The Second Sunday of Advent shakes things up. We are introduced to the character John the Baptist and his ministry of conversion and repentance. John is cousin to Jesus and he paves the was for the ministry that Jesus will start. He is the one whom Isaiah references,
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
Make straight paths for him.”
Scripture: Matthew 3: 1-12
You snakes! Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying look what those that came before us did! I tell you that God can take these rocks and do good works. The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.
At this point you need to make a decision: Are you going to get baptized by John in the river or has John spoken a truth that you find difficult to hear?
The current Bible Study is on a book titled Sacred Resistance: A practical guide to Christian witness and dissent by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. This past week the section we looked at is called ‘Stop Speaking Smooth Things.’ The chapter asks us to consider the things we say, in light of injustices we see in the world, that are easy and smooth. That don’t address the problem head on.
When I first came to St. Andrew’s, the day before I preached for the call there was a meet and greet. During that time a member had a conversation with me and they asked me and I quote “Do I have a spine?” They wanted to know if I’d stand up for certain things or if I’d just roll over and capitulate.
That’s what this chapter of our study book is about. Having a spine or perhaps ‘the guts’ to stand up for causes of God’s righteousness and justice. In our study book Cirelli writes, “While the Gospel does say that the peacemakers are blessed, is also says, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 5:10). Here is where we begin to understand what Jesus means when he speaks of bringing division. The truth is that Jesus created conflict and that many people were opposed to him from the very beginning. But Jesus didn’t create conflict simply for the sake of conflict. He created conflict for righteousness’ sake and was persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a just ruler who with righteousness…shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (Isa 11:40). (Gaines-Cirelli, Ginger. Sacred Resistance: a practical guide to Christian witness and dissent, 72).
Jesus had a spine, he had the guts and the understanding that God’s laws weren’t being applied as they should. That the heart had been taken out of them until they became dull, dogmatic and hurtful to an oppressed people. Jesus sees an injustice there and stands up for it.
John the Baptist has the same conviction of Jesus. He names the problem just as loudly and clearly as Jesus did. Remember, John is also killed for speaking the truth. In our first introduction to John in Matthew’s Gospel we meet a very forceful figure. John, in his camel hair clothes, declares “You snakes! Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins.” It is a clear call to repentance.
It is delivered to all the people who have assembled. Many of those people have being feeling oppressed by the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. Many of them have nothing and they hear a message that tells them to turn to God, to get right with God. That they should not side with the oppressors, that they should find a way to live out God’s laws with love and equity.
Also there that day are the religious elite. The Pharisee’s and Sadducee’s have come to learn about this man who preaches repentance in the desert. This man who baptizes those who are repentant. They aren’t that impressed with God. They see him as a threat, as unnecessary. He will disrupt the status quo, make things more difficult with Rome and disrupt their power and influence. To them John is dangerous.
The question, the question is who are you in this story?
Do we identify with the faceless crowd? Are we ready to change our lives with the coming birth of Christ?
Or do we identify with the Pharisees and Sadducees? Are we the ones who are most challenged by the birth of Jesus and all that Christ represents? Have we domesticated the good news so much that it now speaks Smooth Things instead of challenging our assumptions and disrupting the patterns of our way of life.
Who are you in this story?
John makes it clear that we can’t stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We can’t just live out the letter of the law, making sure that we don’t break the big ten commandments. As if God’s love and designs for our lives could be constructed so easily.
Professor Matt Skinner writes, “Jesus went to the Baptist because he was setting out on his own journey of living and preaching repentance—which refers to a radically transformed way of perceiving the world and comprehending God’s place in it.” (Matt Skiner – Working Preacher)
John’s voice, as disruptive and unsettling as it can be, is a voice that we need to hear. If I am honest with myself, for much of my Christian life I have been the Pharisee or Sadducee in this passage. I have benefited from the status quo and knowingly or not used this to my advantage. My prayer would be to be more like John, to stop saying smooth things. To preach and teach God’s righteousness and justice into the narrative that is our common life together in this world. But I’m worried that if I do that, people won’t like me and I like to be liked and I’m sure you can identify with that.
Friends, the passage this morning on John the Baptist is disruptive. The message of the gospel is disruptive. The birth of Jesus Christ is disruptive. And maybe on a Sunday, after being bombarded by the news and disruption of the world, you were hoping for an hour of peace. You were hoping that the message of peace, as that candle represents, would dominate this time.
Given all the noise in our lives, given the disruption, anxiety, stress, and fear that we often face on a daily basis do we have room for a little more disruption today in John’s message. Do we have hears to hear what John the Baptist is saying? And perhaps if we do have room to hear the message, if we can be comfortable for a moment with our own complicity, then we can be moved. Our own fear, stress and anxiety can subside as we realize that we stand with our ancestors when it comes to issues of God’s righteousness and justice.
Scott Hoezee writes, “The Second Sunday in Advent may be a time to ponder all the paradoxes of Advent and Christmas—paradoxes that would shake us all up if only we took the time to note them. Of course, the problem is that many people even in the pews of our churches see no paradoxes at all. Christmas is as straightforward a holiday as they come.” (Center for Excellence in Preaching)
Except Christmas is not straightforward at all. Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ who came to disrupt and de-establish the status quo.
Can you make straight the paths?
Can you see through the noise?
Can you do this to see and find a better way?
In her book Sacred Resistance Cirelli ends the chapter on speaking smooth things like this, “To disturb the peace will bring us into places of conflict. But it will also bring us into God’s work for real peace – not the kind achieved by denial or burying ourselves in illusions, but the peace that comes through truth-telling and sacrificial love. And we are assured that God will give us grace to persevere, courage to stand on the side of justice and peace, a reward that is beyond anything we can imagine and most certainly a reality better than the way we’ve always done it” (Gaines-Cirelli, 75).
John disturbed the peace and so did Jesus. They did so for God’s sake, for issues of God’s righteousness.
Do we also have the courage to do so or will we be the snakes that John refers to? Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.