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 2nd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

John Who?


A Christmas Play

If you were writing a movie about that first Christmas what would be your story line? A love story featuring Joseph and Mary would appear to be a natural. A drama about how their love evolved from the prearranged contract between their parents to a romantic relationship between two lovers would certainly capture the imagination of the audience. Their simple love could be shown in contrast to the complicated and conflated relationship of Herod’s royal court. Most certainly, you would bring in the hard working and unappreciated shepherds to appeal to the working class. They could even serve as comic relief as they stumble through life; barely able to provide for their family, forced to stretch the truth about the health of their flocks and concealing things from their owners. The audience would enjoy the irony shown by the appearance of the angels to these social outcasts.

Speaking of angels, you would want to include them. This would also allow your creative George Lucas-type imagination and technological skills to shine. You would also want to include the innkeeper and his wife. My favorite portrayal of an innkeeper is Barmen from Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. He is so absent-minded Strider says, “He is only able to remember his name because everyone yells it at him all day.” Finally, you could conclude your epic film with the appearance of wise men; learned scholars who studied the heavens and contemplated the writings of past civilizations.

Do you think that we have them all? Well, you left someone out? Does anyone know who we left out? We left out John the Baptist. John who, you ask? John the Bapitst.

While John may have been left out of that first Christmas, he surprisingly keeps reappearing every three years in the lectionary readings during Advent. The Baptist is an unlikely Christmas character. We do not include him in any of our nativity scenes. Nor do we dress up a boy in camel hair and tie a leather cord around his waist for the Christmas pageants. However, I do know a few boys that on a dare would gleefully eat a wild locust just to gross out the girls. Both John’s demeanor and style do not seem to fit with our Martha Stewart Christmas Celebration. The tender cry of a baby is more pleasing to our ears than John’s shouting, “You brood of vipers!!!” Now that would make a different Christmas card!

So why do we include this abrasive personality in our celebration of Christmas?

The Man From The Past

John is presented as the physical embodiment of past a generation of prophets. His dress is similar to Elijah. The OT prophet is said to be a “… hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist[1]. John dressed in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist. Image is everything for both Andre Aggazai and John. He wanted people to think of Elijah when they saw him. “In the popular Judaism of Jesus’ day, there was an expectation that one day God would bring in the messianic age, setting all things right, restoring the fortunes of Israel, and placing the ideal king on David’s throne.” [2]The sign of that king’s coming would be the return of Elijah. John’s symbolism signifies that the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations of Israel were about to come to fruition. It would be as if Abraham Lincoln should suddenly reappear to speak to the US Congress or if Martin Luther King, Jr. should return to lead a civil rights march. Or, Jonathon Edwards would suddenly reenter his New England the pulpit and call America to return to its moral and spiritual heritage. John was not just an ordinary countryside preacher. His walk, his talk, his heart, and his soul resonated with the faith and vision of the Old Testament prophet. His presence charged the atmosphere with the electricity of revival.

The Message From The Past

If John was a man from the past, he also came with a message from the past. Throughout the OT, the prophet had one mission – to call the people back to the covenant. Prophecy or the foretelling of events was secondary to their calling. The prophets did not appear before the people of Israel to tell them what God was about to do. The prophets appeared to tell the people what God expected of them. The prophet called the people to return to the obligations of the covenant.

God had established a covenant through Moses with the people in the desert after they left Egypt. He promised that if they obeyed his laws, he would bless them with economic prosperity. These laws had spiritual, political, and economic dimensions. The people were not to serve other gods. They were to defend the cause of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. They were to provide for the sojourner – the homeless. For the OT prophet economic justice could not be separated from religious righteousness. The nation of Israel was to be the model nation that worshipped God in spirit and in truth and preserved justice for everyone. But Israel had forsaken that covenant. They worshipped other gods. They took advantage of the poor and ignored the suffering of the widow. John emerged to call his nation to return to its moral, political, and spiritual heritage.

Matthew summarizes John’s message in a single sentence, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”(Matt 3:20.) My computer software dictionary defines repentance as “remorse for past conduct.”[3] Remorse is a feeling that comes after we recognize that we have done something wrong. President Lincoln captured the true sentiment of this feeling in his Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, when he wrote:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, the many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.[4]

Remorse that leads to confession is the first stage of repentance but the word also includes more than just the feelings of regret.

The Greek word for repentance– μετάνοιαincludes both the feeling of contrition and a changed life. “Repentance requires a basic reorientation of one’s life. In repentance one turns from one framework of meaning to another, from one way of thinking about self, others, God and life to another competing and compelling vision.”[5] Repentance is more than the expression of remorse through a confession. It also requires the demonstration of that feeling by a changed life.

Spiritual Housecleaning

To help us understand the process of repentance, I would ask you to consider how you will prepare to entertain dinner guest this holiday season. Hospitality is seldom a spontaneous event in our culture. Schedules must be coordinated, meals must be prepared, and houses must be cleaned. We just don’t ‘drop-in’ for a bit to eat anymore. We have to plan and prepare for the event.

The first step requires extending an invitation, usually orally, to someone. Once that invitation is accepted, we begin to layout our plans. Our preparation plans require a two distinct but equally important components. One part of our plans includes cleaning. We vacuum carpets. We dust furniture. We scrub toilets, sinks, and cupboards. In Wenatchee one of my duties consisted of hosing down the front porch. While Wenatchee is known world wide for its apples, I will also remember it as the spider capital of the world. I was always amazed at how many spider webs graced our front porch.

The second component includes decorating. Carol will often make a centerpiece for the table from her collection of dried and fresh flowers. It is her way of showing our guests that we are honored to have them in our home.

Our Advent celebration should also include the both components—cleaning and decorating. Confession is the cleansing of the soul, the unburdening of the heart but our preparations plans do not end with the removal of the unwanted dirt. God wants us to redecorate our lives. He wants us to take new habits, a new lifestyle, a new way of living. He is our invited guest. He not wants to see that our house is clean but he also wants to see its splendid beauty.

Someone may still ask, so how does John fit into the picture? John serves to remind us that not only is our house dirtier than we thought but the situation is more serious than we imagined. To convey the importance of his plea John uses the image of a tree that does not bear fruit.

During our last year in Wenatchee, we saw orchard cut down throughout the valley. The price of apples had reached a record low. The growers could no longer afford to grow Red Delicious apples, so they were cutting down the trees and replacing them with something that would produce a profit.

John presents us with another startling image of God. Last week we were shocked to hear God referred to as a thief. This week God is presented as an impatient orchardist who is about to destroy those who are not bearing the fruit of repentance. This image of God is like a powerful blow. It shocks us. But what kind of blow is it?

A dad was playing with his young son in the yard one afternoon. While they were playfully wrestling, the father swung is arm and accidentally struck the young boy in the face. The child was stunned by the impact of the elbow. It hurt. The son was just about to burst into tears but then he looked into his father's eyes and stopped. Rather than explode into tears, he burst out into laughter. Dad would later write that instead of anger and hostility, his son saw a father's sympathy and concern; he saw his father's love and compassion.[6] John’s image of God may be a sharp blow but if we look into the eyes of the Father, we will see the eyes of forgiveness.

Conclusion

Each year we get out our Nativity scenes and quaintly celebrate the birth of Christ in our self-satisfied, self-centered lives. We become so immersed in the holiday plans and activities and so proud of ourselves for our religious rituals, and so enamored with our pietistic ceremonies that we forget to consider whether our own hearts are truly ready to receive the child who was born to be King. Thomas a Kempis once wrote

“No man deserves the consolation of heaven unless he persistently arouses himself to holy contrition.

John the Baptist in his camel and natural food diet would applaud those words. The man from the past warned Israel that unless she changed, she would not be ready to receive her king. I wonder are we ready? When are Lord return will he be able to pull from our branches the fruit of righteousness are will he cut us down and throw us into the fire.

Someone once said that John the Baptist could really take all the fun out of Christmas. I disagree. John’s message enables us to experience the true joy of Christmas. It reminds us that the joy and happiness of the holidays comes from the love offered to a repentant heart.



[1] The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Commentary, (Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 26.

[3] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc.

[4] President Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, April 30, 1863, quoted by Brett Blair Available online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/repentance.htm.

[5] Long, p. 27

[6] James W. Moore, Some Things are too Good not to Be True, Nashville: Dimensions, 1994, p. 43. Adapted by Brett Blair, December 4, 2001, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com.



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