Sermon for Advent, 12/4/2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Let me just be honest. John the Baptist frustrates me a little bit. He’s like the crazy uncle you invite to your Christmas party since he’s good for some laughs, and he ends up going on an awkward, angry rant that makes everybody leave. Instead of telling stories about his adventures in the desert eating locusts and honey, John calls the guests a “brood of vipers” and says that God is ready to cut them down with an ax if they don’t have “fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been putting in long hours this fall, so John’s prickly speech feels like getting kicked in the stomach after running a marathon. What do we do with John the Baptist? According to Isaiah, he’s supposed to be the voice in the desert who prepares the way of the Lord. So how do these words of his prepare our hearts for our savior King to be born in Bethlehem?
Preparing the way of the Lord means that something’s got to get cleared out of the way for God to come through. It seems like that’s what all this talk of axes chopping down trees and winnowing forks separating wheat from chaff is about. Highways don’t just fall down out of the sky and roll out across the earth like a red carpet; somebody’s got to bulldoze some land and blow up a few mountains to prepare the way for a road to come through.
I had first-hand experience with this once on a smaller scale. 10 years ago I spent the summer in a little village called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas in southeast Mexico. One day the town gathered to clear brush out of a meadow so they could walk through it. The way they swung their machetes looked so natural and effortless. So I asked for a machete and starting trying to cut with it but it was quickly confiscated. They said, “No sirve, gringo. You’re going to cut your legs off with that thing.” I begged and pleaded until they gave it back, and it only took about 15 minutes for me to get a nice fat blister on the inside of my thumb. Life is brutal in a world without bulldozers where you have to blaze trails by hand.
So I wonder if preparing the way of the Lord is the same kind of vigorous labor on a spiritual level. Do we need to have achy muscles and blisters all over our hands to feel like we’re doing enough to build God a highway? John the Baptist says that the trees that don’t bear fruit need to get cut so that God can come through. Well, what counts as fruit? And what needs to get cleared away? Our interpretation of John’s words hinges upon how we answer these questions. Let me share one way of reading this that is natural to pastors like me who are always trying to get more people here and get the people who are here more involved. What needs to get cleared away is whatever creates scheduling conflicts in other peoples’ lives that keep them from all the things that we want them to do for God’s church. And the fruit is whatever those wildly successful mega-churches do that causes them to grow bigger just as many Methodist churches get smaller.
These past few weeks we’ve been very involved in outreach. We went out to the VRE station at 6 in the morning to hand out hot chocolate the week of Thanksgiving. This morning we hit the neighborhoods around here with door-hangers about everything that Burke UMC is doing for Advent. Several evenings this past week, I flipped through our church phone directory and called anybody whose face I hadn’t seen in worship to invite them to come out to our Advent activities. Does preparing the way of the Lord mean spending more hours doing church work and clearing out the rest of our busy schedules? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure, because putting in longer hours doing church work hasn’t made me more excited about the coming of the Messiah. How is it that we can spend more and more time doing church work but still not feel like we’re spending any time with God? Why do we long for Christmas to be over and done with already rather than savoring the excitement of the birth of our savior?
Maybe the fruit God is looking for is something different than achievements. And maybe the dead plants that need to get cleared away are not so much our scheduling conflicts but our unhealthy attitudes about our achievements. The Pharisees that John attacks in his speech were not slackers. They spent all their time trying to be perfect according to their stringent interpretation of God’s law. If anybody had fruit in their lives, it would have been the Pharisees. If they were around today, they would be the rock star church people who have time for three Bible studies a week and two mission projects and sing in the choir and serve on four different committees. So why did John the Baptist attack them so viciously and suggest that their fruit was unworthy?
John says to bear fruit that is “worthy of” or “fitting for” repentance. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s a combination of two Greek words – meta, which means “after” or “beyond” and noeō, which means to “think” or “perceive.” We oversimplify the concept of repentance in English when we say that it means proving we’re sorry by fixing our mistakes. Metanoia is not necessarily tied to a specific sin or mistake. It just means that something has happened to completely change our hearts and compel us to perceive our lives much more deeply than how we saw it before. The fruit of which John speaks is not so much evidence of doing a lot as it is a changed way of being. John is telling us to show with our attitudes that our hearts have really been moved. And if we want to be moved by God, then we have to stop moving first.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached that “true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only ‘righteousness,’ but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’… This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled… ‘the kingdom of God’ [or]… ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ It is termed ‘the kingdom of God,’ because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. [When God] sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ It is called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.”
The four candles of Advent stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we open our souls to the reign of God, these are the fruits that it yields. As Wesley said, heaven opens up inside of us. We cannot “work on” having hope, peace, joy, and love; these fruits are gifts of God and the only thing for us to do is receive them graciously. God doesn’t want our achievements; He just wants us; and He wants us to experience the hope, peace, joy, and love that abound naturally from living in complete trust of Him. When we don’t trust God, then all of our efforts to serve Him and bring glory to His kingdom become like barren trees that we need God to be merciful enough to cut down. What are the barren trees in your lives? I’ve been worrying so much about proving myself as a pastor that I forgot to be a vessel of the One whose plan completely exceeds our understanding. The garden of my heart is so cluttered with dead plants that there’s no room for a manger in which a baby king can be born. I need for God to cut off the dead branches and toss my soul around with His winnowing fork until all the chaff has been shaken out from the wheat.
Preparing the way of the Lord is not a backbreaking act of labor for us to do; it is what God does for Himself in our hearts if we trust Him enough to let Him. And so the real question this Advent season is not “How are you getting ready for Christmas?” We should be asking ourselves instead how we have opened our hearts to the reign of God so that the hope, peace, joy, and love that only God can give will be what we feel as we wait by the manger for the birth of our King.