Message for Advent 2 on Matthew 3:1-12at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas
Thank you for your prayers for my dad, he's recovering and doing much better!
Yesterday, I presented Pr. Gnana’s Advent Bible study at the women’s event since she was home with pneumonia. One of her opening comments was that John the Baptist is our primary biblical character for Advent—And my first thought was, “what a bummer!”
“Brood of vipers, wrath to come, judgment, and fire–?” I echo Indiana Jones’ question, in the movie the Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Do we really have to go through all this to get swaddling cloths and shepherds, and praying for peace on earth in the fullness of time? I have already promised myself that next year, I am picking my own Advent texts and John the Baptist and me? -–we get a year off.
But Pr. Gnana is right of course –because just like he did before Jesus’ earthly ministry, John calls us to repent–to turn around and away from our sinful, destructive, or hurtful ways, and turn toward God, preparing the way for Jesus to come anew into our lives.
The religious leaders also come out to hear what all the fuss is about at the river, with so many people being baptized, and opening themselves to a new way of life. Here we see that the judgment John offers is not just about bad, immoral or sinful behavior–repentance is a truth-telling.
It may not just be something you did, or a thought pattern that needs to change, but what you need, who you are, where you are lost, how you are incomplete, where you are broken, how you are willing to turn around to be in a relationship with God to experience what is missing. Repentance is really about learning to die before you die–to die to those things that do not bring life, so you can really live.
The deeper question in repentance is “What is the hardest thing to let go?” Maybe it’s a resentment. Maybe it’s control. Maybe it’s fear or anxiety. Maybe the hardest thing to let go is the belief you have to earn forgiveness, that you are not worthy of grace.
John prepares us by asking us to come to the waters with whatever needs to be changed, whatever needs to be released, whatever truth that has not been spoken so it can be said and let go, so our hearts can be washed clean. For me this week that has meant letting go of control, and trying to do everything, and believing I can do 3 jobs while staffis out recovering from surgery or sick, and doing everything without help.
Preparing for Jesus is really about dying before you die–letting go of those things that are hardest for us to let go of to make room for the life of Christ so we can really live. That’s the truth of repentance–it’s about willingness to be changed–not just to have the slate wiped clean so we can out and do the same things over again--or just pick up a different sin.
Enter the snakes. Perhaps the religious leaders did not get the message that they should not come to the river or see John the Baptist if they do not want the truth. They quickly discover that if they are not prepared to offer honest repentance, truly change or tell the truth about who they are and what they need to let go–John will tell the truth for them.
John’s anger was not against the Jewish religion, but toward anyone who was self-deceived, acted as if they had no sin (as it says in 1st John 1:8-9) especially those with wealth, power, and authority–with the power and resources to change the lives of the poor and oppressed for the better.
Hearing no repentance, nor hearts turned toward God, John called them a “family snakes”–echoing the Garden of Eden from Genesis with a serpent as satan–he viewed the powerful who did not use their power for the good of all as instruments of evil. Then John talks about bearing fruit, cutting down trees, and burning chaff, mentioning fire three times, so it sounds like he is mixing metaphors, but he isn’t really.
It was customary for farmers then, as it may be for some today, to burn the stubble in the field to get ready for the next planting season, and as the fire came near the vipers’ dens, the snakes were often visibly slithering away from the flames. "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance."
John offers an image of preparing the field for an excellent planting season ahead, and many snakes are caught in the fire. This fits with the rest of what he says–a tree that bears good fruit, and the good wheat that is preserved to grind for bread, while the chaf, the dead wood, the fallow stalks from last year, and the broods of vipers are burned.
The fire is purifying, cleansing, refining, where evil is cast aside; the fire is the place of rebirth and re-growth, so something new can come. Fire is the process of repentance–of dying before you die, so you can make room for the life of Christ and really live. The goal for John in repentance is to be cleansed in Baptism to bear the fruit of the coming Messiah in the world–to be cleansed and open to his life and Spirit, words and character, dreams and hopes– that we bear the fruit of the kingdom in the world.
This is John’s life expectancy for us–that in telling the truth, in dying to ourselves and letting go of what crowds out Jesus from our thoughts and our heart, and our day, we open up space to become infused and grafted and implanted with the Spirit, fire and life of Christ within us that his life is our life and our life is his life. Our life expectancy is not about time or how long, how old, but how much light and how much love; how much joy and how much good; how much hope and how much compassion did we share?
Our life expectancy is the fullness of our life in Jesus, the new life he can grow in us when we are willing to die to ourselves–our own ego, or control needs, or addictive patterns, or whatever it is that is the hardest to let go–and allow the life expectancy of the fruit of the Spirit to expand in us– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control!
This week I want you to contemplate what it is that is the hardest for you to let go of–really sink into it in some contemplative time beyond your ego, and find the answer in your true inner self. This is why listening prayer or quiet prayer or contemplative prayer is important. Whether you have 5 minutes or 15–(even if it’a in the bathroom and you get 5 minutes by locking the door)--it is the practice of dying to self, a practice of repentance and giving ourselves to God: we die to the monkey mind and listen for the mind of Christ; we die to the false self full of agendas and get in touch with the true self that God created; we die to the illusion of separation from God and we experience union with the Spirit who always dwells within. Even 5 minutes of this practice a day will help reveal what is hardest for you to let go of this Advent season, open your heart in repentance and create more room for the life expectancy Jesus has for you as light and love for others.
Those whose ministry is to listen to the dying teach us many things. They say that the only two questions almost everyone wonders about at the end of their life regardless of age, is “am I loved?” and “did I love others well?” When you identify the one thing that is hardest for you to let go of, ask yourself how letting go of that and making more room for Jesus’s love will enable you to experience deeper love from others and also to love others well. The dying tell us not to wait to pay attention to this in our life.
Hospice chaplains also share that many are caught by surprise in the dying process, and wish they had been better prepared. Learning to tell the truth and die to ourselves before we die, so we can be filled with the Spirit of Jesus is a spiritual practice that prepares us not only for a full life expectancy here, but a great transition into our eternal life expectancy.
Trusting in the power of Jesus Christ to give us life and life eternal, we do not have to fear any death– whether it is change, fear, having things my way, giving up something we hold precious, like our health or our independence—Jesus covers all of it and all of us, here and into the next life, forever!
That is an amazing life expectancy!
John the Baptist urges us not to wait until the end of our life to fulfill this life expectancy–but to do it now. John knows that the only way to be loved and to love others well–bearing fruit in the kingdom, is through the love of Jesus Christ working in and through our freed and available hearts.