In Case You Really Wanted a John the Baptist Sermon …
For folks in my congregation, the second Sunday of Advent was spent at home (except for the handful of good souls who were at the church fixing the damage of broken pipes). In the Willamette Valley, even a little bit of snow throws us into a tailspin. Anyway … our church (and several others) cancelled worship hoping our congregants would stay safe and warm at home. This is the sermon I would have preached that day. I haven’t done the work I should have done to make it flow as a written piece rather than spoken from the pulpit, which might make the reading of it slightly awkward. Forgive me …
In the order of worship it was titled, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Well, friends, on this second Sunday of Advent we’ve arrived at John the Baptist. You might prefer another years set of Advent texts to this one – maybe Mark’s account of John the Baptist which does not carry quite so harsh a tone nor refer to certain members of those gathered as a “brood of vipers.” But if we were hoping for imagery of a slightly-crazed hippie living sustainably in the wilderness of Judea on a diet of native species, reciting old stories in a good-natured kind of way for anyone who might be around to listen – we’ve come to the wrong account of John.
Most of us think of Advent as a long prelude to Christmas … at home, our opening of the Advent calendar corresponds with tree trimming and holiday parties. But in the Church, Advent is not meant to serve our nostalgic desires. In the Church, in our tradition, we are in the midst of a long and even difficult walk toward Christmas. Advent is meant to be hard work. In the darkness, we’re asked to be honest with ourselves, to locate ourselves in the wilderness, and to walk with faith toward Christmas, anyway.
John interrupts our casual movements with a message that is not easy to hear, that might, in fact, even be painful for us to listen to – and yet, is essential to the Advent journey.
This morning, I want to focus on three points in the text – Location, Repentance, and Nostalgia.
When Peter and I were shopping for a new home, there was a single priority that trumped every other thing that might have been on our wish list – and that was Location. We wanted to find the very best location we possibly could within the budget we had set for ourselves. Turns out physical location is important in this morning’s text as well.
Wilderness functions in a variety of ways in this text – in Israel’s history, for example, wilderness is known as a place of revelation and renewal but simultaneously, as a place of judgment.
Wilderness is also marginal space – and the author of Matthew goes out of the way to remind us of that. The main character in this story is a crazy-looking prophet (and prophets are never accepted members of society) making his home in the wilderness and the people of Jerusalem (a central city) make this great metaphorical movement by leaving the center, and journeying to the margins. The prophet doesn’t show up in their space – the people are drawn to marginal space.
The journey during Advent involves a sojourn in the wilderness. But like John the Baptist, it won’t force itself on us. I wonder how many of us have actually made the Advent journey – leaving our comfortable center and moving to the margins? Making a choice to go where the wild things are. Or conversely, how many of us watch Advent come and go on the calendar from a safe distance? The point is – not many of us choose the wilderness journey. Some of us are forced there by circumstance, but the Advent invitation to be in the wild doesn’t exactly fill one with holiday cheer, does it?
One of the things that is waiting for us in the wilderness is judgment….what are John’s first words of the text? Repent – for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Reptenance is not exactly a popular topic. We have deeply embedded reactions to language of judgment. But some of this, I think, is a case of needing to recover the meaning of words. The Greek word for repent, and the word John uses in the first verse of Matthew chapter 3 is metanoia. It means: to change one’s mind. It is the same word that is sometimes translated as “conversion.” So if you have a hard time with John’s language as it’s been translated into English – read him saying, “Change your minds! Change your hearts! The kingdom of heaven has come near!” That’s closer to the original text, anyway. In this context, he’s calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea to re-align their hearts and minds with God’s ways – with the Kingdom of heaven. I have a hard time believing that any one of us doesn’t need to hear the same proclamation today. The “judgment” John brings us in the wilderness is the accusation that we are not living nor are we ready to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve grown too comfortable with our own impoverished reality to even recognize how unprepared we are to live in God’s reality.
This is where Nostalgia gets dangerous. John says “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It kindof sounds like mean-spirited, nonsensical raging, but it’s not. John is denouncing our comfort, our complacency, with the way things are.
If John was speaking to us today, instead of saying “Do not presume to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’” he would say “It’s not good enough to be satisfied with the past! It’s not good enough to call yourself a Christian and be comfortable in this world and its ways!” And instead of the tree being cut down stuff – John would say: “Take responsibility!”
See, the Jesus that John is announcing will inaugurate a Kingdom based on radical acceptance, but this Jesus also requires us to participate in making the Kingdom of Heaven a reality on earth – to bear good fruit.
So the danger then and now is that our nostalgia has led us to complacency. We believe we are ready to receive the Messiah, we’re ready to rush through Advent to Christmas but John shatters our false beliefs and tells us that we are completely unprepared for the Kingdom. We are not truly ready to participate in the commonwealth of God because we are not ready to face reality in the wilderness.
Going where the wild things are – to the wilderness – requires that we accept this judgment – the call to repentance. It requires that we get honest with ourselves about how we cannot even imagine God’s reality because we’ve become so comfortable with our own. And it requires us admitting that we aren’t quite at Christmas yet – we’re not ready to receive the Messiah, who will and does change everything.
John’s interruption of our peaceful, calculated Advent journey is not unlike the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our own realities. It is rattling – it is jarring – it is uncomfortable and it always requires Repentance – Metanoia – Change on our part.
I cannot presume to know how you need to realign your reality with the Kingdom of Heaven. Part of my re-alignment involves trading my insecurity and instability for the thoughts of God – placing myself in truth instead of next to the truth. You may need something similar – or something completely different, whatever it is … we will have to go through the wilderness to come out on the other side.
And I resist the wilderness with everything that is within me. Because it’s terrifying, really. The wilderness journey requires change and even though this change will mean learning how to participate in the Kingdom, my nostalgia is overpowering. It tells me my old way of being and doing might not be working so well for me but at least it is familiar, it is comfortable and that is so much better than the unknown, right? Wrong, friends.
The unknown is where the Messiah is, where the Kingdom of Heaven waits for our participation.
There’s a post circulating around Facebook right now about a tribe in Africa where the birthdate of a child is not calculated from a date of birth or conception but from the day that child was a thought in its mother’s mind. The account says that when a woman decides she is ready for a child, she sits under a tree and listens until she hears the song of the child that wants to be born to her. Once she’s heard the song of the child, she teaches it to the man who will be the father of the child and they sing the song together, inviting the child to life. When the woman is pregnant, she teaches the child’s song to the midwives and old women of the village so that as the child is born, the song is the first thing it hears. And then, other villagers are taught the song and as the child grows up – if he falls down or stubs his toe – someone will pick him up and sing it to him. And then as the child goes through puberty rites, the people of the village sing her song in her honor. As the child becomes an adult – there is another occasion when the village sings to the child. If the person ever commits a crime or dishonored, the individual is called to stand in the center of the village and the whole community circles around that person, singing their song to them. The song is sung in marriage ceremonies, and at death rituals – one last time. (1)
That tradition is about identity. It reminds me that there is someone who knows us – who knows absolutely the core of us – who we were as a possibility, who we were as a child, our most shameful moments and our greatest accomplishments and who has only ever called us, “Beloved” and sung our song to us.
You and I are called to the wilderness journey of Advent. We are called to re-locate ourselves outside of what is comfortable and examine our lives, earnestly. Are we aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven? Most of us will find that we have some work to do. And if we are willing to do it – if we are willing to ready ourselves for the Messiah and experience the shattering change of moving from the comfortable to the possible – we will not be alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us – calling our name, singing us home into the Kingdom. It will not be easy – but this is the true movement to Christmas, through the darkness of Advent. Amen.