Sunday, December 5, 2010

Missing the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 5, 2010
William G. Carter

“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.”

John the Baptist is an awkward character for Advent. He usually shows up at this time of year to splash some cold water on our Christmas preparations.

While the shopping mall cranks up the carols before the Halloween candy goes stale, John stands up on a desert rock to shout “Repent!” At a time when people survey the catalogs and pick out nice clothes for loved ones and themselves, John simply wears the same garb – the skin of a camel, fleas and all. He will not RSVP for holiday parties. He probably won’t send a thank-you note if you send him a gift. He will sing carols at your front door.

If you want to see him, you have to travel to where he is, out in the austere desert somewhere southwest of Jericho. People speculate about him and wonder where he comes from. That’s easy: his father was an old man, a priest in Jerusalem. John takes his religion outdoors. He preaches to the snakes, both reptile and human. He has one sermon. It is very brief: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And all kinds of people go to hear him.

They take a bus of tourists out to see him. The road is dusty and the air conditioning doesn’t work. The fat people get off the bus, cameras around their necks. The host minister leads them in a brief prayer, and then explains that John is something of a throw-back. “He’s the last prophet of the Old Testament,” explains the minister. “Dresses like Elijah, eats like Elisha. Takes no prisoners whenever he preaches.”

The little band of tourists traipses around a large rock, looks for a place to sit, and there is no place to sit. It’s just as well. John sees them, screams at them, and condemns them for wasting money on a bus when they can walk. One of them says, “I’m glad we don’t have a preacher like him.” Pretty soon, their hair is blown backwards. So they leave to find a nice store with olive wood souvenirs.

As they leave, they pass some religious leaders on a retreat. These guys are easy to spot in their formal gowns. They have taken off time for the weekend, and gone reluctantly to hear this preacher. A few of the more-than-usually-stuffy ones are concerned about John’s rhetoric. He is preaching without a license, teaching without certification. That concerns them.

The rest of them wonder why so many people are slipping out of town to go hear John preach. They are curious. What is the attraction? What does he say? Why are so many people going to hear him? Well, they never find out. When John sees them, he picks up a rock and hurls it at them. Then he screams, “Go back to the fires of hell where you came from!” With that, he spins around and walks away.

What is the attraction of this man? Why do the Gospel writers want us to see him?

It’s not so simple to claim that John is preaching against the establishment. There is no evidence that he is taking on organized religion. He speaks of the same God. He speaks of the same Kingdom. Everybody agrees that John is grounded in the same scriptures as everybody else in Israel. “This is the one,” says Matthew, “who embodies the very promise of Isaiah – he is a ‘voice hollering in the wilderness.’ This is the one who prepares us for the way of the Lord.”

John makes that hope concrete. “There is somebody coming who is greater than me. I splash you with water, but he shall burn you with Holy Spirit. He will take a big hooked fork and separate the grains of wheat from the lifeless stalks. Then he will burn that chaff with unquenchable fire.”

You know, given the choice, I think I’d prefer John the Baptist to the One he’s talking about. With John, you get your hair blown back by a sermon and then you get wet. But to hear him speak of Jesus – John makes it sound like Jesus is going to change us.

For what does John say? “Even now the axe is swinging at the root of the tree, and the fruitless tree will be thrown into the fire.” John doesn’t have an axe – all he has is a sermon. And he points toward Jesus as the one who separates the fruitful from the dead.

Then John says, “You can’t say ‘leave me alone, I come from a good family.’” The Kingdom of God is not a status system where some people are better than others, where some people are better connected than others, where some people act more pious than everybody else. People enter only one at a time. Either they come to God, having turned away from everything else. Or they will be exposed as selfish and manipulative, trying to scam God and prove they are better than they really are.

John’s point is well taken. We cannot come to God, flash our passing report cards, and assume that we are good enough on our own to enter a kingdom that does not begin or end with us. Something else is needed. Something like faith, hope, and love.

God plants faith as a small seed in our hearts and then waits to see if it grows. Will the seed of faith grow to take over the work we do? Will it determine the ways we spend our time and our resources?

God announces hope; it’s not a hope in our own striving, not a hope in our own achievements – but rather, a hope that history is moving somewhere, a hope that God will finish everything once began, that God will transform all things with grace.

And then God surrounds us with love: there was love before we were born, there is love all around us. Every day, God comes to us as love. Then God watches to see if that love is actually shared. Are neighbors enriched by our love? Are the little ones protected? Are the hungry fed? In the ways we live and give, is there any evidence that we have been loved?

I used to think that John the Baptist was the harsh one, the demanding one. This time through the text, I realize he is pointing to Jesus. What does he say about the One who comes? Jesus will swing the axe, carry the winnowing fork, clear the threshing floor, and throw the chaff into the fire . . . Jesus is the One who will change us. Either he will make us more loving (and therefore more holy), or he will have little use for us (which would make us expendable).

The text for today is more about Jesus than it is about John. John takes his bony finger and points to a Savior who really can save us. He can save us from superficial religion that aims to merely make us feel good. He can save us from the presumption that sitting in church is all it takes to be a Christian. He can save us from ourselves and all the stupid things we do; if we hand ourselves over to him, he will not only rinse us clean, but burn away all our destructive urges.

Jesus can change us, save us, but he will not do it cheaply. Just as it once cost him his life, it’s going to cost us everything. He will do surgery on our souls, and it will take away our reputations. It will reduce us to becoming dependent, humble, and completely available. All our arrogance will need to be amputated. The path of healing will take a while, especially if it’s going to last. Yet this is the only way to keep us from missing the kingdom of heaven.

We have a God who not only wishes to untangle our crooked paths but expects us to be honest about them. This is the kind of Advent God who comes to us in Jesus. It’s the kind of God that John knows – a God with the power to raise us up from dead and lifeless stones, a God who makes us a tribe of children who hunger and thirst for the world to be healed.

Such healing will not come cheaply. We remember that, as we come to this Table and taste broken bread and the poured-out cup. And we hear the promise once again: healing can come; it can come for those who want it more than anything else.

Is this what you want?

(c) William G. Carter
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