Turning Toward Health
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A, RCL
Romans 15:4-13 & Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist proclaims, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We recognize John as being the one who is crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Imagine, for a moment, that you have gone out to see what all this hubbub is about. You travel to the edge of the wilderness by the river Jorden. All kinds of people are there, from the wealthy to the poor. From those with high positions to the lowly. In the center of all this commotion is a man dressed in austere clothing. Clothing that would be even more uncomfortable to wear than it is to look at.
We are fortunate to know that this is not some homeless man ranting on about who knows what. We know of John. We know he is well educated and that he comes from a good family, the son of a temple priest. We can see what he is doing. He is demanding people change their way of life. To return to God and God’s ways. And his message is not new. This theology of repentance is part of Jewish practice. And people back then, like many today, wander away from the practice of true repentance. The practice of stopping those things that separate us from God or our neighbor.
Repentance is to make an about-face, turning toward those things that produce healthy relationships. This is why John calls these Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of Vipers. He says you cannot rely on your lineage to find favor with God. You must do the hard work of changing your bad behavior, your sin, and move toward righteousness.
Now I know that sin can be a hard word to hear. It is a word that we, as Episcopalians, often want to soften. I believe we want to soften it because we hear the word so much on TV or from our Christian neighbors. We hear about sin and the dangers that go along with it. And sometimes, I find that sin can be used as a weapon by some people. It is the stick by which they measure justice and judgment. With our Gospel passage today, we can read scripture that seems to demonstrate this. John the Baptist says, look “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” Whoever doesn’t bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.
Notice that he does not say whoever sins will be thrown into the fire. He knows we all sin. We all do things that put tension between us and someone else. We all do things that hurt one another, sometimes intentionally but more often by accident. We all have a pension to look after our self-interest above others, especially a stranger. Some people call this self-interest ego or original sin or human nature.
It is difficult to change nature. We can’t stop earthquakes, tornados, floods, the tide, or the seasons of winter or spring. Even with practice and years of training, we can only reduce these thoughts about how we are better than someone else. All you have to do is talk to a Buddhist monk and hear of their lifelong practice of finding center, compassion, and generosity. We may not consciously say we are better than others, but in some real way, we say this when we think less of someone else. We are better than the person who cut me off on the highway. We are better than that homeless person who just needs to get a job. We are better than the person on TV who has a different opinion than ours. These are all unfounded judgments that we make about someone whom we likely know little about. We know them about as well as that Christian who claims we are going to hell for whatever sin we have committed.
Our faith tells us that we will sin and that there is no way to avoid it completely. We are told that God is the judge of who receives the heavenly reward. And the apostles show us that we should live life knowing that this gift of salvation is not guaranteed. We have been promised eternal life, but we have also been promised that we will be judged when Christ returns. To make sense of this is to listen to John the Baptist; “Bear fruit worth of repentance.” Show me how you have changed. Show me how, through the waters of baptism, you are made different than the rest of the world. Or as James, the brother of Christ, so eloquently says, “Show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you faith.”
Today we have two people who found this community of Grace Church. They found that this community brings them something that the world outside cannot. They found that Christ, being central to this community is important to them. And they want to begin a journey with Christ and us by their side. Penny and Audie will be baptized in a few minutes. They will make a covenant with God, the same covenant you will renew. And together, we will support each other as we walk this journey of faith.
This faith journey can seem complicated. It officially begins with baptism, but where does it go from there? I think Paul, in his letter to the Romans, sums it up pretty well. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” And in what do we have hope? He says we are to hope to live in harmony with one another so that together we may, with one voice, glorify God the Father of Jesus.
This doesn’t seem like it should be all that hard; to come and glorify God with one voice. To me, it seems here at Grace, we do this pretty well. It seems that we, at least for a moment, can block out the noise of the world and celebrate what is important to God. Each one of us, his children, all of his children even the ones beyond these four walls, is what is important to God. Living in harmony may be more difficult for each of us beyond the walls. But we can bring change. We can set aside our egos and pride and work to bear the fruit of our faith both as individuals and as a collective. We do this through the work we do within and outside this building. And because of this work, we will celebrate our newest members who what to join us in this work. And we will celebrate the work we have done together in contributing to this church. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for your contributions. Whether you contribute prayers; whether you contribute time; whether you contribute money; however you contribute, our contributions bring us together to love and serve the Lord; to love and serve one another and all of God’s children.