Sunday, December 8, 2019 – Advent II
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.”
Some years ago, a parishioner gave me a print of a New Yorker cartoon. The drawing is of minister standing outside a lovely stone church, dressed in his finest vestments, and with a very self-satisfied look on his face. He’s greeting the people as they spill out into the sunshine. But the people look anything but serene. Instead, their hair is standing on edge. Or it’s burned down to the nub. Their clothes are singed and tattered. Some have huge dark circles around their eyes. And the caption simply reads: “Excellent sermon.”
How would you define an excellent sermon? What is it that you hope to hear from Pastor Alison or me on any given Sunday? Do you come here looking for comfort or encouragement? Is it a good story you want? Or do you want us to entertain you? Maybe it’s a little bit of all those things. But if I had to guess, I would say that what you probably don’t want is a sermon that leaves you deeply unsettled, disturbed, perturbed.
I heard lots of disturbing sermons as a kid, but one of the most memorable actually happened at a UCC Association meeting. If you don’t know, an Association is a group of UCC churches within a particular geographical area. This church, for instance, is part of the New Haven Association.
As was our custom in that Association, we gathered in the sanctuary of the host church for the worship service that would open the meeting. The appointed time came, but oddly there was no prelude, no one on the chancel, no one in the pulpit. We began to shift uncomfortably in our seats thinking that something must be wrong. All of a sudden, from the back of the church, a voice boomed: “You brood of vipers!” she shouted. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” The voice belonged to one of my colleagues – a very nice woman - most of the time. She walked down the center aisle of that church, a bowl of water in one hand and a branch with leaves in the other. She dipped the branch in the water and flung it at us over and over again, shouting all the while: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
I told this story at staff meeting this week. And our Sexton Kevin chuckled and said that one could get away with that at an Association meeting, full of clergy, but that I probably shouldn’t try it here.
That woman who called us “a brood of vipers” was, of course, quoting John the Baptist. John the Baptist, who looked like a lunatic. John the Baptist, who could never pass the first round of a Search Committee interview. John the Baptist, dressed in a camel’s hair tunic and eating honey and bugs. John the Baptist, preaching that the end was near.
Despite his strangeness and the harshness of his preaching, or perhaps because of it, people flocked to hear him. The Roman historian Josephus reports that on one day alone, as many as 50,000 people showed up for his sermon. But why? Why make the trek into the wilderness to hear that you need to repent? Why spend a day traveling just to hear that the world as you know it is ending? What was it about that message, which most of us don’t want to hear, that was attractive to them?
Well, I think the answer to that question is two-fold. First of all, unlike we who live pretty good lives, those folks were happy that the world as they knew it was about to disappear, because that world was stacked against them. They were poor and oppressed. They had no power or agency. The boot of the Roman Empire was on their necks. Their religious leaders had sold them out, trading faithfulness for expediency. So when the dominant social order means disorder for you and your family and your village, who wouldn’t want it to end?
Secondly, John preached that those folks, who had little to no power, could actually participate in this new world order. They could be part of the change that was coming in Jesus. They could repent and prepare the way of the Lord.
But why was that message of repentance attractive to them while it may be the last thing we want to hear? Part of the answer to that is that they understood that word differently than we do. How can we understand a word that has been so parodied and perverted? It’s the punch line of a 100 jokes. It’s used and abused by huskers, seeking to manipulate and control, to divide and to conquer. It’s the hammer of judgment for people we don’t like or approve of. In addition, we imagine repentance to be feeling – usually feeling really sorry or terribly ashamed of something we have done. We imagine it to be the demand of a God who is disappointed and angry all of the time. And if we don’t repent, then we imagine the threat of damnation.
But true repentance, while it might involve regret and sorrow for what we have done, is really about something far more transformative than wallowing in self-recrimination. Repentance, simply put, is about a change of direction. Repentance is about the realization that some behavior or attitude or habit is actually detrimental to you and others. And once realizing that, you turn around and walk another way.
If only it were that simple, right? The problem with us humans is that our harmful or selfish behaviors are often far more ingrained and pernicious than simply being confused about the way to go. We sometimes need a bit of shock and awe to get our attention long enough to stop, consider, and then turn around.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s why John lays it on so thick. John preached about slithering vipers and a razor sharp ax at the root of a tree and, the “piece de resistance,” something called UNQUENCHABLE FIRE.
Most of my life, I heard that interpreted as the fires of hell – the result of refusing to repent. Maybe you have too. But here’s something interesting: most of the time when the Bible speaks of fire, it doesn’t speak of it as punishment. Instead, fire is about cleansing or refining. It’s about a new beginning, rebirth, resurrection.
Serotiny refers to an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which the release of the seed only occurs in response to an environmental trigger, rather than spontaneously when the seed matures. The most common and most studied environmental trigger is fire. I was interested to read this week that there is a species of pine that only releases the seeds from its cones when there is a forest fire. For those trees, it takes extreme heat to create new life.
I am, so often, that pine tree. So John turns up the heat. John understood that fire could release new life, new hope in us. And because it can, that makes the message of repentance really good news. Its ultimate purpose is not to manipulate or frighten or punish us. To repent – to change direction - is to actually be set free from those things that really manipulate and frighten and punish us. Repentance creates space for something new and wonderful to be set free in our lives – like a seed.