Sermon: December 8, 2019 – Advent 2, the Sunday of Fire – Matthew 3: 1-12
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
This was a hard sermon, to even get the first word onto the page.
On Saturdays and Sundays, I am a creature of habit. Unless I have a wedding or funeral or some other immovable commitment, sermons get written at home on the first half of Saturday. I get up the same time, I start writing the same time, I aim to have the first draft by the same time, first cup of coffee, second cup of coffee, everything has its sequence. But this Saturday, with the same amount of effort, there was not one word on the page by the time I’ve usually got a draft.
The reason for this, I think, is John the Baptist: loud, angry, weird. John pounds on my door and pushes his way in. John screams into the phone and leaves aggressive voicemails I don’t want to reply to. John insults his opponents and never listens. John says he’s pointing toward Jesus, but he’s such a grand-stander that a lot of the focus is actually on him. I just want John the Baptist to go away and let me be.
And yet here he is, just like every year, in the season of Advent, insisting that I listen.
When we were developing this idea of using the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as the focus of the four Sundays of Advent this year, the first thought was to align John with the element of Water because of his baptisms at the River Jordan, but on further reflection, it came clear that John the Baptist’s week needed to be the Sunday of Fire…for this is one “fiery” guy.
So what does this fire-breathing Baptizer have to offer us today? He confronts us, to examine our lives. He confronts us, to tell the truth. He confronts us, to embrace the fullness of Christ.
1.John the Baptist confronts us, to examine our lives.
Life is a lot easier, when we pretend to live in a state of perpetual innocence. But that’s virtually impossible in the world filled with news and opinion and instant video. We are told and shown so much, every day. We need to use our capacity for critical thought in sizing up the hodge-podge being presented to us, but it’s hard to mount the argument that “we didn’t’ know.”
At the risk of over-stating or generalizing, I’m going to say that every one of us knows things about the world that we hide out of sight so we can get on with our usual ways of doing things. Groups like the Food Empowerment Project tell me, for example, how heavily the cocoa industry relies on child labour, so MOST of the time I make sure that the chocolate I consume has been fairly traded… but not all of the time, not even close to all the time. The use of cobalt in my laptop and smartphone present the same issue, and I do even less about that. And five years ago, when I went to Fort McMurray to see things with my own two eyes, I was so impressed to see that they banned single-use plastic bags back in 2009, yet it didn’t really change my behaviour – even now I remain far too sloppy with my plastic usage. Your list of “things you know but try to ignore” will be different from mine, but I hunch you have such a list.
The word repentance is a complex one, but at its heart is to turn around, to turn away from old ways that do not serve, to the extraordinary new realm that Jesus brings. Repentance was the core of John’s baptism: to align or re-align lives with this new Kin-dom, a relational realm of Shalom in which all of creation lives in harmony, peace, justice, and equity. So John calls us to examine, and repent: to reverse negative attitudes and behaviours so that we can be the people that we want to be, more fully reflecting the Divine image that resides deep within; to release old ways of thinking, ways that the next generations wisely want no part of, so that the message of Christ can be heard afresh; to honestly review our lives – what 12 step programs call the “searching and fearless moral inventory”[step 4] – and reorient ourselves toward God.
2.John the Baptist confronts us, to tell the truth.
It’s so curious, in the 3rd chapter of Matthew, that when the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism, John greets them with hostility rather than hospitality: “You brood of vipers!” he rails, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mt 3:7) Apparently, not all versions of the Greek New Testament include the words “for baptism” – opening the possibility that the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to stir up dissent – but for whatever reason, John looked at these members of the religious establishment, and publicly called them out.
The United Church of Canada’s Song of Faith was published in 2006, a wonderful, contemporary exploration of life in the Spirit. One section of that document, says this:
“We are all touched by [this] brokenness: the rise of selfish individualism that erodes human solidarity; the concentration of wealth and power without regard for the needs of all; the toxins of religious and ethnic bigotry; the degradation of the blessedness of human bodies and human passions through sexual exploitation; the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth that threatens our home, the earth; the covert despair that lulls many into numb complicity with empires and systems of domination. // We sing lament and repentance.”
Those words were spoken thirteen years ago, and yet are as fresh as if they were written this month. We do live amidst brokenness, and as much as we need to address that in ourselves, we also need to speak up in the public sphere. As those who function as the eyes, ears, hands, feet and voice of Christ in this world, it is up to us to speak up when the disadvantaged are further disadvantaged, whether by the decisions of government to cut staffing in the crucial areas of universal education & health care, or the market pressures in an expensive town. It is up to us, to notice those whose needs are basically invisible, to address that publicly and to apply those same standards to our life as a congregation. That will happen as we continue to seek ways of making this building more accessible. The pointed words of John push us to look within, but also to be truth-tellers about the brokenness we see around us.
3.John the Baptist confronts us, to embrace the fullness of Christ.
John and Jesus walk such parallel paths. The gospel of Matthew’s birth narrative tells us that their mothers were related, John born a few months before Jesus. Around age 30, John started a ministry to announce the world-altering mission of his cousin, and John inaugurated Jesus into that ministry by baptizing him. And both would die grisly deaths, because they would not be silent in the face of injustice.
The stated mission of John the Baptist was to point us toward Jesus. But the Jesus he points us toward is not just an author of wonderful parables and wise, memorable sayings. The Jesus he points us toward, is even more than the social activist whose actions demonstrated God’s loving embrace is for everyone. The Jesus that John pointed to, is the one to usher in an entirely new age.
On this Sunday of “fire,” John uncomfortably articulates the meaning of Jesus within a final judgment of fire. Through the flames of that frightening other-worldly metaphor, we see a little flicker that is not just scary and disempowering. Matthew has John speak of Jesus as the one separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s so important for us to view that, not as a dualistic, black-or-white images of good people (wheat) and bad people (chaff) but rather, the sorting and sifting that begins with the self-examination we talked of earlier. Each of us, and each community, have things in our lives that honour Christ and serve our neighbours – that’s the wheat to be kept – and each of us have chaff, behaviours and attitudes that simply need to be sloughed off, blown away, or to use the Baptizer’s word, incinerated.
That process, which we can start now, mirrors a bigger thing that God is about: something beyond our view that promises to invert the world as we know it. Although I would rather keep Jesus small and manageable, the entire gospel of Matthew portrays the influence of Christ Jesus as big, eternal, cosmic, and the promised new realm, as bigger than we can really comprehend. It’s not the gathering of an elite group of spiritual honour students who save themselves by being good and pure and blameless; the promised new realm is an entire new sequence of how things work, a new schematic of how things fit together, a full, organic transformation from a world ruled by dominance to a world that reveals and expresses lovingkindness. John pushes us, to face the truth in our own lives and to speak the truth about what we see around us, but not to stop at that. John challenges us to release our grip on old ways and to accept at a soul level that a new way of being is emerging…and that life becomes more full, more real, as we walk that new way beside Christ and within Christ. While the metaphor of fire and judgment is extreme, so is the social transformation that we are called to get onside with.
The heated, simmering approach of John the Baptist may not fit nicely with the angel and the shepherds and the magi of our nativity sets, but it does prepare us to open ourselves to the gift of the Christ in this special season. In this time of worship, in the sacred meal that represents for us the expansive table of Jesus, in our generosity to others and our willingness to live lives that express truth, and openness, and love: may this calling to new life find a home. Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ we pray, Amen.
Food Empowerment Project. https://foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slavery-chocolate/
United Church of Canada. “A Song of Faith” https://www.united-church.ca/sites/default/files/the-manual_2019.pdf see pages 26-33, lines 67-79
For further reading
Allen, O. Wesley Jr. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4308
Allen, Ronald J. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3090
Buechner, Frederick. https://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2019/12/2/weekly-sermon-illustration-john-the-baptist?rq=john%20the%20baptist
Hanten, Helen. http://www.env-steward.com/lectionary/lecta/a-ad2-g.htm
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.