This sermon is based on Matthew 3:1-12 – the preaching of John the Baptist for December 8, 2013.
Advent is all about getting ready: getting ready for Jesus’ birth and the life that follows it. And so John is trying to help people get ready for God’s coming.
He begins by telling the people who have gathered to hear him: repent!
One of the most practical definitions of repentance comes from an ex-Israeli army officer who served in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. He saw and participated in beatings and detentions of Palestinians at checkpoints. When he started talking about what was happening, his family disowned him but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to remain silent. He said that repentance is “being in the same place and behaving differently.” He is still an Israeli citizen. He still lives in Israel but he behaves differently. He is no longer in the military and his work is to hold the Israeli military and society accountable for what they are asking people to do. He tells the story of his experiences to bring awareness to how the occupation of Palestine is being lived out. This is repentance: realizing that a behavior does not contribute goodness to the world and then choosing to behave in a different way that allows God’s goodness to be experienced.
And why is repentance important: because the kingdom of heaven is near, because God comes to us in the person of Jesus, in the baby who will soon be born. There is urgency to John’s demand. God’s kingdom is near…It isn’t something fanciful that in a faraway place. It isn’t something that will come far in the future. It is near: Now.
Because the kingdom of heaven is so near we have to get ready and the way to do that is by repenting by changing our behavior. Baptism was an opportunity to make a public commitment to behaving differently. By making a public commitment there was a certain amount of accountability within the community for a different way of living. This was no longer a personal commitment but a communal one.
But there are some in the crowd that John is skeptical about. These are the ones that he sees living in ways that harm others: the engage in greed, violence, oppression of the poor. John isn’t sure they have it in them to change and so he questions them publicly about their ability to make lasting change in their lives. These are people who have a grounding in their faith tradition but who are not actually living their faith in the world. These are people who are certain in their faith because they know that they are descended from Abraham and follow the letter of the law. They are observant in their religion. John’s challenge to them is to take their faith outside of their worship and observance so that it can bear fruit in the world.
We live in a culture where our faith has become personal and private. When we come to worship, I get to talk about faith but most of the time you listen to me. And when we leave worship there are few places in the world where we are able to immerse ourselves in our faith and if we do, we tend do it privately in our personal prayer and devotion time. When I was growing up, I was taught that there are four things never to be spoken of: politics, money, sex and religion.
And yet this baptism story has something else to say to us: If all we do is worship and observe our faith, we miss the point. Our faith is not to be observed but to be lived. In the kingdom of God, that comes near to us in the birth of Christ, our faith is lived. It must bear fruit, there must be something that grows out of our faith. John is the one who came before to prepare us for the message that Jesus would bring. John baptizes in community and holds those who are being baptized accountable within community. For John, preparation for baptism requires a willingness to re-orient ourselves to actually hear God’s message. Throughout scripture we are reminded that worship without love, without compassion for those around us is meaningless. And John affirms this in his conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducees.
John also knows that what he has to say is only part of the message. He knows that Jesus is already around as a rabbi and teacher in the community. He recognizes that there is something special about Jesus. We know that at Pentecost, there were tongues of flames that came with the Holy Spirit and touched the people who had gathered so they could recognize the gifts they had for ministry in the world. Again, this happened in community. While individual people were touched, the community was changed and able to fulfill its mission.
We need to get away from the idea that we can’t talk about our faith experiences and the call that God gives each of us. We need to find ways of ensuring that our faith moves us beyond Sunday morning experiences and influences how we live in the world and how we live with compassion and love for those around us. We need to do this as individuals and we need to do it as a community. The kingdom of heaven comes near when we open ourselves to repentance: to behaving differently when we find ourselves in the same situation.
So for example, when we go to Tim Horton’s and find it difficult to understand the cashier because their first language is not English, rather than complain about the immigrants who come in and take Canadian jobs, can we recognize this person as a child of God, worthy of our compassion? Can we give thanks for the diversity that they bring to our community? Are we able to find within ourselves a bit more patience to encourage them in learning the language and the skills they need to do the work? We still go to Tim Horton’s for coffee and donuts but our behavior is different. This is repentance at work and brings the kingdom of heaven a bit nearer.
Has anyone read a book called Dance of Anger by _______. The premise of this series of books is that we are shaped by our families to behave in certain ways. We learn certain ways of being and relating to other people in our families. If one person in the family decides to change their behavior, others in the family will push back, try to keep them from changing. So the change in behavior can be quite difficult because there is always resistance. As one person’s behavior changes, it means that the behavior of all the family members they relate to will also change.
So when we talk about being in the same place and behaving differently, we will find that people around us will resist that change and try to prevent it. If we persevere in acting towards change, our changed behavior will change the behavior of people around us. We know that the kingdom of heaven is near, particularly at this time of year when Christ comes among us. If we are ready for that kingdom to be among us, we need to live as though it already is: Our act of repentance as we prepare ourselves for Christmas.