Sermon for 12/8/2013 from Pr. Mark T. Peterson at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Holliston, MA.
Gospel: Matthew 3:1–12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3This 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.'"
4Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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.
11I 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. 12His 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."
Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
As we celebrate the season of Advent, and wait for Christ’s coming, we’re confronted with readings like today’s from Matthew’s Gospel, and this prophet, John the Baptist, who in talking about repentance, seems to be giving us the following message:
“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Jesus is coming to town.”
Jesus is coming…so you better be good for goodness sake.
When understood like this, this cry for repentance can seem an awful lot like the threatening warning used to invoke better behavior and more cooperation from children each December. But, instead of getting coal in your stocking, one gets thrown into a fire instead.
And, taking this to the next step, the message of a certain Saint that is celebrated this time of year is generally one of grace. In my experience, no matter how one’s behavior has been, whether they’ve been bad or good, they usually get a present. The fact is, I only know one person that has actually gotten a lump of coal in their stocking. In the realm of our faith, life generally revolves around the threat of getting thrown into a fire, except as it turns out, Jesus, like the guy in the red suit, is a pretty good guy, so most people get “saved” in the end. Yet, as a result, the repentance we are called to today, becomes about feeling really sorry for the bad stuff you did, and also a pretty good confidence that in the end, you’re going to get just what you always wanted.
Things get dicey with this whole comparison when we start singing I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus….
But repentance, as it turns out, is not really a call or warning for us to be good, for goodness sake, so that in the end, we can get a present for this behavior. Instead, repentance is a calling for us simply to experience the gift we have been given every moment of our existence, the gift of God’s grace, the gift of God’s life right here and now, a gift which doesn’t even make us wait until Christmas to receive it.
So, something else comes to mind, when I think about John the Baptist’s call to repentance. My mind takes me back to the summers spent delivering pizzas to the hungry people of Rochester, MN, when I was home from school. One summer, as I was making the rounds in our family’s Chevy Celebrity, or Black Beauty as we affectionately called it, the oil light kept coming on, especially when I’d make left turns. Now, I wasn’t a complete car nincompoop, well, maybe I was, but I reasoned the light must have been an electrical malfunction, because I had changed the oil myself, only weeks before. But I also didn’t take into account, that the car had 270,000 miles on it, and perhaps a few leaks…which I’m sure delivered some unwanted oil spots, in addition to the pizzas.
Justify myself as I may, the reality is that I was just too lazy or preoccupied, to check the oil levels and throw another quart or two in, (because that’s what you do when driving a car with that many miles.) That oil light, was telling me to repent, to stop, take some time and put some life into that car.
As you can probably guess, I didn’t repent, until late one night, or early one morning, about 2:00, after a closing shift, the car repented for me, and just stopped, it was dead. And, so instead of oil, I became the thing that gave life to that car, and pushed it the last mile home. The next morning, our local repair guy came with a tow truck, gave the engine a few tugs, and declared, it’s seized up alright. Though, in the end, I think I got to keep the 35 dollars the junk yard gave us for black beauty, which literally covered a 20 percent down payment on the next car I bought.
Today, like that oil light, John the Baptist is calling us to repent. A call that comes to us in the season of Advent and pleads with us to prepare ourselves, to open ourselves for the life that Jesus is bringing. We as human beings, and as a greater creation are many different parts that are meant to work together. The love of God is the oil, given to all of us, so that instead of seizing against each other, we may work in harmony, and be filled with life.
But there seems to be a great deal of terror and warning remaining, and if we are fearful of the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and the purifying fire he brings, we remember a life that shows us the nature of this purification.
As you most likely know, Nelson Mandela died this week, but the witness he has given to the grace of our living God is eternal. In his life, Nelson Mandela joined with many others, and actively called his country, South Africa, to repent from the devilish system of Apartheid, or apartness that it practiced. For this, he was imprisoned, for 27 years, in harsh, harsh conditions. Yet his call to repent lived on, as his captivity became a focal point which rallied the world to the cause of the captivity which held black South Africans in suffering, and caged their oppressors in hateful isolation. And finally, there was repentance, as Nelson Mandela was freed, and the system of apartheid ended. Mandela, was even elected President of South Africa, a position of real power, a position he could use to punish those who had punished him, and countless others.
But now not only free, but also powerful, Nelson Mandela took a proverbial axe, not to the people, but to the hatred and violence of the old South Africa. He burned that old, dead, system down with words of forgiveness, acts of reconciliation, and compassionate love for all people. Now, a little over twenty years later, this purification of South Africa, and our entire world is not complete, but it is bearing fruit, as more and more children everyday are learning ways of love and togetherness, not apartness.
In just a few moments, we will not only hear this call to repent, but actively participate in it. We will be called to stand, and share Peace with each other, as Christians have been doing for thousands of years. We will repent and be brought together in one commonality, the unending love that God has for each and every one of us. And through our repentance, we will be prepared by the Holy Spirit, to receive the life giving body and blood of Jesus Christ which feeds us, or perhaps lubricate us, with the gift of his life once again. For a Savior such as this we hopefully wait. Come Lord Jesus!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,