Monday, December 5, 2022

Preaching in the wilderness. . .

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (A) preached on Sunday, December 4, 2022.

Though we might imagine it would be nice to have seen and heard St. John the Forerunner, I do not think we would be able to bear his voice or his image.  We live in a world that vaccinations are more urgent than repentance, where the opinion of people and social media matter more than God, where the only real sin is not being what you want to be and doing what you want to do, and where death masquerades as life and life is treated as something cheap, easy, and worthless.  If you think John was a handful 2,000 years ago, what would John have to say about us?

St. John preached in the wilderness.  That does not mean he was in the rural country or the lonely desert.  The wilderness in which John preached were the urban wonders and sophisticated cities of a once mighty nation.  Here were the people who had diplomas on their walls and the shiney new technological toys on their shelves.  They were a proud people who thought much of themselves and much of the world in which they lived.  Long ago St. John looked at the urban wonders and pride of a nation and said repent, warned them that God had the axe laid to their root, and the fire kindled ready to consume them all.

We don’t have many like St. John anymore.  We as people won’t countenance those who point out our faults or expose our emptiness.  We live in a world in which being male and female is a momentary feeling, in which marriage is what you define it, in which good is judged evil and evil lauded as good.  Worse, we live in world of churches silent before the corruption all around us and preachers who don’t think sin sells anymore.  We live in a world that needs St. John the Baptist more than ever but he seems to have disappeared.

St. John refused to tell a lie to make people feel better about themselves, refused to bow before the accouterments of power, and refused to treat the problems of our live as a game or hobby.  It was always life or death for John.  Is it life and death for you and me?  That is the haunting question of the day.  We toy with things that matter and treat seriously the things that do not.  Nowhere is that more true than in the Church.  We apologize about the things we ought to defend with our lives and we defend to our death the things we ought to be apologizing for.  Where are those who speak like St. John the Baptist today?
It is to our shame that cannot bear the voice of John in our own time.  It is to our loss that we have allowed the Gospel to become little more than “to your own self be true.”  John was willing to be a thorn in the comfortable side of his day – even if it cost him his head on a platter.  Are we willing to suffer the discomfort of repentance or to be the irritating voices calling others to repentance?  God is calling us to stand up and stand out.  To run to the font where forgiveness washes us clean.  To make haste to the place where sins are forgiven and the sinners restored to clear conscience and a place among the holy people of God.  To bear the fruit of righteousness instead of the poisoned fruits of sin and death.

My friends, the Kingdom of heaven is nearer than it ever was.  The axe is still laid against our roots and the roots of our crooked generation.  The great sophistication of education and technology, of medicine and politics, of leisure time and money to live as we please – these cannot save us.  We are condemned by our abundance because there is no room left for repentance.  We are not satisfied by the riches we have because the longing of our hearts always was and always will be about God.  And we are lonely and sad not because we have no friends but because we do not know God’s friendship in Christ.

Even if we have faith rightly rooted and planted in Christ alone, we have not borne the fruits in keeping with repentance.  Churches have sought members instead of disciples and a faith that lives on the fringe of our lives instead of its core and center.  Faith has not been the beating heart that gives life to our bodies and it has not been the light that shines our way in the wilderness.  Because of this we are warned just as the people of old were warned:  Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

It would all be too much for us and we would be left in despair except that God has an answer.  St. John pointed to the answer then and we are directed to that answer now.  The Christ has come to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  St. John’s sacrament of repentance has become in Christ the sacrament of new life.  By baptism we were connected to Christ’s death and resurrection.  By baptism we who were no people have become God’s people.  By baptism we were washed clean of all our sin and clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  By baptism we wear God’s name upon us and we belong to Him.  As the baptized people of God, our citizenship is not is not in temporary borders but the heavenly city.

St. John was no prophet of doom but the voice of hope.  Even a sophisticated wilderness is not without hope.  God has not written off anyone of us even though we might write off God.  Now is still the day of salvation.  The day is waning and the day of judgment is coming soon but not today.  There is hope where God’s Word is preached in its truth and purity, where baptismal water still calls and claims us for the Kingdom, where absolution still restores the fallen, and where the flesh and blood of Christ feed food for today and for eternity.

St. John was hard and unrelenting in his call to repent but he was not a hopeless voice.  He was and remained focused upon Him who comes in the Name of the Lord, the mighty One of whom St. John was unworthy – just as we are – and in whom the mighty enemies of sin and death are fully and finally overcome.  St. John pointed to the water of hope and the baptism of repentance for all who could not bear the wilderness or darkness or shame or pain of the life sin had created.  That is still what the Church and every faithful preacher does – we point to the water of hope and the baptism of water and the Spirit for all who despair the darkness, are lost in the wilderness, hidden in shame, aching for hope.  

What is our answer to God’s judgment?  Let the axe fly!  We are ready.  Our hope does not lie in the rescue of a lost world but in the new heaven and the new earth.  Our future does not lie in something we might create but in what God has done to make everything new.  Our lives are not attached to this world but destined for the world which is to come, where death is no more and sin has no more claim on us.  Let the axe fly!  We are ready.  We believe in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and we are here right now to feast upon that Lamb and to drink His blood.  Let the axe fly!  We are ready.  We are not yet who we shall be but we are God’s children now, and what we shall be we see by faith in Christ alone.  Our Advent prayer remains that God will not allow our interest in the wilderness from stealing from us the shining city of heaven.  In the Holy name of Jesus.  Amen.

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