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A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2013. (Text: Matthew 3:1-12)
He’s b-a-a-a-ck! Uncle John is here again, and he hasn’t changed a bit since last year. But then, he never changes. He’s always been a curmudgeon. The family has not been looking forward to this year’s visit, because we knew he’d make us uncomfortable, just like always. Uncle John is our sourpuss old bachelor uncle that gets invited to visit every year because it’s our duty to invite him. But when he’s here he just grumps around and hollers about how messed up our family is. It’s o.k. with me; I’m used to him after all these years. But he scares the little kids.
We were getting in a Christmas-y mood, listening to the Messiah CD over and over, getting our tree, putting up wreaths, wrapping presents, and generally becoming all sentimental about the season —then he showed up. —Will we never be able to get ready for Christmas without yet one more unpleasant visit from Uncle John the Baptist?
There’s no way the Christian family can “do Advent” and escape dealing with John the Baptist, that unpleasant prophet. There’s got to be a reason. Maybe it’s because John the Baptist offers an antidote to the schmaltzy sentimentality of the Hallmark greeting card Christmas.
Could you imagine this half-hysterical wild man, this gaunt and frightening hell-fire and damnation preacher in his camel hair outfit, pictured on the cover of a Christmas card? And inside the card would be a printed message, in a fancy typeface with lots of curlicues, saying: “Our thoughts for you at this happy season are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, ‘You brood of snakes! Who warned you to escape the punishment you deserve? Get your life in order, because right now the ax is lying there in the orchard. Pretty soon every tree that isn’t bearing good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.’ If you’re not careful, that fireplace fuel just might be you!” Merry Christmas from the McNabs. Drop by sometime for a cup of cheer.
On our Christmas cards we like misty scenes of sheep and shepherds, delicate angels, and the stable in Bethlehem —or if we don’t want to present ourselves as “too religious” we go for jolly elves in red velour outfits bearing bags of gifts or tasteful scenes of Victorian Christmas carolers in the snow. That’s the stuff that makes us think of Christmas. But the Church does it differently. The Church puts John the Baptist in there right at the beginning of Advent—for two Sundays! If we want to get to Bethlehem and see the Babe lying in the manger, we have to deal first with irascible old John out in the wilderness. —And what is John going on about? Repentance. Making big changes: changing the way we live and changing the way we think.
What has repentance got to do with us? We’re here. We’re in church. We’re the good people. “Repentance” is for drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, and people who run ponzi schemes. …Right? They’re the ones who need John the Baptist. They’re the ones with crooked lives to straighten out. They’re the “snakes,” aren’t they?
Good question. Truth is, the criminals of his day were not the “brood of vipers” John was talking to. The people John the Baptizer called “snakes” were the religious people, the Sadducees and Pharisees, who’d come down to the Jordan valley just to listen to John because he was a heck of a preacher, one so eloquent that even those who disagreed with him still wanted to hear what he had to say because he said it so well.
Those religious v.i.p.’s, came to listen and find fault with John, but some of them got converted instead and found themselves heading down to the river to be baptized. When they came up, dripping, John spoke to these new converts and said: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? But, OK. So far, so good. But be sure you bear the kind of fruit that will show your repentance is not just play-acting. And don’t keep on saying, ‘Well, we are the children of Abraham, after all'; because, I’m telling you, God can raise up as many children for Abraham as he wants to, even from these rocks right here.”
John the Baptist’s message was, “Don’t put your confidence in your religion.” Translated into our own context, he was saying, “Your standing with God does not depend on how many consecutive Sundays you’ve been in church, or that you’ve served three times on the Vestry, or that you ‘almost tithe,’ or that you’re leaving a bundle to the church in your will.” I’m a priest, a “professional Christian,” so old Uncle John would probably tell me that I need more repentance than anybody else in the room.
Even we “good church people” need a dose of repentance as we come to Christmas, the day when— surrounded by torn wrapping paper and enjoying the aroma of baking turkey and mincemeat pie—we again ponder the truth of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, “God with us,” coming into our world to redeem it.
Repentance is the change of mind that allows God to transform us, not just “improve” us. Repentance isn’t merely a little moral tune-up. It isn’t just cutting down from two cocktails before dinner to one. For us to repent requires us to cooperate with a complete personal make-over engineered by the Holy Spirit. And I’m not talking about cosmetic surgery and a new wardrobe.
We live in a time when there’s great spiritual hunger in our land. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with “business-as-usual” religiosity, but there’s a nagging, unfulfilled appetite for God. People want to get connected, or maybe re-connected, to the Holy One. Spiritually hungry people don’t want to do “church work.” They want a vital, personal, life-giving connection with the God the Bible tells us is above us, beyond us, and “other” than us, yet also and at the same time a loving Father who knows us intimately and is as close as our own breath. Spiritually hungry people want to find a community of people just like them, sisters and brothers in whose faces they can see the Lord himself, and with whom they can share the ups and downs of the long journey we’re all taking. (The question for us is: Are WE that kind of community?)
Ornery Uncle John the Baptist comes every year at this time to keep us from settling comfortably into our pews and enjoying another sweet, “religious” season. Uncle John won’t let us off the hook. He won’t let us settle for Christmas-card piety. This uncompromising prophet of the Advent of Christ stands between us and Christmas and insists that we demonstrate--right now—that we’re ready for the Spirit to transform us, that we’ve done the hard work of interior preparation, and that we’re really and truly waiting for God.
Uncle John shouts to us new converts: “Bear the kind of fruit that will show your repentance is not just playacting.” —What fruit is he looking for? There are lots of possibilities. The kind of fruit we produce depends on the kind of “trees” we are. Some of us are apple trees, some are pear trees, others are almond trees. But here are a few suggestions:
- Pick up the phone and call somebody you’ve been at odds with. Be reconciled with them. --Bear the fruit of peace-making.
- Add up what you’re spending on Christmas presents for your friends and family and give at least that much to some organization that dedicates itself to helping the poor. Better yet, give that money directly to some poor souls you know and skip the charitable deduction. --Bear the fruit of generous charity.
- Commit yourself to a rule of daily prayer and meditation on Sacred Scripture. If you want to be connected with God, take concrete steps to put God first in your life. Turn your face to him every morning. --Bear the fruit of prayerfulness.
Isn’t that the Christmas present we’d like most of all?