January 3, 2014
It was wonderful to watch the children help decorate the church sanctuary last week
It was wonderful to watch the children help decorate the church sanctuary last week and I would imagine most of us have started to decorate our homes. One of the most memorable things we all do in our homes is to decorate the Christmas tree. We get out the lights and the bulbs and the garland and tinsel and many, many ornaments. We see some of that here this morning and we have seen these decorations in the church for decades. I myself have always loved Chrismons…the word meaning…”names of Christ”….they are of a white background and of Styrofoam and each one is shaped to remind us of something about Christ……a crown, a fish, a triangle, butterfly, bible, cup, star, etc. But you know what you never ever find…..on the Christmas Tree or the Chrismon tree or decorations in church or at home is a reminder of John the Baptist. Although he was the cousin of Jesus, John always comes across as judgmental……”Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come”. Repent you sinners. John preached a kind of hellfire and brimstone sermon taking people to task for their sins. So the last thing we want in Advent is to be admonished, to be judged, to be criticized in this season of joy and merriment and celebration and parades and meals and singing and pageants. So much fun and smiles and happiness. John the Baptist comes across as a kind of Grinch….a bah humbug kind of personality.
I know that as a pastor people come to church as a noted writer once said….”trying to recover from Christian judgment”. I know I have officiated at weddings where the remarried couple is married in a Presbyterian Church because the divorce caused them to have to leave their own church. Some are in worship because other churches have frowned on their wanting to be a leader but they are female and cannot participate. Others have been condemned because of their sexuality ; some have to leave their churches because of disagreements over the interpretation of scripture or political leanings so in Advent, should it not be all fun and laughter . Why have a guy around who makes us feel uncomfortable and might judge us.
I remember when I was a freshman in college. I was far away from home and trying to adjust to college life. My parents urged me to study hard and get help if needed with courses that might be difficult to make sure I did not fail. Well, that first semester was hard and I was struggling with English composition. I could not write well and my handwriting was terrible and I could not really understand the professor but I did not seek help. I thought I could handle the final exam but really did poorly. In those days the way you saw your grades was when they arrived in the mail at home. I prayed I would just barely pass…a d- would have a sign of grace for me. When the mail came and I opened the letter from college, I saw that big F staring me in the face. I think I hid in my room for a time afraid of the judgment my parents might have. So I came down into the kitchen to eat and told my parents that I did ok in most courses but that I had failed Freshman English. To my surprise, my parents understood, embraced me, listen to my story and my excuses and said something like…..Well, Joe you can make it up next year . I felt the acceptance and I also felt the responsibility to do better. With that encouragement and support, I did.
So this year…..that is where I see John the Baptist’s story as told by the gospel writer Matthew. And I think that here both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth would agree. They love us and they love us with great depth and passion and commitment. Both were martyrs for the faith. Both died for us and both accepted us for who we are. They welcomed us and they baptized us….with water and the spirit….And they accepted us with all our faults and sins and complexities. But it does not stop there.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus arrive with an astonishing combination or mixture of acceptance and admonition. We all discover perhaps this Advent that we are not only loved and cherished for who we are but that we are responsible for what we do. That is good news this Advent season because…think about it….if God does not care what I do, I might suspect that God does not care about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family of God, in the name of Christ, through baptism and profession of faith, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.
We have to remember here that the folks who came out to see John the Baptist were people of faith. The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious people….like us. They were involved in the life of the synagogue. They worshipped on a regular basis. Their families came to Sabbath. They read and heard many of the Old Testament scriptures. They were all waiting to learn of the new Messiah. Just like us…in church…part of this church……we hear and read the scriptures of both Old and New Testaments…we wait for the coming of the Messiah and more than likely since John the Baptist was from that area, he knew these religious leaders…he may have well worshipped under their leadership…he knew the people who had come out to see him..he knew their families….played with their children when he was a child himself……so he knew them and the kinds of lives they were living. But he loved them and his passion was kindled for them because of his love for them and his love for the church….for the synagogue just as we all love each other and we love this church.
So John is not preaching so much judgment which turns people off but rather is really preaching responsibility which challenges us in our ways of life and commitment of faith. We know God loves us yet at the same time is not going to excuse or wish away our behavior if that behavior is unacceptable to him. John here is calling us to bear the fruit of repentance…a turning around of our lives to live more in accord with the teachings of this Jesus Christ whose birth we are now preparing to celebrate in a few weeks. What better way to prepare for the birth of Christ this Christmas than to re-commit our lives …our whole lives to Christ being the way and the truth and the life for us. John came to baptize and we have been baptized and so we are baptized into Christ’s life and death and resurrection so in baptism we “DIE” to that which hinders us from becoming more faithful and passionate and joyful Christians. The prophet Isaiah says….this new messiah comes with wisdom and understanding and righteousness and equity and peace and reconciliation , faithfulness as we should be if we are not already.
What behavior patters do we have as the people of God or as the church of Christ that need to disappear so we are more responsible with our lives . After all, we are created in the image of God….male and female he created them. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit…what do we put into our bodies and what do we have come out of our bodies.
I love the reading in Isaiah where it describes …” A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse”. I see that meaning a kind of life coming from death. We think of a stump as like a dead tree and then all of a sudden we see a small green bud come forth and it begins to grow. As we prepare for celebrating the birth of Christ, what new shoots can come from us ……is anything dead in us that can now be resurrected….by simply repenting and allowing God to work in our lives. In Christ, God is starting something brand new. The writer Paul says….”In Christ, there is a new beginning”. What new beginning might be possible for us if we but take responsibility for our lives and allow this Christ to enter.
To perhaps help in that happening, I would like us to turn into our hymnbooks Number 13 “Prepare The Way” and take a moment to read that hymn….not sing but read….it helps describe the coming of the Christ….and our need to prepare and be responsible….
Then I want to lead the congregation in a reaffirmation of the covenant of baptism…..
Discussion…..interpretation of each question before it is answered…
- What is our relationship with God? Is it one of trust…..can we reject sin and evil…and what sin or evil do we allow to live in our lives….
- Do we trust Christ? How is Christ our Lord and Savior? Does he reign in our lives…rule our temperaments, decisions, behaviors
- What does it mean to be a faithful disciple? How can we be that in personal lives and in and through the church?
Thanks be to God!!!