Advent 2a, December 8,2013

December 10, 2013

Uncle John’s Wilderness Experience
Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 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.'” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 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? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 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. 10 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. 11 “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. 12 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.”

I’ve been blessed with good uncles in my life. My Uncle Jack is my one blood relative uncle – my mother’s brother, is actually a member of our church here and he is someone I genuinely cherish. He is in my corner and helps me and my family in whatever way he can. He gives me honest feedback on my sermons – which I welcome even when it’s not all positive. Jack knows how to enjoy life and to connect with other people and I love that about him. He’s in Florida right now, which is pretty good timing on his part, so I could go on about Uncle Jack this morning without any fear of him interrupting me, but I won’t. My point is that I am the beneficiary of a good uncle. He loves me well and I am grateful to have him in my life.

I’ve had other good uncles as well. My mother’s sister’s husband was a great man. Uncle Rodney passed away a few years ago, but he was a good influence in my life. He and my Aunt Helen invited me to join them on a trip to Montana during the summer after I finished the 9th grade. I had never been to the Rocky Mountains, and that was an amazing trip. He showed me how to catch the wild trout that live in those Rocky Mountain rushing rivers. He was a large man who had big ideas and who knew how to carry them out. He was a man of great faith. He lived a highly principled life, and he was also a lot of fun to be around. He always found a way to make me laugh. My life was well nourished by my Uncle Rodney.

My other uncle was the husband of my father’s sister. Aunt Jane and Uncle Maurice Jr., lived in Birdeye, AR, which is about as small of a town as there is in Arkansas, but Maurice Jr., was no small player in Arkansas politics. I didn’t spend a lot of time around Maurice Jr., but the people who were close to him thought the world of him. One of those people was Bill Clinton. In fact when my uncle died, my cousin called to see if I would conduct the service. I was happy to do it, and when I called one of his friends to say I wanted to visit with her about Maurice Jr., she said, We do need to talk, you know the president is coming… And he did. President Clinton and I conducted the funeral for Maurice Jr., and that was an amazing experience for me and my family. I am still proud to be connected to a person who helped shape the history of our state and nation.

I’ve been blessed with good aunts and uncles. I am the beneficiary of many good relatives who have helped shape my life, but all of us also have these other people in our lives who aren’t our actual relatives, but who function as aunts and uncles. These are the people to whom we choose to be related. It’s not unusual to refer to a beloved person who is a bit older than we are as an aunt or an uncle – it’s a title we sometimes give go the people we revere for the guidance they provide.

Of course we educated people have become much more sophisticated in the way we define relationships, so we now call those people our mentors, but to call someone a mentor doesn’t capture the affection you have for an aunt or an uncle. You don’t love a mentor like you love a brother or a sister or an aunt or an uncle.

And some of these people who function as our beloved aunts and uncles don’t live in our own century or even in our own country. And as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, I’m suggesting we think of John the Baptist as our own Uncle John. Some might say he was our crazy Uncle John, and he was unusual, but he wasn’t out of his mind in a bad way. He was driven to live in an extremely unusual way, but he wasn’t afflicted with a mental illness. He was consumed by the truth, and he was uncompromising in his appeal for people to hear and to embrace the truth.

John the Baptist isn’t someone I would necessarily choose to have as a relative. I’m not particularly drawn to people who have the personality of an inferno, but all of the writers of the gospels point to John the Baptist as the one who could see the impact Jesus Christ was going to have on the world. In the same way that we don’t really get to choose our actual relatives, we don’t get to choose who our spiritual relatives are as well. We can choose to ignore them, but all of the gospels point to John the Baptist as someone worthy of our Christian attention.

Uncle John was out there, but we don’t need to ignore what he was doing. The truth is that he was pretty un-ignorable to the people of his day. John was not easily accessible to the people of Jerusalem. You had to go on a journey through rough terrain to get to him, but people were driven to find him.

It’s interesting to think of the contrast between the way we do church today and the way that John the Baptist operated. He established his operation in about as in-accessible of a place as he could find – you had to go out of your way to find him, and when you did get to him you weren’t likely to be stroked in a warm and fuzzy manner. While we are inclined to do all we can to lure people in to our houses of worship. There have been occasions when there has been some leftover coffee from our weekly free Community Breakfast for us to use for the coffee we provide in the narthex for our worshipping guests, but I’m insistent that we have fresh and high quality coffee for our worship service. I pander to people to come to church.

And I do my best not to scare people away with the message – in spite of how scary the scripture may be. Jesus wanted us to pick up our cross and follow him to the place of crucifixion. I generally invite people to look at what unusual things Jesus said and did and to consider what that could possibly mean for us. When some really important people came out to the Jordan River to see what John the Baptist was doing he called them bad names and asked them who invited them to get involved in what he was doing. You won’t hear such language from me. I’d love to see a few generous corporate executives who have a passing interest in what we are doing show up here on a Sunday morning.

I hope I’m not as mercenary as I may be implying, but the truth is that what happens in church is a far cry from what John was doing in the wilderness. And the other truth is that we all know there are these moments in history and in our own lives where what needs to happen is far from the ordinary way that life generally operates.

The death of Nelson Mandela has been widely covered lately. I wasn’t unconscious of the anti-apartheid movement that he was associated with and imprisoned for, but I’ve heard and thought and read more about him over the last few days than I ever have before, and I’ve come to recognize what a compelling figure he was. He is certainly a person who had an extended wilderness experience, and a person who people wanted to be near. He was in prison for 27 years, which is about as long as I’ve been in full-time ministry. I’m not saying there is any relation between those two experiences, but it does give me some perspective on how long 27 years is.

Nelson Mandela gave himself to a cause in much the same way John the Baptist responded to the call of his day, and these are our spiritual relatives – our uncles so to speak. We don’t know so much about the early childhood of John the Baptist, but there’s a pretty good article about Nelson Mandela on Wikipedia, and it was interesting to read that Nelson Mandela’s parents were both illiterate, but his mother was a Christian, and she found a way to send him to a Methodist school when he was a child, and the first college he attended was established by the Methodists.

Nelson Mandela didn’t set out to change his country, but he was sensitive to the injustice of his day, and he didn’t back away from getting involved in the promotion of racial equality. He was primarily a person who wanted to live a good and decent life, but he didn’t avoid getting involved in the large drama that was unfolding in the midst of his country, and it played out in an amazing way. He was willing to go in to the wilderness, and when he came out of it he became the president of the country that had sent him to prison. It is an amazing story, and the most amazing part of it is the way he conducted himself as president. He remained focused on trying to create racial harmony in his country, and it’s truly remarkable that he was able to guide the country in a way that avoided what could have been one of the ugliest civil wars ever.

Our Uncle Nelson had God’s wisdom in his heart, and you might say that his life was dramatically shaped by our Uncle John Wesley, who inspired people to go to places like South Africa to establish schools for the children who weren’t going to be educated by the government.

And our Uncle John Wesley was powerfully moved by what Uncle John the Baptist had done in the wilderness. When John Wesley established the classes of people who came together to hold one another accountable to their faith the only thing he required of those participants was to have the desire to flee the wrath to come – which originally came from the mouth of John the Baptist.

I’m not exactly sure what to say about having this desire to flee the wrath to come. I’m guessing that isn’t exactly the language most of us would use to describe what draws us together, but why we are here isn’t far from that. I’m guessing most of us show up for worship because we want to be a part of the abundant life that God wills for us all to experience. Finding that life can be a treacherous journey, and it generally happens outside of the sanctuary, but we are fortunate to have had some good people in our lives to help us find it. We have these aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters who have gone before us and who are here with us to help us find our way through the complexities of our own personal lives and in to the timeless family of God.

And thanks be to God for that! Amen.

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