Saturday, December 7, 2013

Prepare the Way of the Lord...

I am indebted to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton and the Rev Dr. John Fairless for their insights into the Gospel reading.

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 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have resigned myself to the knowledge that there are some things I just will never understand. Calculus, how to play songs on the guitar that are in, say, C sharp or B flat... and why, smack-dab in the middle of Advent, in amongst all the pretty lights and the carols and the nativity scenes and the cooking and the shopping and all of the buildup to the day we, in our own way, celebrate the birth of Christ, we get slapped in the face with John the Baptist.

It seems that John just showed up one day, out in the middle of nowhere, yelling at the top of his lungs at no one in particular: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

Maybe a group of shepherds, watering their flock in the meager, muddy water of the Jordan, heard him first and went to investigate. It's not much of a stretch to think that they would be a little freaked out by what they saw: a man wearing a garment of camel's hair, tied at the waist with a leather strap. I imagine his hair and beard were unkempt, and that he had a wild-eyed stare, but that is my imagination talking.

But maybe, after gawking and maybe stifling some giggles, these shepherds would listen to what he was shouting, and remember some of the readings they'd heard over the years in synagogue – The ending of the book of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes...”

This was a nation and a people, after all, who were hungry for a Messiah. What's more, this was a nation and a people whose cultural identity was wrapped up in the writings of prophets... yet there hadn't been a prophet in Judea in hundreds of years. A man wearing animal skins, standing knee-deep in the Jordan and shouting at the clouds certainly could be a prophet...

In any case, word got around, and people began showing up, and kept showing up, bringing friends and family, spreading the word. Because John was doing something new, something unheard of: baptism.

No, baptism itself wasn't a new thing. One of the requirements for those wanting to join the Jewish faith – male and female – was baptism. There was also, in that day, a group called the Essenes, who, rejecting Temple worship in favor of a more personalized and rigorous faith journey, separated themselves from the rest of the Jewish culture, and practiced daily ritual baptisms.

But what John was preaching wasn't to proselytize Gentiles, nor was it introducing a regimen of daily cleansings. John was preaching repentance.

That's an interesting word in a lot of ways. First off, in the original Greek, the word for “repentance,” metanoia, isn't all that remarkable a word. It didn't have particularly religious connotations. It was simply the word they used for turning around.

The Reverent Dr. Delmer Chilton – I love his name – tells the story of a pastor friend of his who met God on the interstate. He was driving north on I-85 when a truck crested the hill ahead of them, going South. Emblazoned above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were the letters G-O-D.

As the truck drew closer, he could read the side of the trailer, “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery,” so he understood what G-O-D stood for in that case – but a question came to his mind... “If God is going South, what am I doing going North?”
In the New Testament, metanoia, repentance, means more than merely changing one's mind. There is more to repentance than feeling bad and telling God we're sorry. Confession is vital, yes, but it isn't the full picture. If we say we are sorry, but we do nothing to change, all we've done is indulge in a feeling. When we are called upon to repent, we are called upon to effect a complete change – a reorientation of the personality!

And that is what John is talking about when he comes down so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees – both, in their ways, a religious elite, both groups quite comfortable that they were God's special snowflakes. A dip in the Jordan would make them part of the crowd, gain them some acceptance in the community, show everyone around how utterly serious they were about pleasing God, and whenever this Messiah person showed up, they would be assured a place in the re-established Kingdom of David.

But it wasn't about the water. There is nothing magical or specifically holy about the water of the Jordan. Dunk or sprinkle or pour, adult or child or infant, use the water of the Jordan or the water of the Black Warrior or the water of Lake Purdy or crack open a bottle of the off-brand purified water you buy at Wal-Mart, the point of it all is changing the things which separate us from God – the things that keep us heading North when God is headed South.

When John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees – and to us – to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” the idea is not to do stuff that makes us qualified to repent. We don't run around doing good stuff hoping that God will accept our apology. Rather, to bear fruit worthy of repentance is quite simply to live like we have repented – to show by our actions that we are a changed people.

In this season of Advent, when we remember both the birth of our Savior and anticipate his return, we are called upon to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus Christ. And if not, if we are going north when God is going South, now is the time to move in a new and better direction, to jump off the next exit, turn around, and go God's direction.

God is traveling on the side of peace and justice and the poor. God travels the paths of mercy, grace, love and hope. God moves toward lifting the downtrodden, freeing the oppressed, and including the marginalized.

It is not for us to debate whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side. It is for us to get on that side.

The Good News of the Gospel is that no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God; and turning to go in a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of the spirit.

Alleluia, amen.

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