The Second Sunday of Advent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

Matthew 3:1-12 (Isaiah 11:1-10)

 

One of the great things, I think, about belonging to a lectionary based church is that it makes us face all aspects of the Gospel story and not just the ones that might be our favorites or the ones that make us feel warm and comfortable. If we participate in liturgical worship, that is to say, ordered, structured worship, Sunday by Sunday, week by week, we are going to be exposed to the wholeness of God’s word for us. As we read and hear the appointed lessons for each week and for each day, we find, as they say, that they will both comfort our afflictions and afflict our comforts.

This is most especially true of the season of Advent. Everything in us at this time of the year calls out for warmth and comfort. The cold days and nights are really just beginning; the darkness comes just little sooner each afternoon; Christmas is rushing ever closer. We find this to be a season in which we enjoy candlelight, and cozy fires and warm drinks and “cuddly” quilts. That’s what’s on our minds. Left to our own devices, this is what we would have the church put before us in this season in which we now find ourselves. Warmth. Coziness.

But, in the midst of all this, in the midst of this quietness and sweetness and light, comes the strange Advent figure of John the Baptist. Through the centuries, the church has said, insistently, “Look at this man again. Hear him. He is the one you have to deal with at least annually before you can take the Christ Child into your heart. Listen again to his words; wrestle with them; act on them.” And that is what we want to try to do this morning, to greet this strange Advent visitor again, and to see what it is that he has said and is saying to us this day.

In a word, John is telling us – and hopefully, through us, he is telling the world – to stop, to look around at where we are as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as the world. To look at where we are heading, and if we feel that isn’t where God wants us to be going, then to repent, to turn around before it’s too late. For the coming of the kingdom is at hand.

The prophets before John had also sounded this theme. They had talked of the coming of the kingdom in picturesque language, and it rang of truth. God’s kingdom would be a place of peace and harmony, “where the wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, …the calf with the lion, …the child with the snake…. There would be no more hurt, no more tears, no more harm in all of God’s holy mountains.”

Isaiah’s vision from the second part of this morning’s first lesson is one of the great, beautiful pictures of the coming kingdom of God. But all of that will take place after the judgment. It is the first part of our lesson that speaks of the judgment.

“[The Lord] shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness, he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

In other words, The Lord’s judgment will be based on nothing more and nothing less than the paths that we ourselves choose. According to Isaiah, God, or God’s chosen One, will strike the uncaring and put to death the wicked, while the poor and the wretched, and the meek of the earth – the humble ones – are going to be redeemed.

So, when John the Baptist enters the scene, he’s really just picking up where his prophetic ancestors left off. He’s saying to people, “Look around you. What do you see? Can you not still see the poor and the wretched? Can you not still see the hungry and the naked and the oppressed? Repent! Turn around! For the kingdom of heaven has come near! Are you ready for it? Are you prepared? Are you witnessing to it? Are you working toward it? Or are you still just trying to keep up appearances? Kidding others, kidding ourselves about our own worthiness and goodness and righteousness and all the rest?”

John the Baptist doesn’t fit into our comfortable, warm December living rooms very well. I’m afraid John the Baptist doesn’t fit well into our comfortable, warm December church.

Because, in his disregard for proper clothing, he reminds us of all those in this world who have no proper clothing. In his stark diet, he reminds us of all those in this world, and in this community in increasing numbers, who are poorly fed, if not starving. In his proclamation of the One who comes to save, he reminds us of all the people of this world who are so desperately in need of love and acceptance, of God’s love and acceptance and of our love and acceptance.

And John says to us again, “This is what the kingdom is all about. Is that the direction you’re going? Is that the sense of movement and purpose and direction in your life?”

Apparently, there were great numbers of people who responded to John’s message. The Gospel says that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” They somehow knew that John was right, that their lives were off track, and they came to John to act out their repentance, to act out their turning around, to act out their need for cleansing and healing.

Those of us in the church need to take special note of the coming out to John of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, because they were the church people (or, at least, the synagogue people) of John’s and Jesus’ day. They were the righteous ones, the good ones, the chosen ones. And they were coming to John to be baptized.

Well, apparently, John had some problems with this, with their coming. He calls them a “brood of vipers,” and says to them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not a very hospitable welcome!

The problem that John had, and that Jesus had, with these “church people” of their day, and, likely, a problem that God has with all too many of us, is that our religion is altogether too tied up with the outward and visible, and not enough with the inward and spiritual. It becomes too concerned with lineage and tradition, and rubric and law, and custom and practice, and only secondarily concerned with people and their basic needs of food and clothing and shelter and healing love.

John was riled when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him, because he felt they were coming only to add to their list of religious rituals and for status, rather than for repentance. (For solace only and not for strength; for pardon only and not for renewal). And what John was saying to them, what he wanted to know was, “What difference is this going to make in your lives? Are you going to come up out of this river changed? Or, are you going to go right back to your ivory towers to wallow in your pedigree self-righteousness, and clobber each other with your precious rules and regulations instead of extending grace to your brothers and sisters in need? . . . Bear fruits worthy of repentance; do something to show that you know what repenting and going God’s way is all about.”

And so, over 2000 years later, here we are, once again, worshiping in our beautiful church building, reciting our ancient creeds, singing our wonderful hymns. And here, once again, comes John the Baptist.

And he says, “I hope all of what you’re doing here, as you gather together Sunday by Sunday, week by week, is helping you get on with God’s work. I hope all of this is making you
more sensitive to the needs of others around you. I hope all of this is making you more caring, more flexible, more open, more gentle, more patient, more forgiving, more long suffering, more kind. All of those fruits of repentance and those fruits of the Spirit. And if not, then why not?

Because, this is where the kingdom of God begins. It is here that we come for repentance, to receive, at that table, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and through the word and sacrament to prepare ourselves and to be empowered to go out into the world as an inbreaking of God’s kingdom—to represent (to re-present Christ), to be Christ to others.

Is that what happens to you on Sunday? Do you leave here with renewed faith and renewed strength to love and serve the Lord?
Or are you just going through the motions?

Is there true joy in your relationship with God? Have you invited anyone to church lately? Are you sharing your faith by word and example to others? Are you proclaiming, in your being, the Advent of Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God?
Are you ready? Are you prepared? If not, why not?

Advent truly is a season of mixed emotions. It is season of thanksgiving and joy. Jesus is coming, to heal, to save, to bring peace. But, as John reminds us, he is also coming to judge, and to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and the purifying fire.

Are you ready? Are you prepared? Does your baptism make a difference in your life? If so, then, act out your faith. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,”

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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