Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2001
The Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "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. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Second Sunday of Advent - December 9, 2001
St. Matthew: Through the riveting words of St. John the Baptist, he gets right to the point of his message: "Repent, For the Kingdom of God is at hand. "
The ancient spiritual fathers saw the desert as a place of purity and barrenness, and from the gray and unfertile rock comes the sound of this call: "Nothing gets in the way of God. Nothing, will prevent you from hearing His Word".
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that Salvation comes from the desert: "Behold, now I create a new thing; it grows already, you do not perceive it? Yes, I am making a way through the wilderness and streams through the desert. "
St. John the Baptist, the man of austerity who wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather girdle around his waist and ate the delicacies of wild locust and honey- was used as a prophetic instrument to testify to God demands for the renewal of our lives. He comes not from within our midst in the noise and bustle of the city; rather, he comes forth from out of the desert, to deliver two phrases: "Repent" in a tone which calls our attention to our human behavior ... and building up to a joyous voice of hope by proclaiming: "The Kingdom of God is at hand. "
One of the truly great television shows (that's not intended to be an oxymoron!) was MASH. You may recall one of the characters: Major Charles Emerson Winchester III of the "Boston Winchesters", Harvard Medical School, and Boston General Hospital. He wanted to make it perfectly clear to everyone - he was different! "I'm a Winchester," he said more than once to anyone who would hear it. For him, it was his family name that made him superior to everyone else. Other people carry other burdens. I once met a woman who received her graduate business education at Harvard and found a way to work Harvard into every conversation. Congregations fall victim to the same problem. Churches become satisfied with their pasts to the point that they do not make the changes necessary to live in the present with the same degree of faithfulness shown in prior years. It's one thing to be proud of certain things, but it is possible to lean too heavily on a good past and live too scantily in the precious present.
That's what John the Baptist was dealing with in this Gospel lesson. In scripture's continuing assault on the religious people of the day, John the Baptist was completely unimpressed with the very thing that the Jewish people had built their lives upon. They were the "children of Abraham." That was their.birthright and, they felt, it would never be taken from them.
But, then comes John the Baptist. He tells them that just because they are children of Abraham doesn't mean that the requirements have been eased or that they can slack off. We may hate to hear John the Baptist say these words as well, because we know how it translates to our situation. Can't you hear him say today: "Just because you are members of the church, just because you give your weekly offerings, just because your great-grandparents were in this church, just because you are a vestryperson, just because you're a priest, ...it doesn't mean it's time to relax and take it easy and give in to this temptation of thinking that I've got this "Christian thing" under control." In other words, don't presume your past has taken care of your present.
Billy Graham, who in the eyes of many Christian people, played the 20th century role of John the Baptizer, had these comments about the disease running rampant in our world: "We're suffering from only one disease in the world. Our basic problem is not a race problem. Our basic problem is not a poverty problem. Our basic problem is not a war problem. Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed."
Martin Marty, the great religious scholar, once remarked about a religious critic who wrote how he had gone to many churches and heard preachers say: "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way into the Kingdom of heaven." The critic often looked around and found slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians with eyes glazed in the pews and wondered, "Who's trying?"
The Advent season is a time when the Christian community prepares for the remembrance of the Birth of our Savior by "repenting". Repenting in the Biblical sense is more than having a change of heart or a feeling of regret. It is more than a New Year's Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away and a turning back: it's turning away from the temptations of sin and a turning back to God.
A Methodist friend of mine related a story about a Bishop who once attended a Christmas worship service in Bethlehem at a place called Shepherd's Field. As he heard the songs of the season, he thought to himself and later wrote: "I did not look to God and say: See how virtuous I am. I did not utter: God, pat me on the back for all of the good things I have done. I did not pretend by saying: God, look at all of my accomplishments, aren't you proud of me? Indeed, I found myself asking God to forgive me of my sins. That is how it works. The more we turn away from Christ the more enslaved we become to the power of sin. The more we turn to Christ, the freer we become from the bondage of sin. Turning toward Christ enables us to repent."
Now, I can imagine some of your saying to me; "Father Bill, you make it sound that if we're not careful, John the Baptist's message could take all of the fun out of Christmas. I would smile, but disagree. I think that it's exactly John's message that puts the joy into Christmas. For his message calls us not to the way that Christmas has often been, but that the way Christmas ought to be. Christmas ought to be free from guilt and self-absorption. For that to occur there must be repentance.
A couple of weeks ago in the Adult Christian Education class, some of you may recall we talked about how to live our Christian faith in light of the events of September 11th. I made a comment that if we truly wanted to live in the person and mind of Christ with each other, and bear witness to our Christian faith each day in our lives, then we should take to heart the Litany of Penance in the Ash Wednesday service in The Book of Common Prayer (pp 267ff). Listen, for a moment, to some of the petitions:
- We have not loved you with all our whole heart, and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
- We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
- We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
- Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
- Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
- Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
- For our blindness to human need and suffering and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
- For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
- For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
- Restore us, Good Lord
- Accomplish in us the work of your Salvation
One of the actions we take when coming to the altar to receive the Sacraments in the elements of bread and wine, is to raise our hands to receive. In raising our hands we can at the same time offer to God those petitions we would like Him to take unto himself Are there any petitions that come to mind about our actions and behaviors when we hear the Litany of Penance? Are we prepared to offer to God those sinful acts and repent?
"Repent. For the Kingdom of God is at hand "
St. John reaffirms the call to "Repent": It means to "Return!" "Be converted" - this was the constant and recurring call handed on like a torch from one prophet to another calling all people back to God. It reaches its crescendo with the words of the prophet Ezekiel:
"Repent and turn away from all your sins. Cast away from you all your sins, which you have committed against me, and get yourself a new heart and a new spirit! Why would you die, O house of Israel? For I desire NOT the death of anyone who dies. Be converted then, and live." says the Lord. (18:30-32)
Ezekiel proclaims the message that the wandering that leads to death should end in life. The sins that burden the heart must be cast away, and instead, a new heart fully given to God and a new spirit animating and impelling this heart must be procured. Thus, this wider meaning is the message of the Baptist.
The Kingdom of God is a joyous hope. It means the establishment of God's kingly rule over the entire world and for all time .... a time of bliss and joy for all who belong to God. All it asks of you and me is to be authentic in our efforts.
For all you literary scholars, you may recall that William Faulkner, the great novelist, toiled for years as an unknown, disrespected writer in rural Mississippi before he finally gained recognition. When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, his acclaim grew. When approached later about the literary people and authors he associated with, Faulkner shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know any literary people. The people I know are other farmers and horse people and hunters and we talk about dogs and guns and what to do about the hay crop or this cotton crop, not about literature."
You see Faulkner befriended real people, unpretentious people. He befriended people honest about their lives and about living. He chose to surround himself with those who populated his stories and actually lived his intensely human fiction, rather than those who simply talked about the South, or wrote about the South.
Authenticity!! It is the ingredient that will make your Christian life convincing. And repentance is the first step to getting there.
So, as you reflect on the message of repentance and hope in the words of St. John the Baptist, maybe this story will help you hold onto the message:
Larry was sick and tired of his friend Stan's constant name-dropping and boasting of how famous he was. The day finally came when Larry could take it no more. He told Stan, "If you're so famous and know so many important people, phone the White House and get President Bush on the line."
Stan shrugged and walked to the phone. He punched in a number and handed the phone to Larry. The familiar Texas accent greeted him with the words, "Hello, this is the President of the United States. How may I help you?"
Larry was convinced that it was either an accident or a put on. He said, "Well, that was impressive. But if you are really important, call Buckingham Palace and let me talk to the queen."
With a bored sigh, Stan took the phone, punched in a number, and again gave Larry the receiver. "Hello," came a distinctive voice, "This is the Queen of England speaking. "
Larry was very impressed but still suspicious. He said, "All right, you happen to know the President and the Queen of England. But if you're really a big shot, get the Pope on the phone."
Stan promised to do better than that. He took Larry to the airport and both men boarded a plane for Rome. When they arrived in Rome they took a taxicab to the Vatican. They came into St. Peter's Square. Upon arriving there, Stan walked away, leaving Larry to mill about in the large crowd waiting for the Pope's afternoon greeting from the balcony.
Suddenly a reverent hush fell over the crowd. Larry looked up at the balcony where Stan and the Pope stood side by side. Larry almost fell over in shock. Before he could recover from his amazement, a man standing beside him poked him in the ribs and asked, "Hey, who's that standing up there with Stan?"
People often have the same problem with John the Baptist; they don't exactly know who he is and what his relation to Jesus is. But we do! John baptized with the water of repentance and he proclaimed the joy of what was to come in these words: "He who comes after me is stronger than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry; he shall baptize you with the Holy Sprit and with fire."