Preached at St James in Dexter, MI on Advent II (December 8, 2013), Matthew 3:1-12
John says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And John says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
And John says: “I 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.”
The words of the prophets are interesting words to be hearing as we approach the Feast of the Incarnation, as we approach Christmas. Their words are not sweet, or soft. Their words are not a warm, comfortable seasonal greeting. There is no real hint of the gentle Baby Jesus in them.
They are words of warning. Of judgment. They are discomforting. Bitter. Harsh. They are the words of the prophets telling us to repent. And if we’re being called to repent, it must mean we’ve done something wrong or we’re going down the wrong path. Right?
This is not a fun or an easy thing to hear during the holiday season. We’re so busy with so much to do. We’re trying to forget how much money we’re spending or wishing we had more to spend. It’s cold – it’s really cold, actually. Bills are due. The fact that we are doing something wrong is about the last thing we want to hear. Especially when were trying so hard to get things right – the right gift, the right recipe, the right decoration, the right outfit, the right song, the right card.
And so, it’s just a little hard to hear the words of the prophets saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I feel like saying, “Yeah… thanks for that. Thanks a lot.”
And yet, we cannot ignore the voice of the prophet. The prophet is the one who sees through things, who sees the eventual outcome of what is happening because they are so in tune with God’s Will, that they can glimpse the future. And more importantly, they can glimpse the truth of the way things are now. They can see through the conditioned response of our world to God’s Truth.
Prophets are the ones who warn us. They are the ones who try to get us to change our ways because we are so conditioned by the ways of the world, that we cannot see what we’re doing. We are unable to see God’s Truth staring us in the face, begging for our attention.
Prophets are counter-cultural because they are called to bring issues to our attention – issues that we would rather not think about. Issues that exist because of injustice, injustice that exists because we are often more focused on our own lives and the people in them that we either don’t have the information we need to make better choices or we choose to hear what is convenient.
It’s hard to see the big picture, when our lives are packed with activities, and responsibilities, and to-do lists, and busyness. But there’s a prophet in all of us. The part that can see a bigger Truth, and our part in it. And we often don’t want to listen to it.
Sometimes, their words implicate us, accuse us. Sometimes their words make us uncomfortable and we would rather that they just shut up and let us enjoy our lives in peace. We don’t want to hear that we’re missing the mark. Because we’re trying so hard to get it right.
Earlier this year, when a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, what was your reaction? Inexpensive clothes are made by factory workers in Bangladesh who work in unsafe conditions because the factories are forced to bid lower and lower in order to get the lucrative US contracts.
But what we, as a culture, tend to care about are getting clothes at a cheap price. We don’t think about the true cost.
And are you aware of the true cost of electronics? Electronic gadgets become obsolete within just a couple of years because the newer model is faster and has better apps or graphics. Many times, this is a planned obsolescence so that we buy more from the manufacturer.
But very little of our electronics gets recycled and so they fill landfills, where they leak heavy metals into the soil. And because of our landfill standards, we export our electronic waste to other countries where they have lower environmental standards in their landfills and where it’s cheaper to discard the waste.
But what we, as a culture, tend to care about is having the latest, coolest technology. We don’t think about the true cost.
Now, I’m not a prophet, but I’ve just offered you a bigger picture – a couple of ways in which we’re missing the mark, a couple of ways in which we are getting it wrong as a society. I’ve offered a modern-day opportunity for repentance. And I’d like to pause here and check in with how this makes you feel.
- Perhaps you’re annoyed with me for bringing your attention to these issues when you’d rather hear a warm and fuzzy sermon about the coming of Baby Jesus.
- angry or annoyed with the companies who’ve made the decisions to do business this way.
- judged or guilty because you went shopping yesterday and got a good bargain on some nice clothes or picked up the latest new electronic gadget to give as a gift.
- hopeless because these issues are so big that you can’t possibly have an effect on changing them.
- defensive and thinking of an ideological argument against what could possibly be called a “liberal take” on the state of things.
- outraged and want me to chastise and rail against the sinfulness of our consumerist culture.
It’s likely a combination of many of these. Prophets always seem to point to the things we don’t want to see… in the world, in other people, and in ourselves. So, why do we need them? Why do we need to be told we’re missing the mark? Why should we listen when it feels like it’s just another judgment, another world on our shoulders when we’re already carrying so much?
When John the Baptist says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s clear in Matthew’s gospel that John is talking about the coming of Jesus the Christ into the world. It’s clear that he’s trying to prepare people to receive a messiah.
He’s trying to help people free themselves of being focused on the wrong things.
He’s trying to help his followers understand that receiving a Savior is not just about saying the right words or having the right pedigree as descendants of Abraham.
And he calls them a “brood of vipers” – a particularly harsh condemnation because vipers would kill their mothers during birth.
He’s accusing his brothers and sisters of killing that which gave them life. And he’s telling us to repent.
He desperately wants us to be prepared to truly receive the messiah.
John the Baptist’s message is not an easy one to hear. We don’t experience the voice of repentance as a kind one and so we rarely hear the deep love (yes, love!) John has for his brothers and sisters through the accusatory tone of his prophetic words.
Several years ago, I was standing in line at a packaging store at Christmas time. It was the typical scene at a packaging store at Christmas time: a long line, busy people looking at their watches, a lot of stressed people cramped into a small space, a waft of super cold air coming in whenever someone opened the door. It was the typical unpleasant situation.
And as I got nearer and nearer to the counter, I saw this little sign in a frame. It said,
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
When I got to the counter, I commented on it to the clerk and he opened up a drawer and gave me a copy. They kept a stack of them to hand out. And I still have it on my bulletin board today.
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
And the reason I bring this up is because I think that we are so often giving ourselves such a hard time
we are so often judging ourselves for things we think we’ve messed up, or will mess up…
we are so often comparing ourselves against an unattainable model, and so scared sometimes that people will find out that we just don’t have it all together…
we so busy shaming ourselves, that I think this is the real reason John the Baptist’s message is a hard one to hear.
We judge ourselves so harshly that it’s hard to hear the voice of love in the message of repentance.
It’s hard to hear the love the prophets carry for us.
The love that brings them to risk being counter cultural.
The love that causes them to risk being labeled as a ‘trouble-maker,’ because all we can hear is judgment.
And I say that prophets love us because they want more for us.
They want us to release ourselves from the trappings around us and truly be ready to receive our messiah.
They want us to see God’s Truth so that we can make better decisions, not only for ourselves, but for all our sisters and brothers and creatures in God’s Peaceable Kingdom.
Prophets are convinced that the Reign of God is possible. So possible, that they can taste it, smell it, see it… right here, right now. And they desperately want it for us too.
The prophetic voice is not the voice of judgment, my friends. The prophetic voice is the voice of Love.
And I wonder… if the prophets started from another place, if we could hear the prophets telling us how amazing we are, how truly precious and beloved we really are… if we could hear that voice call us to repent, how different it might be.
And so, I found one. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He wrote a bookwith his daughter Mpho called Made for Goodness. And I found this quote (not from the book, but from somewhere on the internet):
“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”
I believe that this is a prophetic call to repentance.
Repent from the belief that you are unloved.
Repent from the notion that you are unworthy.
Repent from the idea that you need to be perfect.
Repent from the pursuit of more and better and prettier.
Repent from comparing yourself to another or to an ideal.
Repent from the attempts to separate yourself from your neighbor.
Repent from the belief that you are anything but precious and whole.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Perhaps if we start from here, my friends, the rest of our decisions could flow from a deeper place of wisdom in our own hearts.
For we are made for goodness. We are made for love.