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Preparing the Way of the Lord – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 – Advent 2, 2013

December 8, 2013 – Hanging of the Greens

 When Bruce and I moved to New Ulm, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the New Ulm Journal.  We are big believers in print news, and we knew we would learn things about this town through the local paper that might take us years to learn by other means.  We were delighted, then, to find that most of our favorite comic strips run in the Journal.  We’ve always loved “Shoe” and “Frank & Earnest,” because we love bad puns.  “Dilbert” and “For Better or For Worse” have just the right touch of real life to help us laugh at ourselves.  But we were especially glad to see that the New Ulm Journal carries “Sally Forth.”  (If you love bad puns, you have to love a comic strip with a name like “Sally Forth,” right?)

Sally is preparing for Christmas this week, and she has had to come to terms with the fact that Hilary, her daughter, has reached an age when decorating the house as a family is not nearly as important as spending time with her boyfriend.  Sally has been reminiscing about years past, when Hilary participated in the traditions of Christmas decorating with a little more enthusiasm.  Just as in real life, Sally’s cartoon memories of happier times might have suffered from too much sentimentality.  Like her memory of the year, when Hilary was five, and Sally tried to explain to her how an Advent calendar worked.  Sally remembers this as a moment of togetherness, but in reality, Hilary has pushed aside the goal of finding a piece of chocolate behind a little door every day.  What she wants to know is this: “Are any of those doors direct portals to Christmas Day?”  Hilary would skip all the decorating, all the chocolate even, if she could somehow jump directly from the Thanksgiving table into the joy of Christmas morning.

The Hanging of the Greens we have just experienced this morning might be the trigger for some of us to wish, along with Hilary Forth, that one of those little doors in the Advent calendar might be a direct portal to Christmas morning.  I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it?  What are we waiting for?

But we aren’t there yet.  We’d like to skip over the hard work of Advent if we could, and get right to the presents and eggnog, but here’s the reality: getting prepared for Christ to come into our lives takes more than garlands and wreaths.  Advent is, after all, the season of waiting.  We might think that seventeen more days is a long time to wait for Christmas to come, but the people of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years, in expectation of the Messiah.  Prophets had been promising for centuries that God would send a Redeemer.  That kind of longing, that patient expectation, puts our impatience for Christmas to get here in a little different perspective, I think.

As John the Baptist began his ministry, some hoped that perhaps he was the promised Messiah.  He certainly spoke with prophetic authority.  But … he was a bit strange.  He lived out in the wilderness, for one thing, and ate whatever he could find.  His message was relentless, and he didn’t seem to care whom he offended with his preaching.  Matthew introduces John early in his gospel, knowing that the story of Jesus had to begin with a prophet preparing the way for the One who was to come.  John knew, even if the people who heard him preach did not, that he was not the Promised One.  He was eagerly waiting for the prophetic word he preached to be fulfilled.  John knew his job was to prepare the way for the Savior, and that the time was very near.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as we find it recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter three, verses 1 through 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.”

Hmm, that’s not really an encouraging message, is it?  I don’t know about you, but being called a brood of vipers doesn’t really make me want to curl up by the Christmas Tree with a cup of hot cocoa.  No wonder John had enemies.  No wonder his ministry was a short one.  He certainly doesn’t sugar-coat anything. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts.  “Get ready!  The Messiah is coming, and you don’t want to mess with him!  This Messiah you’ve been waiting for is going to judge the whole world, so you’d better confess your sins and repent of them, before it’s too late!And yet, even though John’s message is harsh, people flocked out to hear him preach.  Instead of going to the center of town to stand on his soapbox where more people could hear him, John lives out in the wilderness, in the wild country, where no one wants to go.  Yet people from Jerusalem, even all of Judea, come out to hear him, and to be baptized by this prophet of God.

John’s baptism is a curious thing.  Like his camel-hair clothing and his diet of bugs and honey, John’s baptism just doesn’t fit into any idea of “normal.”  You must understand that baptism had been around for a long time.  It was a ritual cleansing practice for gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism.  Converts were baptized to signify that they had been purified, and could now enter the temple to worship.  Jews who were born Jews needed no such purification ritual; normal washing and following Kosher laws were enough.  But a gentile coming into the faith was completely immersed, to show that sin had been removed, and the new convert was now acceptable in the temple.

So why were all these Jews going out to the wild lands by the Jordan river – not the cleanest river in the area, by all accounts – to be baptized by this strange man?  They were already practicing Jews.  In fact, Matthew tells us that even the Sadducees and Pharisees, the most influential and faithful groups of Jewish leaders, were coming out to hear John and be baptized.

But John’s baptism wasn’t a standard ritual.  John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, of turning away from sin.  The people who came to John to be baptized wanted to be ready when the Messiah came.  Like their ancestors, they had fallen into complacency; taking for granted their status as the chosen people of God, going through the motions of ritual worship, without experiencing the presence of God in their lives.  John’s preaching had awakened in them a memory of what it meant to be God’s people, holy and set apart.  John’s preaching also awakened in them a hope for the future, and the expectation that the future was nearer than they’d thought.

The Sadducees and Pharisees, as the most religious Jewish leaders, thought their very Jewishness would be enough to save them.  John says, “Not so – you need to repent, too.”  What’s more, John tells us, we need to bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.  Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God.

So what does that look like?  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

According to theologian Alyce McKenzie, “The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials.” “We have Abraham as our ancestor” the Sadducees and Pharisees proudly argued.[1]  But John tells them that isn’t enough.  McKenzie continues, “Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare.  Inaction is not the way to prepare.  Making excuses is not the way to prepare.  Being distracted from Jesus’ coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare.  Not then and not now.”  You can read her entire essay here.

Preparing our hearts for Jesus looks a little different than preparing the Sanctuary, as we have just done.  The season of Advent is a time for us to prepare, not by putting up more greenery or strings of lights, beautiful as they may be.  Decorations can help us remember the deep truths they represent, but they can also sometimes be the way we cover up the messiness of our lives, the dark places in our hearts.

The season of Advent is a time to reflect, to ponder, preparing ourselves for Christ to enter into us, and transform our lives into something new, something holy.  This season is an opportunity for each of us to allow God to work in us.  Just as we prepare the sanctuary for Christmas with garlands and wreaths, we prepare our hearts for Christ through repentance.  Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!  Repent and believe the Good News: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  It doesn’t take much, really.  Just a turning away from our own desires, as we turn toward God’s deep desire for us.  That’s what repentance is, after all. Turning away from our sinful selves, as we turn toward God’s love for us.  It doesn’t take much space to turn around, but we have to do the turning.

Last year, Mary Luti wrote an Advent hymn that might give us a clue to preparing the way of the Lord, in the world, and in our own hearts.  You can find it here.

Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God. But we can’t manufacture that evidence. It just shows. As you find the “little room” God needs in your heart this Advent season, don’t worry too much about making sure your “fruit worthy of repentance” is showing.  Trust that it will.  Trust that God can change you, if you just give him a little room.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:9

Justified – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Justified.
In printing, this word means the way text lines up along both the left and right margins of the page. “Justified” can also mean acceptable, or reasonable under the circumstances: for example, if someone proves to be trustworthy, you would be justified putting faith in that person; or, under certain conditions, an action is justified, such as deciding not to wait any longer for someone who is already an hour late for an appointment.

But in this passage we are given today from the Gospel of Luke, “justified” means something else. It means being made righteous in God’s eyes. It means being made right. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter, verses 9 through 14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Like last week’s passage, this story is introduced with an explanation. Some of the parables Jesus come to us without clarification, and Jesus explained other parables to the disciples only after the crowds had gone home. But here, we have two parables back-to-back that Luke introduces with some editorial comment, so his readers will be sure to understand their purpose. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time[1], to alert these listeners to their foolishness, so Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

Jesus first describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about these men – and they were all men, by the way – to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was a real Jew’s Jew: obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A good Pharisee considered it his duty to know the Law inside and out, and to live according to each detail of that Law. A Pharisee was a Really Good Guy.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Guy. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung. It would be perfectly understandable for a Pharisee to see a tax collector and think to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects his attitude. He stands apart, where he can be clearly seen by others who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a familiar prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps he borrows from a Psalm of David to pray, maybe the one David used to rejoice when he was delivered from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 18:20-24 reads:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

But even if he uses a psalm of David to frame his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He goes on to declare, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” Four times, he uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the Pharisee’s mind, his own actions are what’s most important. As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but, by contrast, he chooses Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote to ask forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.” In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. Compared to God, the tax collector can only beat his breast and beg forgiveness. He can’t help but pray for God’s mercy, fully aware of his own sinfulness.

If the story ended here, it would be easy to think that each of these prayers accurately reflected the men who prayed them, and leave it at that. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that.

The movie, Shadowlands, tells the true story of theologian C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married late in life. Joy died of bone cancer only four years after meeting C.S. Lewis. During a brief remission from Joy’s cancer, a friend tells Lewis, “I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replies, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”[2]

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. That’s why Jesus doesn’t end the story with two prayers that reflect the men who pray them, because prayer changed one of them. And that is a beginning, not an end. If the tax collector kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This is not an end, but a beginning.

While we do need to follow the tax collector’s example of humble repentance, it’s also important that we don’t get stuck in the “What a worm I am” mode, certain that we are stained beyond redemption. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our failure to measure up to God’s standard. Yes, we need to admit our sin and ask God for mercy, but it doesn’t end there. Once we are made right, we need to act in that assurance, and do right. Not like the Pharisee, so we will be noticed, but like the tax collector who knows how precious grace is.

At the same time, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to be like the Pharisee, either, proud of the good work we do, the way we show up for church on Sunday, the committees on which we serve. Jesus has addressed this issue of pride and self-righteousness before, among his own disciples, so it isn’t something new. When James and John come to him and ask to be seated on his left and right, the other disciples are pretty upset with the way these brothers try to insert themselves at the head of the table. Jesus reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[3]

Once again, we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in hearing about how good we are, for not one of us is good enough. Scripture tells us that there is none who is righteous, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The proud Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in his own righteousness. The humble tax collector trusted in God’s mercy. The tax collector’s honest humility is what sends him home …

justified.

The Greek word used here comes from legal language, and it means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” The tax collector is the one who is made right with God, not the Pharisee. Prayer doesn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Wait a minute! The tax collector is a Really Bad Guy! It’s the Really Bad Guy who gets it right?

Comparison may be the key to understanding this parable. The Pharisee compared himself to a tax collector, and made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness. The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God. His humility saved him. His request for mercy sent him home justified.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer covering nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other prayed persistently and humbly for God’s mercy.

That’s the kind of attitude we ought to have, says Jesus: persistent and humble. Not just in our prayers, but in the way we live our whole lives. We need to think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but to be honest in our humility and desire for restoration to God.

We pray not because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less and less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more and more about loving God, and loving others as much as we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.

So, I must ask you: Have you, like the tax collector, been justified by repenting of your sins? Have you thrown yourself on the mercy of God? Have you accepted the righteousness that God offers through his Son Jesus Christ? If you can answer yes to all these questions, go in peace this day to share the love of God with others, and offer them the good news that God loved them enough to send his Son to die for them. If you long to be justified, to be forgiven of your sins, to live in the peace and knowledge that you have been made right with God, I invite you to talk with me, or with someone here you trust, to learn how you, too, can claim this gracious gift. Amen.


[1] Luke 22:60

[2] Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org).

[3] Matthew 20:26-28