John 1:6-8; 19-28, Third Sunday of Advent
My rector is one of the kindest Jesuits I’ve ever lived with and one of the most outdoorsy senior citizens I know. Fr. Riyo loves hiking and climbing mountains. He can name more mountains in the Philippines than I ever studied in Araling Panlipunan 500 years ago! I asked him one time, “Fr. Riyo, don’t you ever get lost?” “Oh, very easy to find the North,” he said very gently as always. “If you have needle, you rub against cloth. Then put it on small leaf. Then you float leaf on water. Needle will point to magnetic north!” But what if you’re still lost as you walk north? “Oh, just look for any village!”
I think of John the Baptist like that: someone who spent his life pointing Jews to the True North. For the longest time, the true north of the Jews was the Law. No, John didn’t turn them away from that. He just adjusted them from the “what,” which was the Law, to the “who,” which was Jesus, the True North. In fact, John was so passionate in mission, some people mistook him for the Messiah. “Oh, no, no, no. I’m just a voice crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’” just a needle on a blade of grass floating on water, pointing to the True North.
What we do not often remember about John, sisters and brothers, is that he himself needed a little bit of a nudge for the True North. And it looked like it was only at the end of his life that he realized it. You’ve heard this many times before, sisters and brothers, that for the Jews, the Messiah was going to be a king. “Messiah” literally meant anointed one. Who got anointed and bestowed enormous power? Kings! So, in the Jewish imagination, the Messiah was an upcoming king who would overhaul Israel’s socio-political fabric until she became the kingdom of kingdoms, the Miss Universe of all realms, forever greater than Ramses’ Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, Sennacherib’s Assyria, etc., all of which, by the way, were unbelievably mighty kingdoms. “Oh, when our Messiah comes,” Jews believed, “he will have Israel swallow them all up. We will be world-kingdom!”
But they were wrong. As was John. When Jesus came around, why wasn’t this Messiah assembling an army? Why had John never seen his cousin huddle with friends over a tactical map, or collect funds for weapons? Why wasn’t Jesus even saying anything against the Romans? Instead, Jesus was wasting precious time walking around with a posse of nobodies, befriending society’s rejects, and telling strange stories of mustard seeds, goats, and sheep…? When John was in prison and couldn’t take it anymore, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you really our true north? Or shall we look for another? Because you seem just as lost as we?” What Jesus told them to tell John sounded awfully familiar: Isaiah. He said he was bringing glad tidings to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, setting captives free. Then…it probably dawned on John. A “kingdom of Israel” was not his cousin’s true north as he thought it was. The least in the Kingdom of God was his true north. Jesus’ true north was not a “what.” It was a “who”; the vulnerable, suffering, least who. They gave him his life’s direction. They gave him reason to keep going day after day. They drew him close to themselves and won his heart. So, imagine John in prison realizing this for the first time and the last: people were Jesus’ true north.
You and I have lost our true north once in a while, haven’t we, sisters and brothers? I have. For example, to provide well for our families, we slave away, fingers to the bone, bread-winning. But now that we’ve won plenty of bread on the table, why does the family around it seem like a bunch of strangers? Naligaw tayo sa ‘ano.’ Nakalimutan natin ‘yung sino. Or take a parish priest who wants to renovate the church so people can pray, worship better. So, he toils over fundraising. He chaplains for pilgrimages, flies on begging missions abroad. Now the church is bigger, beautiful, and airconditioned. But the pastoral council is fighting. Nagchichismisan ang mga katekista at mga Mother Butler. The lay ministers are seen gambling and getting drunk. Naligaw sa ‘ano,’ building the church. Nakalimutan ‘yung sino, building the community. Or take a freedom-fighter fighting for the poor. In all passion and desperation, he’s finally decided that the one and only way to true change is systematic but unforgiving violence and bloodshed in an armed revolution. Nawala na ‘yung ‘sino.’ Nabulag sa ‘ano.’
When our good & noble desires for a someone slowly turn into a magnificent obsession for a something, we do not often notice, sisters and brothers, that we pivot away from our True North. That’s why we need to be John the Baptists to one another. When we get a little lost in our “what’s,” we can stop each other awhile from our frantic climbing, and take our needle, and rub it against the grain of cloth, and lay it gently on a blade of grass, and float it on water…to see again the “who” that our True North really is, more than the “what” that we’ve obsessed over.
Lastly, sisters and brothers, lest the Messiah disappoint us, we must always remember that Jesus’ true north is people, the poor and brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners, the least in the Kingdom of God. In other words, our Messiah is always is always in a village where he is never alone, never just by himself or just with an elite few. No, a village—where we are, where we need him most to be. Because just as the Messiah is always our True North, we are always his.
How are we doing in our journey, sisters and brothers? Are we still on course? Or shall we stop for a while, get a needle, a blade of grass, and a cup of water?
*Image from the Internet