SERMON 12/5/10 Advent 2A
Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In the Second week of Advent, we hear the prophetic voice of John the Baptist proclaiming our necessity to repent. Sin and repentance, in a season of joy, celebration, peace on earth, good will towards all, seems like a strange topic, but such is the season of Advent. In the time of year, when we actively anticipate Christ’s coming, we are thus reminded, of our dependence on God and our necessity to return to God. We are never far from the reality of our own frailty, our own failures, and our own brokenness. In today’s gospel, we are clearly told that none are free from sin; all must repent and live a changed life. We all miss the mark, and we all share a common need for God’s grace and forgiveness. There is good news in all that, because it is God who acts, to bring about reconciliation and restoration.
Through the life and ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the model for life abundant has clearly been lived and demonstrated for us. God incarnated, put flesh on His dream for creation, and calls us to follow that dream. Even so, we fail to live up to this mark, this model, which was set for us. We know this because each Sunday, and hopefully at other times as well, we come to God eagerly awaiting the acknowledgement of God’s abundant forgiveness, which has already been poured out for us. We say, “Forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone.” We acknowledge that we can miss the mark sometimes, even when we are not even aware of it. We acknowledge our brokenness when at times we know full well, that we have failed, but God’s grace abounds. Our Lord had a lot to say about the human condition and the brokenness we share.
Jesus taught by parables about brokenness and sin. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of how we can miss the mark, by failing to love neighbors as we love ourselves. The injured man was overlooked by the righteous, until the most unlikely character stopped to care. Through the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus taught how the choices we sometimes make, can bring direct harm to ourselves and to others. The young son took his inheritance and left his family, treating them as if they were dead. He suffered, his brother suffered, and so did his father. In the narrative of Adam and Eve in the Garden, two folks chose not to follow God’s desire, rejected God and trusted only in themselves. They resorted to blaming each other and thus, failed to accept responsibility for self-action. We usually overlook this minor detail when we read the story. Adam blamed both Eve and God for his failure, (it was that woman YOU gave me) and Eve blamed the serpent (the serpent tricked me). The complexity of sin not only includes our desire to put ourselves in the place of God, but many times, it contains elements of our failure to accept responsibility for our own brokenness.
The history of the church is not without such painful reminders of human failure: squabbles, faultfinding, and disharmony have been distractions to her mission, but God has and does act to continue to call us unto himself, despite our failures. The Spirit calles us to cross social barriers, like those demonstrated by the Good Samaritan so that we can reach out with God’s forgiveness and mercy. God is like the prodigal son’s father, who waits patiently for us to return, and then runs to us with open arms ready to welcome us home. Even when we play the “blame game,” like Adam and Eve, the Spirit gently works to change us and by that work; our hearts can be drawn more in line with God’s heart. The Spirit constantly calls us to turn back to the loving God who awaits us, and it is by our turning, that we begin to engage in the act of repentance.
Repentance is much more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” Repentance is about changing the way we live going forward. In an article found in the magazine, Living Pulpit, Rabbi Sarah Reines asserts, “words alone cannot atone for wrongdoing. In fact, even prayer is not enough and neither is ritual. True repentance demands action.” Repentance begins when we acknowledge our actions, we express sorrow, we attempt reconciliation, and we change how we proceed in life. The grace in all this is that repentance is possible even when we are unable to make the first move. We cannot possibly repent on our own. Our hope is that the Spirit, the comforter, will stand beside us and gives us the grace to come to repentance. We come to change when God’s Spirit acts in us.
The imagery that John the Baptist uses to describe God’s work in us is this metaphor related to harvesting wheat. When grain was harvested, it was placed on a threshing floor and with a fork, the grain heads were sorted from the unusable stalks (chaff). The harvester would then burn the chaff, possibly to heat bread ovens, because it was useless for anything else. We confuse this metaphor sometimes, because some people see the wheat and chaff as a comparison between those who are so called righteous versus those classified as sinners. This comparison is not about good people and bad people, it’s about behaviors. Chaff is the things in our life that are subject to the loving purifying Fire of God which purifies our spirit.
Fire is not always destructive. Look at the purifying nature of the flames of a forest fire. After the burning away of scruff, overgrowth, and dead leaves, and out of the ashes, new life emerges. The Spirit working in us, an encounter with the transforming love of God, cleanses and purifies us. We are both wheat and chaff, and the chaff must be burned away. The axe must cut out whatever in us does not bear good fruit. The same Spirit that empowers, us also cleanses us with a purifying fire.
God’s purifying fire makes it possible to recognize that by God’s grace, even in the midst of our failures, we are empowered to grow in our love and commitment to Christ. God’s grace makes it possible to have the courage and the strength that when we fail, when we stumble, and when we miss the mark that we can dust ourselves off, stand and then try again. Each day is a new possibility to stand in God’s grace together, to serve Our Lord. We can easily become distracted from that mission, but we as the Body of Christ, simply cannot allow little things to distract us from what God is calling us to be; a people called to be the light to the world.
As the light to the world, the church is called to live in Harmony so that with one voice, together we may glorify God. Let’s face it, we’re going to mess up, we are going to miss the mark, but God’s grace is abundant and we have to keep trying. None of us are perfect because honestly, none of us are without sin. The good news is that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins. Are we faithful to forgive each other’s? We are one Body of many members. We are not called to this life in Christ, merely for membership alone. We are called to be like clay, ready and willing for the Creator to mold and shape us, for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, for God to set us on a new path; a new path not to be traveled alone, but a journey boldly taken together. By living in harmony, working and serving together, bearing each other’s burdens, and forgiving each other’s failures, we are truly being the Body of Christ.