Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hope from Nothing (Matthew 3:1-12)

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 wanted 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.”

Following Jesus is counter-cultural. In fact, being one of the people of God has always been counter-cultural. Whenever God’s people have come to resemble their surrounding culture a little too much, adopting the same values, the same way of life, the same way of being, God has always reminded us that we are to be something a little different – leaven in the bread, salt for flavor, light for seeing clearly. The people of God are called to live differently.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, while the culture around us is ho-ho-ho-ing and making rather merry, while the culture around us is engrossed in one big party that started at Halloween, ramped through Thanksgiving, and is now in the full-blown throes of the orgy of consumerism we still call “Christmas,” we in the church do something different. In churches around the world and across denominational lines, this Second Sunday of Advent is often referred to as “John the Baptist Sunday,” because the lectionary readings on this Sunday focus on his proclamation in the Judean wilderness.

And so, while the culture around us is dizzy and busy with Holiday spirit, I invite you on a journey into the wilderness, to lay aside your preconceptions, your prerogatives, and your presumptions. I invite you to leave all that behind and to come, with nothing in your hand, to hear the prophet’s message yet again, as if for the very first time. May we pray.

It has been 400 years since there was a prophet in Israel – it is a wilderness of every sort imaginable: physical, spiritual, political, social, economic. The wilderness holds special meaning to the worldview of the people of that time. Call it what you will – the desert, the wilderness, the boondocks, the sticks, Arkansas – it was the most desolate and least desirable place you could imagine. It was thought to be Satan’s playground because the people who spent too much time there often came back crazy, or, some thought, demon-possessed. Indeed, John the Baptist would have seemed crazy in his own time, with his itchy camel-hair suit and leather belt and rather odd diet of insects dipped in honey.

John appears on the scene, proclaiming a message of repentance for the kingdom of heaven has come near. As I study the character of John the Baptist, I realized prophets are not the sort of people to invite to a dinner party. There are certain rules and social norms when you go to a dinner party. You aren’t supposed to talk about religion, politics, or sex. Nor are you supposed to spend the evening promoting your blog, or giving every other guest your contact info so they can follow you on twitter. Talking about religion or politics at a dinner party is another way of saying unmitigated torture for other guests who may not share your opinion.

That’s why we probably wouldn’t invite John the Baptist to our dinner party. Because really, the prophets are sort of jerks. They are horribly pessimistic. They have the remarkable ability to be simultaneously pompous and whiny, which is just an ungodly level of annoying. And they’re rude! I mean, ALL CAPS, ALL THE TIME, YELLING IN YOUR FACE RUDE.

And not only are they rude, they’re like Debbie Downer, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches. When you invited Debbie to the party, you knew that she was going to kill whatever buzz everyone else in the room was enjoying with one of her pessimistic sayings, and she was sure to turn the mood sour in a hurry.


Or, if you invite her over at Christmas, she might say, “THE HOLIDAY SEASON OFTEN BRINGS UNWELCOME GUESTS--STRESS AND DEPRESSION.”

In a world consumed by busy-ness, addicted to fun, enthralled by activity, and hooked on immediate action, the message of the prophet sounds like a real downer. Yet, I want us to spend some time dealing with that message, because rather than being a downer, it is the sobering truth by which we so desperately need to be confronted.

John appeared in the wilderness because he recognized the people around him to be in a spiritual wilderness. They were trying to fill their lives with all sorts of things, and, as we’ll soon see, many of those things were even religious things, yet in their busy-ness and activity, they had shut God out, and were relying on themselves rather than God. And so, it is in this spiritual wilderness that the voice of John calls out, “Repent.”

“Repent.” This is one of those words we religious people just love. Typically, the more religious we consider ourselves, the more we love this word. Yep, there’s a lot of sin out there in the world, and there’ s a lot of repenting some people need to do. This is where John the Baptist says “Hold up there just a second. Repentance is for everyone. In fact, the more religious you consider yourself, the more repenting you just might have to do.”

Just look at how John interacted with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. You couldn’t get much more religious and self-righteous than these guys. The Sadducees were a powerful, aristocratic order of priests who lived in luxury and splendor while the rest of the people lived very miserable lives. Their ceremonial robes cost the equivalent of an average family’s wage for three years. Needless to say, they were hated, but they ran the temple and they were cozy with the government, so there was little that could be done to stop them.

And the Pharisees? They rigorously applied the Law to everyday living, which, I suppose isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except they often took it to extremes and used their power and position to look down their noses at the rest of the riffraff below them. I’ve reminded you of the technical definition of Pharisee on several occasions, but I’ll do it again here: Pharisee is Greek for “stuck up religious snob who just doesn’t get it.” Their favorite pastime was condemning others who didn’t measure up to their self-imposed standard of behavior.

Both groups were righteous in their own eyes, but not so before God. And John calls them a “brood of vipers.” This would be roughly the equivalent of calling someone an “S.O.B.” in our context; can you imagine their shock? Thinking they are among the most righteous people on the planet, and this prophet of God tells them they are the most morally, spiritually, and socially-depraved of anyone. He clamors for the repentance of the people who claimed to believe the most in God and in God’s Word. See, this is why, if you’re having a fancy dinner party, you don’t invite a prophet.

John calls for repentance. It’s not only for bad people; it’s for those who consider themselves to be good, as well. The kingdom of heaven has come near – the very message of Jesus is on the lips of John the Baptist, and he calls for everyone to repent. Now, repentance has less to do with feeling sadness and remorse and more to do with a total change of attitude and direction. The term that is translated here as “repent” literally means “make your left hand your right and your right hand your left,” in other words, it suggests a complete 180-degree turnaround. We are called to turn our lives in the direction that most closely aligns with the kingdom of heaven, which is coming near to us, and that is the thing for which we prepare in this Advent season. In the person of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven comes to us. In the person of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be among us. In the person of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be in us.

Heaven comes to us – building a great highway through the barren wilderness of our pain and brokenness and suffering. John the Baptist prepares the way of Jesus by inviting us to ready our hearts in the same way a highway for the king would be prepared – a highway that is free from obstacles, blind curves, and any other impediment. Likewise, we are invited to clear the barriers that would prevent Jesus from getting to our hearts, our lives, from really getting in there and messing everything up with priorities that are Godly priorities rather than our own. When we venture into the wilderness with John during this barren, Advent journey, John begs the question from each of us: “What roadblocks do we have to get rid of in order to be ready for Jesus? What obstacles stand between the Lord and us?”

The kingdom of heaven is coming near, Jesus is coming to dwell in every human heart, and when he does, our lives are going to be changed. We find ourselves born into a new life with God as the epicenter of all we think, say, and do. When our hearts are prepared, the fire of the Holy Spirit burns within us, clearing away everything within us that is not from God – and when this happens, the kingdom of heaven happens all around us.

One of the greatest barriers to participating in the kingdom of heaven is pride. The great sin of the most religious people of that day was twofold: pride and spiritual laziness. They were sleepy, they were drowsy, they were fat, dumb, and happy – drifting off into spiritual oblivion and completely unaware. They were the worst kind of lost. You see, if you’re lost and you know you’re lost, you might actually change your direction. But if you’re lost and think you’re doing everything just fine, how likely is it that you’re going to change direction any time soon?

That is why, for people who already consider themselves to be following the ways of God, the most dangerous sins we can fall into are pride and spiritual laziness. It’s far too easy to go through all the right religious motions with disengaged and apathetic hearts, lulling ourselves into a stupor that we are headed in the right direction and everything is just fine, when, in fact, we are drifting farther away from God and blissfully unaware that we are doing so. This is why repentance, going another way, is for everyone.

The Greek word that we translate as “sin” in this passage is hamartia. It’s a term from archery, and it literally means, “to be off course. To miss the mark and thus lose the prize.” The people came to John, they repented, they were baptized as they confessed their sins – as they confessed the ways they had missed the mark.

We must do the same. We must admit that without the Holy Spirit’s guidance we are heading in the wrong direction and need help. We must also be willing to admit that no amount of work or goodness on our part will earn our way into heaven. This admission is the heart of confession and the first step in growing in a full and complete relationship with Jesus Christ. And friends, that is the message of Christmas for which we prepare during the Advent season – because we were unable to get to heaven, so in the person of Jesus, heaven comes to us.

I use a GPS in my car. Sometimes, I miss a turn. You all know what it says when I miss a turn, right? “Re-calculating.” When it says “Re-calculating,” it’s like saying, “You are headed in the wrong direction!”

Sin is not an act, but a direction. How better to describe the shadow world of sin; wasting away for love of the wrong things, the wrong type of fulfillment, the false hopes of worldly gain, money, or power. How terrible to spend one’s entire energy on an endeavor that leads to an empty life. How lonely to see the effect of thinking only of oneself. Following in the way of God is living in such a way that God is at the center of everything we do, and to center our lives around any other thing is sin.

And friends, this is where repentance is good news for each of us. For if we are headed in the wrong direction, we only need to repent – we only need to head in the right direction. John the Baptist tells us to bear fruit worthy of repentance, in other words, a genuine change in our direction will be evidenced through how we live. He points to the bad fruit of the Sadducees – a self-serving lifestyle – and the bad fruit of the Pharisees – judgementalism, and he says “Don’t do that! That’s bad fruit!” If we’re going to be honest this Advent season, we probably need to confess our eagerness to judge rather than repent and our willingness to point out the sins of all those around us. After all, what’s Christmas to the righteous without a little complaining about all those heathen who only come to church on Christmas Eve? Being judgmental makes us feel like we’re right, and the only way many of us know we’re good is by pointing out those who are bad.

But that kind of harsh judgment of others is described here as bad fruit, because it so severely damages our relationships with others and prevents the love of God from flowing through us. Instead, we are encouraged to grow good fruit in our lives – laying aside our own needs to attend to others, being a servant, honoring God with compassion for the least of those around us.

In other words, it’s the summary statement Jesus made of the entire Old Testament Law – we are to love God and love our neighbor. That’s what the kingdom of heaven looks like, when love God and love neighbor. These are the values of the kingdom of heaven, and they stand in stark contrast to the values of the world around us. No wonder being a follower of Jesus is so counter-cultural.

Repentance is good news for all of us here, because it is something we are all invited to practice. For without the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives, without setting our course by God’s star both day and night, our lives are prone to drift away into spiritual oblivion. And the worst kind of lost for any of us is the lostness that doesn’t realize it is lost.

So, whether you feel you need to or not, and perhaps especially if you feel you don’t, take a moment to repent. To ask God’s guidance to realign your life’s direction, to stop heading off in your own way, but instead, to diligently seek to follow God’s way. Repentance is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

And that is the good news this day: no one is so worthy that they couldn’t take a little course correction. Likewise, no life is so far off-course that it can’t be redeemed by God and opened to God’s love.

Our text today reminds us that the presumptions we so readily lean upon – our status, our birth, our family, our pedigree, our activities, even our religious experiences – add up to nothing if our lives do not show the fruit of faith and repentance. Faith, in trusting Jesus to save us, and repentance, in opening up our hearts to him.

Journey into the wilderness with nothing in your hand and nothing in your heart other than a reliance on God. Go with nothing, and there you will find your hope.

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