Text: Matthew 3:12
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Dec 4, 2016
Every year it is the same at our house. Thanksgiving is over. Autumn decorations come down. Up goes the Christmas tree, colored lights on the shrubbery on the front lawn, and the manger scene in our living room. As evening settles in, the lights twinkle outside, and inside we have lowered the lights as we sip hot cider and listen to soft Christmas music plays in the background. The Faupel household, like most of America is ready for Christmas. But then on Sunday morning, as Mary Abrams so aptly reminded us last week, when we get to Church the only thing that reminds us that Christmas is near is the Advent wreath.
And today, the second Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist comes crashing into our living-room, flipping on the overhead lights. We squint until our eyes adjust to the bright hardness that comes in with John. Like hot cider burning our tongue, John blazes white-hot. He’s got a pitchfork in his hand for an object lesson and he’s yelling like a street preacher. All holiday music is drowned out as he bellows: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Right now God has laid an axe to that Christmas tree of yours.
But before we cry out in protest, his boney finger point to a small green shoot growing out of the stump of our Christmas tree. Christmas might be just around the corner after all, but John is here to tell us of a different way to prepare for it.
A. Today’s gospel begins by telling us that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea. The wilderness is an important place in the Bible. The Children of Israel passed through it on their way to the land of promise. The passage from Isaiah which he quotes to give focus to his own ministry, speaks of building a superhighway through the wilderness. When Isaiah first gave this prophesy, the Jews were in exile in Babylon and he was promising that God was preparing a speedy way home.
When Matthew quotes this passage, however, the Jews have returned to their homeland. But they are occupied by a foreign power, Rome. They still feel like they are in exile. John called them from the capital city, Jerusalem to the wilderness to hear his message.
B. We find John at the Jordan River near the mouth of the Dead Sea. It is only a fifteen mile trip almost strait east from Jerusalem, but it is not an easy journey. You had to follow a narrow winding road and it felt like you were going down a steep mountain. Jerusalem was 2,400 feet above sea level. By the time you reached the Dead Sea however, you are at the lowest point on earth, some 1,300 feet below sea level. The road in John’s day was a narrow trail, winding down a mountain side to the sea. There were many ravines along the way where bandits would suddenly appear to fleece the unwary traveler.
Yet the city folk from Jerusalem, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, made this journey in droves to hear this street preacher. It was almost like going to a Donald Trump rally!
C. You and I know that the wilderness is not merely a place on the map. It is also a foreboding region in the geography of the heart, and sometimes in the collective soul of a congregation as well. Jesus experienced the wilderness as a place of testing before He began his ministry. No one wants to linger long in the wilderness because it is so desolate and dry. Its bareness forces us to recognize our absolute dependence on God to provide for all of our needs. We soon long to go back to the way things were before, but we can’t go back.
But going forward can be difficult at well. Remember, the Children of Israel walked up to the borders of the Promised Land two times and looked across and both times decided taking the land was too hard. They turned back and wandered aimlessly for forty years. All of us today have discovered in our lives we can’t go back to the way things were before and if we choose not to go forward all that is left to do is to wander in the wilderness. It is the worst fate of all. It is not living. It is only existing. Throughout my life I have met many people like this. I’m sure you have too. They wonder if it will ever end. They feel like they are on a merry-go-round and can’t get off. What can they do to stop the merry-go-round and find a way to move forward?
In today’s gospel, John’s very brashness gets our attention, and then offers a word of hope. God may lead us into the wilderness, but He does not intend for us to stay there. But John’s message also reminds us that moving forward may require some significant change on our part.
John could have ministered anywhere. Unlike St. Paul, our namesake, who went to the major cities of his day, John choose to make his voice heard in the wilderness. He forced the people to come to him. The reason for this is simple. Paul’s mission was to those who up to that time had been outside the covenant of God’s grace.
John’s call, was to those who had been inside the covenant. He called them to return to the very banks of the Jordan River, the threshold through which they had first entered the land of Promise. He called his people to prepare for God’s coming, to have hope, for the Messiah was coming who would bring healing to the broken hearted and set the captive free.
What I have been talking about this morning can easily be applied to each of us as individuals. You may find yourself living in the wilderness, wandering aimlessly, looking for signposts to find the way out. If this is the case John’s message is for you. There is a way out. It is possible to live in the abundant life of the spirit. It is possible to experience anew that life is well worth living. Advent can be a wonderful time of waiting, anticipating, preparing for a time of victory.
I think you have recognized, however, that my focus this morning has been on us collectively as a community of faith. All of us know what it is like to live in the land of promise, but like the first century Jews to also experience a sense of being stuck, of wandering in the wilderness. I also think we are ready to move forward.
As our senior warden has told us, next week we move into our Year of Jubilee. Our Anniversary committee has made exciting plans for the coming year and has set before us some exciting goals. To reach them, to achieve them, will mean that we will experience change. But we have the knowledge that the one who John announced has come. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Indeed he has prepared the superhighway. He will lead us each step of the way!