December 4, 2016
The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Thomas Merton
He has become a caricature of himself, this prophet of gloom doom and the end of the world. His description in the Gospel of Matthew amplifies this with a person dressed in camel hair, eating such food as the desert provides, locusts and honey. This was the prophet that people went to the wilderness, not just to see, but to whom they confessed their sins. He preached repentance. What could that mean, being sorry, trying to do better or be better, feeling judged and found guilty, unworthy or fearful of an angry God’s wrath, who must be something given the attitude, the preaching, the smell of God’s prophet before us.
I think John the Baptist was a tough sell then and in every age. I think it’s particularly difficult here when I look around at a congregation that has mostly fled to this church because they don’t want judgment or to be judged. Many of us are in recovery from Christian judgment because we are women, or divorced, or LGBTQ, or looking for an honest conversation about race, or finally had enough of conservative, literalist and fundamentalist moral values and interpretation of Scripture and the church’s traditions. Yet John the Baptists preaches judgment, God’s judgment, and how is this supposed to be different from any other judgmental-ism we have experienced, given this rhetoric, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come”?
This is where all of the descriptive geography and John’s harsh weirdness in this Gospel of Matthew are profoundly helpful. John is in the wilderness. This is the place where the people of Israel got it profoundly right about God and terribly wrong as well. The point of all that wandering was to learn to trust God and truly listen to God and not their old ways of enslavement. Whenever we are in the wilderness we are on God’s alien and unsettling turf, not our own. We are not wondering or wandering around our own sorry standards of moral worthiness. John challenges all entitlements in all times and all places—bloodlines, position education and gender just to name the vipers in the gospel today. John also wants us to know that who we are and what we do matter to God!
John challenges us to repent, meaning that God’s desire is to align us in a life in Christ. That has almost nothing to do with our moral failings and almost everything to do with God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image and likeness in the same way that God can make a life-giving branch grow from a dead old stump according to the prophet Isaiah. It is fine to renounce our judgmental ways, but in doing so we need to be on our toes. If we expect God to cherish us for who we are, the we need to be responsible for what we do. We have great expectations of God and God has great expectations of us too.
Whether or not we preach much about sin in this pulpit, we all know what it is to have fears, to be broken by life to have a prevailing emptiness and disconnection with the living God. The people went to John and confessed all of this seeking to stop hiding in all those broken places, renouncing what had hold of them that wasn’t from God, and instead in the words of Paul Tillich accepting “the courage to live as accepted for who they were.” That’s our invitation too, to empty ourselves of everything that keeps us from seeing and accepting that God loves each and every one of us, as each one of us is, not as we think we should be. In baptism God claims us and we give glory to God just by existing.
The geography serves us in another way too. It is easy in every season and especially in this one to think that we are living according to the slogan, “Let’s make church great again! We hear it when we say how much we want the pageant to be just what we remember, or the decorations, or the worship. We hear it when we push out a time of longing and expectation and rush to the manger. Being in the wilderness makes us pay attention to not yielding to our sentimental, warm and fuzzy feelings that our guest speaker this Advent, Tim Sabin, rightly noted, to do is to make moral and religious fascists of us all. As teacher and preacher David Bartlett states, “Nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude.” John’s harsh invitation like the geography and circumstances around him is all about allowing there to be space for God’s faith, hope and love to be firmly planted a new in each of us.
What that looks like may be something like this, living in a community that breaks with the past where it is fundamentally in error. It is living looking ahead and looking back at what really was God speaking, not us. After all, John would have had little to say had it not been for the prophet Isaiah centuries before him! It is welcoming one another and the stranger because we know what it is like to be welcomed by divine love It is encouraging one another to trust God. It is living for the poor in ways that give them the right to shape their own decisions without fear, brutality or violence. It is judging with equity and righteousness, as Christ did. Now that’s a dangerous statement! Yet I know when I am doing this as Christ would when I also pay real consequences for a vision that is “offensively inclusive”, when I choose to hope rather than yield to despair because I believe and put my trust in the promise of God to keep the promises of God.
“The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” May it be so for me and for you.