A sermon based on Isaiah 1:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, 12/8/13.
This journey towards the Christ child is a holy and contemplative one. In these 4 weeks of Advent, we anticipate the coming of Jesus. Advent is a time where we wonder and we wander. During Advent, we wait in darkness and hope for a light to come that will illuminate our way. Advent is when we fully expect Jesus to come among us and shine on us the bright light of his presence so we can stop scrounging around in the darkness and begin walking confidently in the ways of the Lord.
Advent is like a GPS for our hearts. It’s a time for us to find out where we stand. It’s a time to ask God for better directions, to pray for guidance, and to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we’re using God’s direction for our lives or whether we rely upon our own wits. Advent is a time for us to locate ourselves within God’s story. To be in prayerful contemplation about where we stand in relation to the One who wants to guide our lives.
The early Christians actually hardly ever called themselves “Christians”, rather they called themselves “followers of the Way.” Capital W. They understood that Jesus was their Master, the one who came to show them a new journey, a new way of walking.
In a time when many Jews were oppressed by the occupying Roman government as well as by their own Herods, Jesus came to teach a new direction. Jesus encouraged his followers to walk in the ways of peace and love in the middle of a world that was bent towards war and hostility. By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had had enough—there was no one in charge who had the interests of the common people in mind. There was no one who cared a bit for the people living on the underside—the peasants, the widows, the sick, the children. Darkness had covered the land and people wondered where their hope was.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of One who would “judge the needy with righteousness and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land”. The Hebrew people yearned for a Messiah who would make the nations prove the glories of God’s righteousness, who would come to topple over the selfish rule of kings and crumble apart the armies of Rome that had occupied the entire region of Palestine. Israel needed a king who ruled not with oppressive power and a sword but with righteousness and faithfulness. All of Israel was lost in darkness. There needed to be some other way.
People traveled quite a long ways to be baptized by John. John made a home in the desert of Judea, far away from the centers of influence in his day. He lived and baptized as far out as he did as a way to protest what was happening in Jerusalem.
He hated the way things were being run in the Jerusalem temple. He was a rebel who spoke out against the way people were living out their faith, and he came announcing how people needed to change their hearts and lives because the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
John led those he baptized to the east side of the Jordan River, which was the opposite side from where they were coming. Centuries before, Joshua crossed the Jordan, from the east to the west, with the Ancient Israelites, as they moved from the wilderness and into the Promised Land. By leading those whom he baptized to the eastside of the Jordan River, John was saying to them that the baptism that he provided was to be a new start, a new exodus, a brand new story.
John thought that the people of Israel had to start from scratch once more, to wash themselves in the waters of baptism, and begin again. Just as people forged their way through the desert, through the wilderness of Judea, to arrive at the Jordan to be baptized by John, they were also forging a new way with God, a direct route—one where there was no need for a priest or an animal sacrifice or a temple to mediate between the people and their God.
One of the ways John thought that the Jewish elders and teachers had it wrong was that so much of their faith was wrapped up in what their ancestors had accomplished. John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees who had gathered to watch John baptize in the Jordan,
Don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father!
There was a sense of entitlement among many Jewish elders that John the Baptist hated. The thought was that if you came from the right family then you were protected in the faith, that you were made good with God through your DNA, that you were somehow entitled because of who your parents were. John didn’t think anyone was made right with God by virtue of their genetics. John thought that anyone who trusted in their heritage for their righteousness was lost.
Repent!, John proclaimed, Change your hearts and lives!
We often hear the word repent and shiver. It’s word that crazy people draw onto posterboard and picket the streets with. They shout it at the top of their lungs. It’s a word that unfortunately has been used to scare people, but that is not its original biblical meaning.
Repentance refers not to this idea of simply being sorry for how sinful we are. It’s a whole lot more than a feeling of remorse for doing the wrong things. Repentance means changing directions. We turn away from the old ways of living our lives and we face in the direction that God wants us to walk in. Repentance means aligning ourselves with the ways of God. Repentance is also about ending old life and inaugurating new life. Far from simply feeling sorry for the way we have lived our lives, repentance is about undergoing a complete change in our attitude and how we conduct ourselves. No longer do we walk in the directions we have set out for ourselves, no longer do we get lost by relying on our own sense of direction or claiming righteousness through our ancestors like the Pharisees and Sadducees.
When we repent, we ask God to recalibrate our compasses, to change the direction of our hearts and lives, and to give us a new way of being the people of God, asking God to pave a new way forward for us.
The best way to get lost is to trust in our own sense of direction.
Change your hearts and lives, Here comes the kingdom of heaven!
This is the radical message of John the Baptist.
Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and into a country that had lost its way. He was confronted with a country full of people living for decades under the rule of Apartheid, and extremely formal, race-based division that plagued the entirety of South Africa.
Apartheid means “apart-ness”. There was white South Africa and there was black South Africa. Black South Africa played soccer, white South Africa played Rugby. White South Africa lived over here. Black South Africa, over there. An entire nation lost in division and entitlement based upon race. Surrounded by acts of war and violence, hatred and disregard for the lives of those with a different color skin, Nelson Mandela was brave enough to confront the minority white National Party, the very people who instilled Apartheid and threw him into prison decades before.
With dignity and respect, and with an amazing amount of courage, Mandela worked with the white National Part and came to an agreement that ended Apartheid and emancipated the entire country from the heavy burden of race-based division.
Mandela did so not with the use of force or threat but with compromise and forbearance. With an entire nation lost under the dark cloud of hate, Mandela pleaded with all of South Africa to change their hearts, to let go of their false sense of entitlement based upon the color of their skin, to recognize in each other a part of themselves, and by doing so, begin sharing life with one another. Mandela ushered South Africa into a brand new day. He made crooked paths straight and he pleaded with the people, all of the people, to change their ways.
This Advent, we hear these words from John the Baptist urging us to align our hearts with the One who is coming. To turn our lives in the direction of the One whose sandals none of us are worthy of carrying.
Advent is a season that invites us to turn in the direction that God is point us towards. To give up on all the ways we like to use our own wits to find our way, and instead to make way for the God who comes to us in a little child, who through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, shows us a how to walk in the ways of our God.
The best way to get lost is to trust in our own sense of direction.
John confronts us in this season not so much with words of judgment, but with words that correct our course. That make us claim our own faith rather than resting on the faith of our past. That shake us awake and make us think about where God is leading us next.
By his invitation to repent, John is inviting us into fuller and more meaningful relationship with God. He’s inviting us to engage and renew our faith and our commitment to discipleship.
Repentance, this constant turning towards God, is a challenging thing. It asks us to listen closer to the whispers of God in our lives. Repentance invites us to recalibrate our hearts over and over again, and it demands of us that we continuously offer ourselves to God in a completely new way each and every day.
When I was a child, I imagined John the Baptist as a big man with scary clothes who probably screamed a lot. I thought that if he was around these days, he would most likely be dressed in Harley Davidson leather and he would have a long pony tail coming out the back of his red bandana.
John the Baptist was an intense and opinionated man. But I think I’ve changed my mind about him now. Past all the angry words he had for the religious types of his day, I think at heart, he was a freedom fighter.
He sought to unhinge his fellow Hebrew people from the old and worn-out patterns of a corrupt temple and all the ways that their sacrifices of burnt offerings never seemed to free them from their obligation to the temple. John’s baptism offered freedom to a people who felt stuck and lost in this constant pattern of sin and sacrifice.
Through the waters of John’s baptism and through his invitation to repent, John gave his people freedom and way to find their way again, and he pointed beyond himself to Jesus who seeks out the lost and finds us, who offers us all a new way to live our lives, a new way to live in peace with each other, and new hearts that draw us closer to God.
Let us this season get lost in the joy, wonder, love, and grace that we find in Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.