— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~2nd Sunday of Advent; December 8th, 2019~~~
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.”
Living where we do it does not happen too often. In some of my sojourns into various cities, however, I’ve run across them. You have too. The street preachers who shout at passers-by about God’s impending judgment. They use terms like “hell-fire” and “damnation” and quite often they call you names – “Turn or burn you whore of Babylon!” or they call you a “damnable liar” or a “depraved sinner in the hands of an angry God.” Sometimes they scare up a crowd, but I usually walk on by to the next street corner to wait for the light to change so I can move out of ear-shot.
Admittedly, those street preachers can be somewhat fascinating. If I’m not in a hurry and can listen from a safe distance I might linger for a moment or two to see if anything dramatic will happen. If I do linger, however, it is just for the entertainment. They talk in a way that does not connect with my life. They live in a world that seems very foreign from the world in which I make my way. They seem to imagine that I and everyone who passes by is a magnificent sinner, a world-class evil-doer, a person for whom God holds a red-hot animus that will be unleashed at any moment. Such preaching does not connect with me. In the first place, I’m your ordinary, run-of-the-mill sinner whose sins, while real and sometimes impact-full on those around me, are hardly grand. I am also a man who believes in grace and has a trust that I am loved of God and will never be cast away from God’s care. I do not imagine that I am in the hands of an angry God; so, the street preachers don’t really reach me where I live.
John the Baptist was a wilderness street preacher.
John the Baptist, however, haunts me.
I cannot as easily walk away from John.
His passions haunt me.
His wildness, his dangerous living haunt me.
John’s singling out of the religious professionals haunts me.
John’s sacrificial living haunts me.
John’s insistence on righteous action haunts me.
For obvious reasons, as I read this story, I stand next to those religious leaders and feel sympathy for them as fellow church professionals on the edge of something new. I also feel, with those Sadducees and Pharisees, the sting of John’s berating. There he is all sacrificial and sinewy eating bugs, and here I am well fed and chunky with honey for my creamy coffee. His message is so alive with passion and urgency it calls into question the legitimacy of my soft body of work.
The Sadducees and Pharisees seemed to be haunted by John just as I am; so, they came to the river – why? We don’t know. Did they really come to be baptized by John? Or, were they there to spectate? To collect information on John? To make jokes? We don’t know why they were there, but they came and John singled them out for a real tongue lashing. You can almost see the spit fly as John shouts – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
I feel a little sorry for those guys. Maybe some of them were there out of genuine interest? Maybe some were seekers after the truth? For some it might have been a continuing education event – “Wilderness Preaching for a New Age.” Maybe some were simply curious and had hoped to come and not be noticed? But John with his eagle eye pulls their file and writes them a ticket for peddling bad fruit and dead wood.
Years ago I went to Montgomery, Alabama to visit my siblings, and I was at a traffic light stopped waiting for the green. Behind me pulls up a motorcycle policeman. I don’t know about you, but there is something Pavlovian about police officers pulling up next to me or behind me. I began to worry that I had done something wrong. I actually said to myself, “Bob, you are stopped at a red light.” Well, the light turned green and I started to pull away and doggone if he didn’t turn his flashing blue light on me! I pulled over and he told me my tag had expired. He was right. Those cops on the beat are always going to find something it seems. He did not, however, give me a ticket!
The Sadducees and Pharisees were pulled over by John. They might have thought they were guiltless on the edge of that river traffic, but they were wrong, and John – God’s cop on the wilderness beat – wrote them a ticket.
People, lots of people, were coming out to John to be baptized. People were coming from Jerusalem, from Judea and from all the regions around the Jordan River. For those folks something was missing in their lives. They were hungry for something they were not finding in the establishment religion of their own cities, even in the holy city, Jerusalem. So those spiritually hungry people took off for the wilderness to allow a strange man to call them to something new and to immerse them into a baptism of repentance. John was telling the folks to look for the kingdom of God because it was near. John was proclaiming that the kingdom of God was nigh, and to see it the people had to leave something behind. They had to leave their old lives behind and their old ways of seeing things in the world.
To see God’s closeness the people had to have new eyes that could see beyond their present understanding of their religion, of their faith tradition, of their God. John was there to shake things up. The old ways were no longer working. The religious cliches were shallow and without any real punch. We are children of Abraham said the religious leaders, and John said – “Pleeeease, that won’t work any more!” The bromides of an establishment religion that worked only to prop-up the status quo in a world aching for new life was no longer acceptable. The people, many of them who did not wear the robes and a few who did, knew John was telling the truth; so they flocked to John hungering for truth, life, hope, vision for a new day.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, too. Were they hungering for new life? John did not think so. John wrote them a ticket and sent them off to pay the fine. John told them their tags had expired. The Pharisees and Sadducees needed to bear the fruit worthy of repentance and not to mouth the same old platitudes that kept everyone and everything just as it was.
I think we live in the wilderness today. I think our world is in an in-between time where all the old answers, the old platitudes are called into question. Those old answers, the ones that are no longer working, usually have words like – purity, hard and fast boundaries, judgement, straight and narrow, excessive nationalism, tribalism – these words tend to keep the old guard in power and perpetuate an old age of rule by division.
The new reality that is beginning to sprout up by streams in the wilderness is best described with words like – unity, one world, mercy, openness, united. It is my contention that the church is called to give language to the workings of God’s Spirit in the direction of God’s realm of kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. It is hard work; it is wilderness work, but it is the calling of our time.
Ronald Allen, professor emeritus of Preaching at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, puts the call of Jesus and John upon us as individuals and upon the church this way: The root meaning of “to repent” is “to turn” or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction. To repent is turn away from the values and practices of the old age (e.g., idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity) and to turn towards the values and practices of the Realm of God – love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom, and abundance (“Preach This Week,” December 4, 2016).
Will we have eyes for God’s kingdom come near us or will we be blinded by old and narrow ways that are bearing only rotten fruit. We are in a wilderness age and it is our duty to separate within us and our faith tradition the wheat from the chaff. The generations that will follow us will be strengthened or misled by choices we make during our time.
We can hunker down and, like the Sadducees and Pharisees, decide that God’s revelation ended long ago and nothing new is coming from the Spirit of God. If this is the case then our job as robed ones or people of the tradition is to keep things exactly as they are. The other option, the one to which John the Baptist calls us, is to be open to the ongoing work of God’s Spirit bringing into being God’s new earth.
John the Baptist haunts me because he demanded action, good fruit-bearing action. The faith in the Messiah is not just a brain exercise or even just a heart feeling; Messianic faith is a practice that makes demands on us. As followers of Jesus we are called to act in the direction of God’s new age of love. John did not fully understand it; his image of what Jesus would do was not exactly right even to the point of John questioning if Jesus was the One or should John wait for another. John, however, knew that the same old patterns and the same old bromides and the same old divisions were soon to be burned up or chopped down. John knew that he had to act on God’s call to repent, to turn toward a new world. John’s willingness to act and to act passionately in the direction of God’s kingdom come is what is haunting about the wild man of the wilderness. Am I willing to act on God’s love? Are you willing to act on God’s love? Whether we act or simply take comfort in the status quo, the established order that has been pretty good to most of us in this place, that is a real world question with real world implications.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr put it this way:
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,
but comes through continuous struggle…
(“The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,’
sermon given at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, 17 May 1956).
We are called to act in the direction of God’s realm of love.
Those who were a part of the Southern Baptist Church or the Alliance of Baptists are probably aware of Walker Knight (our own Ken’s father). He was a well known writer and editor of religious magazines, poet, active church member at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Atlanta. Walker Knight died this past week; he was 95. Someone sent me an obituary, one of what I’m sure will be many. Here’s what that obituary, written by Wayne Grinstead, said about Walker Knight:
Walker Leigh Knight, founding member of the Alliance of Baptists, passed away on December 1, 2019. As a journalist and a minister of the Gospel, his life and work focused on themes of grace, compassion, inclusion, and reconciliation.
In his teens, Knight heard a preacher at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, rephrase the Beatitudes as follows: “Blessed are those who want to see things set right, for they will help accomplish it.” Later, Knight would say, “I had no idea this verse would characterize my life from that time on.”
Throughout his long career, as Knight worked to “set things right,” he encountered frequent, prolonged, and often harsh criticism.….. A writer with a gift of synthesizing complex ideas into a few approachable words, one of Knight’s poems, “The Peacemaker,” was quoted by President Jimmy Carter during the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The poem includes the now well-known line, “Peace like war must be waged.”
Walker Leigh Knight was a gentle and courageous crusader, a minister, and a journalist who lived his life waging peace.
John the Baptist haunts me,
but not because I think I am a sinner
in the hands of an angry God.
I do not think of God as the cop
always ready to write me a ticket for some failure.
Rather, John the Baptist along with Walker Leigh Knight
and many others who have gone before me
and among whom I live even now,
inspire me with a holy haunting to live and act
in the direction of using my life and my abilities
to be a part of setting things right,
to be a part of ushering in God’s new realm of love
even and especially while living in the wilderness.
Maybe you, too, feel this same holy haunting?
If so, we can pray, show us the way
this day and every day
how to act to prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.