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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 2nd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

Out on a Limb

Unlikely Advent Symbols

The phrase going “out-on-a-limb” is a commonly used cliché in our culture. A brief search of the web turned up over 250 references to the term in newspaper articles. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been accused of going “out on a limb” for congratulating the Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich on his victory in the controversial Ukrainian election. Another journalist used the term to mock the Farmer’s Almanac’s generalized forecast that some locale in the region would receive heavy snowfall sometime this winter. A sports writer announced that he was going to go “out on a limb” and predict that the Buffalo Bills will beat the San Francisco Giants Dec 26th, and win NFC west but a rock ‘n roll critic did not want to go “out on a limb” and describe the latest album from the rock group U2, How to Dismantle an A Bomb?, a Christian album but he did note that the album had some definite religious themes.

The term, “out-on-a-limb”, describes an action that is considered risky or dangerous. It is movement away from the safety and security of the trunk of the tree, toward the wispy, thin, appendages. It is not the type of action that we generally associate with Advent much less Christmas. The winter holidays as the secular society calls them, are times for family, tradition, sentimental celebrations. Over the next few weeks we will be seeing commercials with pictures of living rooms adorned with festive decorations, a blazing fireplace, and family members exchanging warm smiles while exchanging gifts and sipping eggnog. These are not the scenes typically associated with activities that push the envelope, or would be considered extreme sports. Yet, that is exactly what Advent is all about. It is about taking risks, going “out on a limb”.

The Scripture lesson brings this out. The passage does not describe Mary’s encounter with the angel, or Joseph’s dream, or the pastoral manger scene. It takes us into the desert where that fire and brimstone preaching is frantically calling a nation to prepare for the one who is coming by repenting. His caustic message was reaffirmed by his clothes and diet—camel’s hair, a leather belt, locust and wild honey.

The religious establishment once had high hopes for him. His father was a respected priest, a pillar of the community. They assumed that John would show respect for the memory of his deceased father and also become a priest but the son of Zachariah broke with tradition. The cousin of Jesus defied every rule of social etiquette. The once promising boy refused any form of compromise. The issues were too critical. A new age was about to dawn. The kingdom of God was at hand and the people of God needed to prepare. He would not engage in friendly, theological discussion nor would he allow the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, to perform perfunctory religious rituals. He demanded a sincere, life changing faith that began with repentance. Authentic faith for John was not about a feel good religion that expected nothing and demanded even less. The matter was so important for John that he was willing to go “out on a limb”.

Advent Warnings

John’s message is difficult to hear. It shatters our quaint and tranquil images of Christmas past but it is a message that the church must hear. The church must listen to the Baptist’s warning because it is as relevant to us as it was to the Sadducees and Pharisees. They had trivialized their religion through meaningless rules and petty political maneuvering. We buried the radical call to discipleship under a torrent of sentimental Christmas celebrations. Our Christmas caroling has drowned the cries of the poor. Our Nativity scenes block our view of the struggle of refugees who have fled their homelands.

This embarrassing reality of our holiday celebrations was revealed to me while reading a movie review by Roger Ebert. In his weekly email, he desperately searched for the right words that would convince his readers that instead of lining up for the usual holiday fare, to attend a movie that will stay in your memory after other films have vaporized. The story takes place in a Senegal village where ancient customs stand alongside battery-powered radios, cars and trucks. A young man returns to his native village from Paris to take a bride but before he chooses one, the eligible girls must be purified by female circumcision. However, one woman, Colle, refuses to allow her daughters to suffer the pain of the ancient custom and has invoked another ancient tradition “moolaade” which means protection. By stringing a strand of yarn across the entrance of her compound, Colle protects six girls. She stands firm against the social pressure of the older women who insist that the girls be purified.

I realized while reading this review, that I would not see this movie, especially at Christmas. I did not want to learn about the injustice of Senegal where men assume control over women’s bodies and the women themselves enforce the custom. The struggle to read the Ebert review was difficult enough. I wanted to hear angels announcing their joyous praise, not young black women screaming in agony. While reading the review I realized that I had become as selfishly absorbed with my own trivial spirituality as the Pharisee and I had to ask myself, would I hear and respond to John’s call to repent.

The church must also hear how John’s message is directed at us, but we must also follow the Baptist in taking the message of repentance to the world.

The Risks of Advent

The Pharisees and Sadducees represented the religious establishment of the day—the status quo of the religious community. The Sadducees especially, had blended the values and morals of the secular culture with their Jewish heritage in such a way that the two had become one. They could no longer differentiate between the commandments of Moses and the values of a secular culture. The latter had so influenced the former. The same has happened in our country. We assume that our national prosperity is the mark of divine blessing upon our capitalistic system and ignore the Old Testament passages that promote debt relief for poor, discourage the ownership of personal property, and prohibit charging interest. An inheritance tax would be unnecessary in a society that was truly governed by Old Testament law.

We have also clouded our views on the purpose of war with national security issues that the blessings of Jesus on the peacemaker and his instructions to turn the other cheek, seem like quaint sayings for the meek of heart and not applicable to presidential policies. Yet, if certain military personnel had followed the Baptists simple instructions to a group of Roman soldiers, the abuse of Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo would never have occurred.

John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus of Nazareth was crucified because they shared a common message that threatened the political establishment. They warned the political leaders that their international intrigues, their national policies, and their political entanglements would be subject to the judgment of God. Herod would one day be accountable to a righteous Lord. Caesar would one day submit to a greater sovereign. John understood the consequences and tried to prepare the nation by offering a word of warning. Many listened and walked into the desert to repent, to turn away from their secular vestiges. Other could not let go. They were too entangled by trappings of their culture.

What about you? Are you willing to admit that your CD player is drowning out the cry of the poor? Are you willing to admit that your Christmas tree and manger is interfering with your vision of the plight of the homeless? Are you willing to take the message of the gospel to a world that prefers their living rooms knee deep in presents, and their tables covered with enough food to feed a small village? How far “out on a limb”are you willing to go?

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