the world.
Jesus told us to go into the world and baptize all nations, teaching them all that he has commanded us. And this we offer freely today. It gives us no greater joy.
And Jesus also commanded us to break bread together and to share the cup, in memory of him. As faithful stewards of this mystery, let us now prepare ourselves, through repentance and faith, to present Christ’s death upon the Cross, and to receive his risen life.
As we engage with Jesus Christ at the deepest levels of our souls, as we come forward to dwell in Him and He in us, pray we may be inspired to share the goodness we are coming to know, with others, as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2