Fire from the desert

A sermon on Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12

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s we continue our movement through the season of Advent, we’re brought face to face with the figure of John the Baptist, whose role it was to proclaim the advent—the arrival—of the coming kingdom. In the words of the writer Frederick Buechner (Peculiar Treasures: a Biblical Who’s Who),  “John the Baptist didn’t fool around.”

He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time.

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As I’ve observed before, John was engaged in something not unlike street theatre or performance art. He dressed like one of the prophets of old, drew on their language and inhabited their desert terrain. And his message, like that of those prophets who predated him by hundreds of years, was to call Israel back to its foundations.  There is a deep urgency in the message that he brings, and it is pretty clear that he doesn’t for a minute doubt the severity of the coming judgment. Again from Buechner,

The Kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be a pink tea, you’d better think again. If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the axe like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like what’s left over when you’ve lambasted the good out of the wheat. He said being a Jew wouldn’t get you any more points than being a Hottentot, and one of his favorite ways of addressing his congregation was as a snake pit. Your only hope, he said, was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had.

John’s message is one that will strip away all of the sentimentality from our preparations for Christmas; it is not impressed by images of sweet angels, homey looking stables, and placid babies lying in mangers. When John the Baptist speaks, we should feel the fire in his voice.

And that challenge to the Pharisees and Sadducees—the ones he calls a  ‘brood of vipers’—that they not try to justify themselves according to their bloodlines as children of Abraham? The force of that is basically to say that birthright as a Jew is no justification at all. “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” John says to them, which is essentially his way of saying “God has no particular need of you, regardless of the correctness of your family tree.”

Make no mistake. John the Baptist has the future of humanity in view, and his outlook is not what you’d call rosy. He does believe that his hearers have some fighting chance of being left standing after the coming judgment, but only if they really fight to put themselves in order.

Some thirty years after John the Baptist first appeared in that desert place, Paul sat down to write his great letter to the Romans. Paul, of course, is writing in light of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; Paul is writing from within a context in which the promised Kingdom of which the Baptist had preached had been inaugurated… inaugurated, yet not yet brought to its fullness. Though he lived some 2000 years ago, Paul writes from the same context in which we live, the time between the first Advent of Christ and the final Advent in which all things will be brought to completion.  The time between the times.

And like John the Baptist, Paul challenges any presumption that birthright and bloodlines mean anything in the economy of this kingdom. Yet for Paul, this is not a stick with which to strike out at Pharisees or Sadducees or any others who believed their Judaism was their justification. Paul has spent most of his life as a Christian working amongst Gentiles, proclaiming to them a radical inclusion born of God’s love and mercy:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

“Welcome one another,” Paul writes, which may not sound like such a radical proposition to us, but in his context lines between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were all but insurmountable. “Paul is here pushing the boundaries of the community,” writes Dirk Lange,

Yes, Christ came to one particular place, was born into one particular race and a unique religious tradition, but it is precisely this particularity on God’s part that allows God to be paradoxically present in all people, in all cultures, in all flesh. The incarnation is about the infinite becoming fully embodied in the finite and yet never restricted by that finite. Christ’s coming into the world, into the house of David, is God’s coming into all of humanity, for all humanity.

Did you catch that? “Christ’s coming into the world, into the house of David, is God’s coming into all of humanity, for all humanity.” Where John the Baptist had basically been saying to Jews that they better get their sorry lives in order to prepare for the Kingdom—and in some sense at least, really saying that acting to save oneself was something initiated from the human end of the equation… repent, turn around, shape up—Paul is saying that in Christ’s coming into the world God has acted to save us. All of us.

John’s fearsome message implies we need to do something, and fast. Paul’s extraordinary message is that is God who has done something, and on our part we need to first trust that and then to live it out. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

And in case you’re thinking that this is all a case of an Old Testament understanding of God contrasted with a New Testament one, or of a pre-resurrection understanding versus a post-resurrection one, Paul offers up four quotations from the Hebrew scriptures to demonstrate that this radical inclusion is the very thing that God has been doing for centuries.  It is not as if John the Baptist was simply wrong or mistaken, just that he saw only part of the bigger picture. To borrow a phrase that Paul actually applied to himself, John “saw as through a glass, darkly,” partially.

But of course, so do we. And in our own Christmas preparations, we might all too easily skip by the radical claim placed on us by those words, “Welcome one another.” Which is precisely why, on this the second Sunday of Advent, we must hear them again proclaimed, and see if this time we might not hear them with fresh clarity.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

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