“None Shall Pass”

(sermon 12/4/16 – Advent 2A)

black-knight

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.” – Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

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They all stood there on the platform, waiting for the next subway train to come along. It wasn’t as crowded now, on the weekend, as it would have been on a weekday, but that also meant the trains were scheduled a bit further apart. They had a little bit of a wait, standing there in the stale air filed with the sometimes-questionable aromas that seemed to be typical of all subway stations, but it wasn’t so bad – there was a pretty good guitar player playing a little further down on the platform, and more importantly, they were excited about where they were going on their little weekend day trip. Just then, the next train came along; whooshing a gust of air into their faces as it went by, then gradually coming to a stop. Soon enough the doors opened, and a handful of people got off, and then they hopped on and quickly got their seats, just in time to hear the familiar “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” and with that, they were on their way.

The subway was just the first leg of their trip, getting them to the main train station. There, they hopped on a train that went far out of the downtown core. It poked  up out of the ground in the middle of working-class apartment blocks, graffiti-covered warehouses, sidewalk vendors selling bootleg everything, and mom-and-pop bodegas, and then it kept going – out beyond all the urban buildup, first out into the nicer, quieter, suburban neighborhoods, and then even further – out into the remote, undeveloped area, well past the immediate influence of the city itself. Even though it really wasn’t all that far a distance, and it was a relatively short train ride in real time, from their vantage point this was out in the middle of nowhere; they were out in the wilderness. And then they arrived. The train stopped and over the garbled, barely understandable PA system they heard, “This stop is the end of the line; all passengers must depart the train here.” And that was exactly their plan. From here, they’d go out a bit more; maybe on foot, or maybe a cab or Uber if they got lucky, but that didn’t seem likely given that the stop was such a tiny place it really could barely even be called a town. They were headed out to a spot along the shoreline of the river to see this man who had become famous practically overnight; this man who just went by the single name, John. YouTube videos of this crazy-looking man had gone viral; news crews had come out and reported on him. Everyone in the city was talking about him. Everyone was trying to get out here to catch him in person, to see what he was all about, with his outrageous look, his big, booming voice, the wild eyes, and his fire and brimstone preaching that the Kingdom of God was near – that God was just about to step into the world in a powerful way, and that they needed to turn their lives around, get right with God, to prepare themselves for that.  So they all came out to see him. Some people thought he was right on target; he was just what people needed to hear. Some people thought he was crazy. Other people thought he was just a huckster, a con man looking for some kind of payoff on the backside of all this theater. Some of them laughed at what they thought was just melodramatic shtick; yelling at people, insulting them, calling them children of snakes and other colorful things, and even getting people to wade out into the river, supposedly to cleanse themselves of their sins and be made whole and new – when the reality was that given the murkiness of the water along this particular stretch of the river, they probably came out dirtier than when they went in. Still, lots of people heard what he was preaching, and waded on out there. Whether they thought he was nuts, or a con man, or they took what he was saying to heart, the one sure thing was that they’d all remember him, and what he’d said, long after they got back on the train and made their way home in the city.

Well – maybe going out of the city and going out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist wasn’t quite like that, but it was probably something very similar. And it’s true – John the Baptist was definitely a memorable person. He was part of the long line of biblical prophets who made their point, who drove home the message that God was telling them to convey, in ways that were often quite memorable, even shocking at times – some of the outrageous things they did to get people’s attention make even the most shocking of actions taken by today’s protestors look bush league by comparison. And every year during the season of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist again. Right in the middle of the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas, right in the middle of Advent talk of hope, and peace, and joy, and love… we come face to face with John. Weird John. Socially Unacceptable John. Scary John. As I said in the Thursday email, for people of my generation, he’s kind of the Advent equivalent of the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sternly warning that “None shall pass!” to all the joy of Christmas, without first encountering him, and all the potential discomfort that he, and his message, bring to us.

John demands that before we can move past him, we first have to seriously examine our lives. We have to see where we’ve followed ways that aren’t God’s ways, and change that. We have to repent – to turn away from those ways, and get back on course, on God’s path. And honesty, no matter how weird John is, and how discomforting it is to do what he tells us, he’s right – we really do have to do it. Because just as you can’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the dread of Good Friday, neither can you get to the full joy of Christmas without the serious reflection, and self-awareness of just how much we need it to begin with.

I know that repentance isn’t a very popular idea. We tend to think of repentance in very negative terms – that we’re supposed to be sorry, very sorry, abject, groveling-in-the-dirt sorry. We can think we’re supposed to feel like garbage when we repent, and if we don’t, then we aren’t doing it right.

Well, we are supposed to be sorry for the ways that we’re not following God’s guidance in our lives; that will always be at last a part of repentance. But as I invite you to do that self-reflection, examining what you should repent of, I also invite you to do it in a more constructive manner than just that. Think of it in terms of just taking a serious look at your life and seeing how you can do better in the future, and move forward from where you are now. Thinking of repentance that way might still be a little discomforting, but maybe it isn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

If you do examine your life, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you need to repent, that you need to turn from. And it might even be a bit overwhelming, thinking about how you could possibly make so much change. So maybe during Advent, you could focus in on just one of those things – pick one thing that you want to ask for God’s help in turning around, and improving; making your life more consistent with God’s will. And since today, we lit the candle of peace, maybe that can be how you’ll pick that one thing: is there something in your life that you can change that would establish, or maintain, or improve, peace? That might be peace within your own soul; allowing yourself to forgive yourself for something in your past. Maybe it’s peace between you and a family member, or friend, or acquaintance; maybe finding a way to make peace and move forward in your relationship. Maybe it’s a larger kind of peace that you could work for; some kind of social justice in the world, because we all know that true justice is necessary for any real peace. Whatever it might be that you come up with, hold that thought, and that desire, close to your heart this Advent, and throughout the coming year. Pray for God’s help in making that turnaround, that change. And have the courage to make the change, in every way that you can. Think about this, and pray about it, and work on it. I suspect that if you do focus on how you can be God’s agent of increasing peace in the world – or just in *your* world – it will make this season all the more meaningful, all the more special, because we know that the coming into the world of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is what it’s all about – that’s what’s waiting at the end of the line.

Thanks  be to God.

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