Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12
8 December 2019
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
Rush United Methodist Church
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.”
Advent’s Gospel passages,
Both last Sunday and today,
Has led me to think deeply,
To ponder this question:
With Christ’s promised return
What needs to be done to prepare a way forward?
In other words,
What do I need to do as an individual,
And what do we need to do collectively as a Church,
To prepare a way forward
In our life
And in our world?
How do we prepare the way for the Lord?
John the Baptist had a vision for a way forward.
How do you draw a crowd in the middle of nowhere?
– If you’re looking for hunters, put out a deer lick.
– If you’re looking for protesters, put in a pipeline.
– If you’re looking for people to build God’s kingdom,
Call the world to confession and repentance.
Then warn them of the judgment that is to come.
Confession, repentance, and judgment.
Yeah, good times.
That might preach in the Bible belt,
But not so much in suburban Rochester.
Who doesn’t want to confess our personal failures, faults, and sins?
For those who don’t want to see or listen,
Who want to go through life in denial,
Confession may be equated with
Scrapping an open wound with a rusty razor blade.
But for the rest of us,
Take a look around.
The world is on fire
And many delight
In its incineration.
Look and see what is being done to the land and to our neighbors.
Listen to cries of those wrongly persecuted,
Or simply, those unable to defend or care for themselves.
Is this a world we’re happy with?
I’m not happy with myself when I
Make generalized assumptions for the many
Based on the sinful behavior of a few.
I’m not happy with myself standing silently by,
Watching land being stolen, swindled, or misused for profit or gain.
I’m tired of seeing justice purchased by those who can afford it,
Not by those who deserve it.
We have neighbors around the world fleeing war.
Others are fleeing narco-terrorism and cartels.
While we relax at home bingeing on Disney Plus and Netflix.
Hasn’t our individual and collective sin,
Both intentional and unintentional,
Commission and omission,
Caused enough pain and suffering?
It may not be easy or simple,
It may not be painless or without effort,
But the only path forward,
To prepare the way for the Lord’s coming,
Is the pathway that leads us through the valley of confession.
Confession is a dark valley
Where few willingly enter.
The pain is real, but the rewards are great.
Repentance clears the path through this valley.
Repentance clears all the rubble and destruction blocking our forward progress.
Repentance brings low the mighty
And lifts up the lowly.
Repentance crosses previously unpassable ravines,
Broken relationships, and festering wounds.
Repentance paves a highway for our God.
The rewards of confession and repentance
Is a life lived with Christ and in Christ,
Driving with power and authority the completion of the kingdom of God.
John the Baptist plunged the newly confessed
Under Jordan’s icy waters,
With a baptism of repentance,
Lifting them up,
Sending forth each newly baptized individual in a new direction,
Giving each a new vision
For preparing the way
And building God’s kingdom.
Confession identifies the way forward.
Repentance clears the way forward.
But what keeps us making forward progress?
A quick read of our Gospel
Might lead us to belief that fear of judgment is the answer.
If you and I fear the Lord’s judgment enough,
Then that fear will keep us from straying, erring, and sinning.
To which I ask:
How’s that working for you?
Fear is a terrible motivator.
Empty cathedrals in Europe stand
In silent witness to the truth that
Fear is a terrible motivator.
It hasn’t worked for the Church.
Fear doesn’t work for nations or states, either.
We should be on guard
To never wield the threat of fear
On behalf of the moral high ground,
Or in the name of God.
The thorough read of the Gospel
Identifies the nature and purpose of fear.
Pharisees and Sadducees had come from Jerusalem
To be baptized by John.
They were undercover spies for the religious establishment;
Decision makers of the Temple.
Their role and purpose was to protect organized Judaism at all costs.
Their role was not serving the Lord or His people.
Their role was self-perseveration.
If organized religion has become poisoned, pathological,
And is engaged in pacifying the populous
Wielding the bully club of fear,
It is time for those responsible in Church leadership
To be separated from the wheat
And burned in unquenchable fire.
Yes. You heard me right.
Christ is coming to bring judgment
Upon those who use fear as a motivator for self-preservation,
For building up personal wealth,
For enlarging their kingdom of power.
That judgment is devastating
And it is permanent.
Work for Christ.
Live for Christ.
That’s how to avoid fear of the threshing floor.
The Gospel of Matthew
And the actions of John the Baptist
Point us in the direction of a way forward.
But what does it actually mean
To make progress
In preparing the world
For Christ to come?
The Apostle Paul provides some amazing insight
In the fifteenth chapter of his letter to the Church in Rome.
Paul’s landscape of faith was as divided in his day
As today’s American political landscape.
Paul’s religious reality was as divided in his day
As the Church is divided in our world today.
Paul was facing an uphill battle against those
Who had been Jews
But were now converted, baptized disciples of Jesus.
They claimed an exclusive inside-track to Christian perfection
Simply because they were children of Abraham,
Chosen by God.
Yet, God had called Paul to fish other seas,
To cast his net of discipleship to the Gentiles of the world,
Who lived beyond the horizon,
Especially to those who had no Jewish background.
It was, and is, God’s desire to be inclusive of all people,
To welcome everyone to Jesus’ feet
And everyone to feast at His table.
“God so loved the world …”
Preparing the way for the Lord to come
every disciple of Christ has an obligation
To live a life of radical, inclusive, authentic hospitality
For the complete transformation of the world.
Welcome the stranger,
even if they are immigrating from a foreign land.
Extend hospitality to the sojourner who is just passing through.
Give abundant encouragement,
A hand out and a hand up,
To those who are following behind in their journey of faith,
Just as others had done for us.
Welcome every person,
Regardless of history, record, or reputation.
Welcome everyone as a child of God and
As a person of worth.
Welcome all for the glory of God.
Welcoming everyone is harder than it sounds.
We naturally like to surround ourselves with those
Who think like us, act like us, look like us, and share the same values as we do.
Welcoming all requires us to expand our world view,
To expand our cultural boundaries,
To learn and listen to the needs of others.
Just as the Apostle Paul set out across the known world
So too should we.
Welcoming is an attitude that can begin anywhere.
One does not need to travel far to be a welcoming friend.
Welcoming is an intentional effort to expand our experience and world view;
To serve a meal at the soup kitchen,
To attend a Christmas party
at a local day program or supervised apartment complex,
To deliver meals on wheels
Or ring a bell.
Include everyone God sends our way
Into a circle of fellowship and friends
With the warmth of God’s love.
Welcoming often leads one further afield,
To cast off from the lakeshore,
To search other seas.
Like the Apostle Paul,
Welcoming one in the name of Jesus Christ
Prepares the way for Christ to return,
Not only here in Rush,
But also in Rome, New York and
Traveling to Israel next month
Is not only a pilgrimage to the land of our faith,
But also an opportunity to extend welcome and friendship
In the name of Jesus Christ
With everyone we meet,
With everyone God sends our way.
Authentic, welcoming hospitality,
Making friends in the name of Jesus,
Leads to harmony.
If ever our divided world needed harmony,
It is today.
Our God of steadfastness and encouragement
Wants us to live in harmony with one another,
“in accordance with Christ Jesus,
so that together
you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
– Romans 15:5-6
Harmony is the means to a Divine purpose …
To glorify God.
Regardless of your depth of faith or mine,
Living in harmony, glorifying God,
Is a whole lot better than
Living as adversaries,
Divided and at each other’s throats.
In an environment of hospitality and harmony,
Hope is possible.
Hope is probable.
Hope is certain to take root and grow
Until Christmas morning
When the hope of the world blossoms and blooms;
One of us,
God in Christ
Born a child
Given to us as a gift
To save you and me
And to save our world.
Prepare the way,
O people of Israel!
Prepare the way,
Disciples of Christ.
Make your confessions.
Turn back from your former sinful ways.
Welcome with Christian love the stranger, the sojourner, the visitor.
Extend radical hospitality to acquaintances
And welcome them as friends.
This is how hope is created.
This is how harmony leads to peace and
justice spreads across the land.
This is how the preparation of Advent
Leads to the return of Christ,
All for the glory of God.
Prepare the way!
Prepare the way for the Lord!