Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Just so we’re clear, this drawing on the cover of your bulletins is supposed to be John the Baptist, not Donald Trump. It’s easy to get them mixed up. They both used audacious, over-the-top rhetoric to draw crowds. They were both notorious for their unkempt appearance and questionable grip on reality. They both claimed to be ushering in a better world. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that personal values, beliefs, and philosophy don’t matter, or that all world-views are essentially the same.
I offended some people a while ago when, in a moment of frustration, I referred to people who call themselves Christian while supporting injustice and spreading vicious hate as “fake Christians.” It drives me crazy when people profess sin in the name of Christ, but also when other people uncritically accept their claims. So while I think it’s very important to push back against the notion that radicalized people actually represent the religion they claim to represent, the person who took offense at my remark made a good point: who am I to judge the authenticity of another person’s faith, or to define the word Christian? Wouldn’t those I called out say I was the “fake Christian?” They probably would.
John the Baptist faced a similar problem. He had a very different idea from some of his audience of what it meant to be a Godly person. Apparently, many of them took great pride in their Jewish heritage, but their sense of what that entailed had atrophied to a label. John pointed out that even that label had become inaccurate. For John insisted that what really makes a person Godly is their heart and mind and behavior. The definitive part of their heritage was not a lineage, but a life devoted to walking in the ways of God, for what made Abraham special, an ancestor worthy of this esteemed memory, was his choice to trust God and live according to the revealed will of God.
But isn’t that begging the question? Who’s to say what the will of God is, or what it means to live according to God’s will? It seems like we’re right back where we started, but now we have a sense of where to look to find the answers. First it’s crucial to note that John, like every self-respecting prophet, is always pointing away from himself. People who are genuinely trying to discern and do the will of God, and to exhort others to do the same, look for answers outside themselves. So, secondly, we must look where John looks, and points. He looks back, to the foundational story of Jewish identity, and forward, to the imminent arrival of the long-promised Messiah, God’s gift to redeem the world. Thirdly, we should note that John is upholding the integrity of the sacred tradition of which he is a prophet, rather than using that tradition to advance his standing or his agenda. More than that, John was paying a high price for his mission, living in the wilderness, with no property or social standing, and he would go on to pay the ultimate price, a fate he seemed to think inevitable.
So it’s not really so difficult to determine who is authentic. We don’t have to know someone well to deduce their agenda. We don’t have to be experts in a tradition to tell if someone is trying to embrace, uphold, and revitalize it, or if instead they are paying lip service and cherry picking. It doesn’t take a degree in theology to tell the difference between true and false prophets, just critical thinking skills.
The question then becomes, even if the person and the tradition are authentic, do I want to follow or support them? John was saying terribly offensive things. If someone called us a brood of vipers, or told us if we didn’t change, we would be cut down and burned, who among us would stick around to hear what else he had to say? But not only did the crowds stay, but they engaged with John, asking him questions that admitted their own sins. Maybe they were hungry for an authentic alternative to the corruption that had come to surround the Temple. Perhaps some of them felt guilty after collaborating with the brutal Roman occupation and had become so uncomfortable that they were willing to suffer John’s harsh rhetoric in order to feel relief from their sins. Or perhaps Luke is giving us a clue with his concluding line, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
John’s invective doesn’t sound like good news to us, but can we trust our own reactions? I often find that my knee-jerk reactions are unhelpful, or even problematic, so I try to suppress them, and let more evolved parts of my brain do what they do best. I also try to keep an open mind, to listen and engage with people who hold different views, resisting the temptation to live in an echo chamber. This doesn’t pay off in every instance, but the results can be gratifying. So please, challenge yourself. You will find wisdom, compassion, and growth in the most surprising places. And so, here, with John, we take off our shoes and wade into the the Jordan; ankle-deep in the mud, we find the hope of our salvation.
Once the shock of his imagery wears off, we realize that John was proclaiming a message of deep joy. God is about to provide a remedy for the sin that has been afflicting the world, and it’s not too late to get right with God. God doesn’t want to destroy anyone, but rather, God wants us to be the spiritually healthy and thriving people God created us to be. And the remedy is within reach. Be generous, refuse to exploit, be grateful, renew your commitment to faith. And so I hear the metaphor of the wheat and the chaff not as the salvation of some and the damnation of others, but God’s welcome of all people and destruction of all sin, brokenness, and infirmity. The availability of grace to all, even to the most notorious sinners, even to religious radicals, obnoxious politicians, and internet commenters, is good news indeed. So whether we feel righteous or guilty, we should rejoice, for the righteousness of God offers redemption to all, and we need not fear any of our brothers and sisters being left out.
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