Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 8, 2019
Matthew 3:1-12 Commentary
“Across the United States in recent weeks, there have been tidal waves of accusation and blame, counter-accusations and blame, judgments and more judgments from the left and from the right and from all points in between. Political parties are said to have been judged by the voters. Individual politicians are said to have been repudiated and put in their place.”
That paragraph is, word for word, how this sermon starter opened in early December 2016. What we perhaps could not have known then is that what I described there in the weeks after the 2016 election of President Trump is that this political upheaval and rancor was about to settle in as a kind of weird new normal. Indeed, if I had not told you this is what I wrote three years ago when last Matthew 3 was the Advent II Lectionary text, you would have assumed I had been describing the last two months in 2019.
Perhaps it was not so different in the days of the Roman Empire 2,000 or so years ago. And into that atmosphere then—and into our fraught atmosphere today—please welcome John the Baptist. And by the way, John is not here in Advent to calm our troubled waters! But that begs the question: how many of our congregations actually have room for him? Is John too shrill?
The Church has always traditionally made from for John the Baptist, and for good reason. As Fred Craddock once pointed out, John the Baptist was the most famous preacher of his generation. People walked for miles just to hear this man and to watch his somewhat theatrical way of preaching. He was a sight to see, all right, but it was his message that arrested people’s hearts. Even people who deemed themselves quite devout before they showed up at the Jordan River ended up going home soaking wet having been baptized by John. Even people who had no intention of confessing their sins suddenly found themselves welling up with tears, telling God how sorry they were, and getting dunked into those muddy waters only to emerge spiritually clean and refreshed.
Of course, like all preachers, John didn’t get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. “Sneaky snakes!” John fairly howled! “Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I’m here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don’t whip out your Members Only temple gold card–your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don’t tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham’s children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he’d turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I’d get serious about that because I’m here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He’s coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!”
This was amazing stuff. It shook people up. It would shake us up. The Second Sunday in Advent may be a time to ponder all the paradoxes of Advent and Christmas—paradoxes that would shake us all up if only we took the time to note them. Of course, the problem is that many people even in the pews of our churches see no paradoxes at all. Christmas is as straightforward a holiday as they come. Starting the day after Thanksgiving it’s just one long string of “Holly, Jolly, Merry, Merry, Joy, Joy, Joy” as children’s eyes shine and lights twinkle and we stuff ourselves with food. We might get a little sick of the non-stop cheer-fest but we don’t typically regard it as paradoxical or ambiguous.
But that creates a “teachable moment” in the Church as we try to shake people up and wake them up. John the Baptist’s traditionally prominent role in Advent provides wonderful foil to the other trappings of the season (which is why John the Baptist is wholly absent from pop conceptions of the holiday season). John reminds us that repentance is involved in preparing ourselves for the Christ. What’s more, the way things go in at least North America now, we many times need to repent for how we celebrate Christmas itself!! Now there’s a message that will strike many people as at least as strong as “Brood of vipers!”
What if we now are the people who have become stone-cold in our faith on account of our having allowed the secular conception of the holiday to suffocate genuine piety and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s advent in our world? What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating an expensive spruce tree in our living room but not much attention at all to the living tree of faith that is supposed to produce the true fruits of repentance? In Advent, do tinsel and shiny ornaments eclipse for us the Fruit of the Spirit? Are we more interested in the still-life golden angel that sits atop our Christmas tree than in living angels who may be God’s messengers to call us to repentance?
At this depressing, frightening, polarizing moment in world history with impeachment and Brexit and Syria and the Kurds and climate change and immigration and all the rest, could it be that John is exactly the shrill voice we need to cut through all the cacophony? Could it be that a common call to repent, to return to our basic humanity, to humble ourselves before God are all precisely what we need to focus us and clarify for us what God’s grand project of salvation is really all about? Fact is, we cannot shut out the cacophony of the moment and we surely will not be successful for long if we try to paper it over with Christmas wrappings and tinsel and bows. That is not what God’s own Son came down to this earth to do either. He came to confront what was, take it head on, and only in that raw engagement with all that is wrong with us could he have a chance to win the victory.
Nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He’s one messy guest. And so shrill, too. You can’t even get through the first verse of “The Little Drummer Boy” before John is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time (John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!).
John is the kind of Advent guest that forces you to wonder either what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.
One hope we still have room for John in our congregations at Advent. His is a voice calling out—a voice we need to hear.
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
Matthew 3 confronts us with a textual hiccup common to the gospels and its appropriation of Isaiah 40:3. Most translations of Matthew 3:3 have it as “A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But many translations of the original text in Isaiah has it this way: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.’” So which is it? Is the crier in the desert or is the message about the coming Lord dealing with his arrival in a desert place? Conceivably we can see this as a both/and: the reason the crier is calling out in the desert is because it is in the desert where the Lord will come (as indeed happens in Matthew 3 when Jesus shows up in the midst of the desert and departs to that same place after his baptism as well). Either way or both ways the idea is the same: the highway to God’s salvation begins in the place of death and chaos because that is where that message is needed the most.
In her wonderful children’s picture book We Were There: A Nativity Story, Eve Bunting (illustrator: Wendell Minor) turns Christmas upside down for us in ways that are revealing.
The simple story shows us first a slithering snake, then a warty toad, a scary scorpion, a shiny cockroach, a swooping bat, a hairy spider, and a furry rat all on a journey. Each creature introduces itself and then concludes with the words “I will be there.”
As the book ends we are shown more common nativity creatures: fuzzy lambs, doe-eyed donkeys, gentle cows. But as those traditional figures in the stable stand around the manger in which the Babe has been laid by his mother Mary, we see in the corner, unnoticed, that small gathering of the snake, toad, scorpion, cockroach, bat, spider, and rat.
Bunting has found a lyric way to remind us that the coming of the Christ is not all about the traditional and cozy trappings in which we have for too long ensconced the Christmas story but that this is a story for all creatures and that Jesus came to embrace and renew the good, the bad, the ugly; the expected and the unexpected.
A simple children’s story like this reminds us of the paradoxes and unexpected twists of the season, rather the way John the Baptist can shake things up for us if only we take time to listen to his message.
(Note: My thanks to children’s author and Calvin University Professor of English, Gary Schmidt, for introducing me to the Bunting book some years back).
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