Advent 2A, December 4, 2016

December 5, 2016

(What you need to know about the setting for this sermon is that we had secretly invited the Newport Greyhound football team, managers, and assistant coaches to attend our worship service and to stay for a catered lunch. The head coach is a church member and regular attender, and we wanted to surprise him with their attendance. It was a great experience for our congregation to honor him and the team for their good season. They made it in to the quarter finals of the state tournament — which far exceeded expectations. The entire team wasn’t on hand but a significant portion of them showed up.)

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.”


During these weeks that lead up to the celebration of the birth of Christ, we try to put our hearts and minds in the right spiritual zone. This particular Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, is traditionally the Sunday we read one of the texts that focuses on John the Baptist, because there probably isn’t anyone that had more focus on the need to be properly prepared for the arrival of Jesus Christ.


I think it’s important for us to take a close look at John the Baptist and to think about what he had to say, but in all honesty, he’s a little intense for me. There’s a reason they call him John the Baptist and not John the Methodist. I think we might have some Baptists in the room this morning, and we’re glad you’re here. I hope you can stay awake.


John the Baptist doesn’t talk like a Methodist. We Methodists put a high premium on getting along with each other. We don’t tend to get very clear about what people aught or aught not be doing – which is our strength and our weakness. We’re pretty easy to get along with, but I know that sometimes it’s more important to be honest than to be nice. I don’t think the Newport Greyhounds have had such a successful season because the coaches were primarily focused on being nice. I may be wrong about that, but I’m guessing they can get real clear about what’s expected and where there’s a gap between performance and expectation.


That’s what’s going on with John the Baptist in this morning’s passage of scripture. John the Baptist had a clear understanding of what people needed to do to be prepared for the coming of Christ, and he had no hesitation to share his thoughts about the gap between what they needed to be doing and what they were actually doing.


John the Baptist had a powerful impact upon a lot of people. He drew people out in a way that was unprecedented. Nobody had ever done what he was able to do. People made this difficult journey out in to the wilderness to hear what he was saying and to be baptized by him. He spoke in a manner that touched people who were hungry for an actual encounter with the truth of the living God. Of course not everyone was so well motivated. There were some people who came out to see him because they were sort of threatened by what he was saying, and they were on more of a reconnaissance mission than a pilgrimage. John the Baptist had a special message for them and it wasn’t warm and fuzzy.


John the Baptist did some powerful work. He got people’s attention in a way that was without comparison, and he enabled a lot of people to change their lives in a way that made them ready to receive the truth and the message of Jesus Christ. And while John the Baptist was an authentic messenger of God, I think it’s worth noting that we aren’t primarily followers of John the Baptist. We, who call ourselves Christians, are followers of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist was an important messenger, but he wasn’t the perfect embodiment of God’s message to the world. The perfect messenger of God was Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist did the good work of pointing to Jesus.


John the Baptist wasn’t the savior of the world. John the Baptist is more like a crazy uncle to the world, but I don’t mean crazy in a bad way. He’s our crazy uncle in the best possible way. I love this uncle of ours. He was the real deal. You don’t live like he did without being driven in a powerful way. And I believe he was driven to do and to say what he did because he loved God and wanted to speak the truth. I’m glad we don’t all have to live like he did, but he did what he did because he was totally committed to serving God. He’s our spiritual uncle, and we need to hear what he had to say.


Aunts and uncles play an important role in our lives. They’re sort of like parents or guardians. They love us and they want the best for us, but they aren’t fully responsible for us, and that makes them a little freer to reveal who they are. Aunts and uncles can say and do things that parents are more hesitant to reveal. Parents want to maintain order in the house. Aunts and uncles can say what they think and then leave.


I had great parents, and I loved my parents, but I got some things from my aunts and uncles that I never would have gotten from my parents. My uncle Rodney and 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. Uncle Rodney showed me how to catch wild trout in a Rocky Mountain rushing river and that was about the most amazing thing I had ever done. He was a large man who had big ideas and who knew how to carry them out. He was also a man of great faith. He lived a highly principled life. He never touched a drop of alcohol, but he knew how to have a good time. He could identify the comedy of almost any situation.


My aunt Helen just had her 90th birthday, and I got to see her last Saturday. She’s just about the best person in the world, and she’s probably the most humble person in the world. They had a birthday reception for her at her church, and she was afraid nobody would come, but people of all ages and stations in life came and went for 2 hours to tell her how much she meant to them.


And I had the good fortune to ride down to her party with my uncle Jack. My uncle Jack is someone who knows how to connect with people in an astonishing way. He is a man who fully understands how to extend hospitality. Unlike my uncle Rodney, if uncle Jack thinks you might like to have a glass of wine he’ll make sure to have a case of what you like on hand. He understands the value of friendship, and he treats his friends well. My father wasn’t exactly cheap, but let’s just say he like to cut things sort of close. And my natural tendency is to be a bit of a skimper, but my uncle Jack has revealed to me the value of providing more than enough for other people.


I’ve been blessed with good aunts and uncles. I could go on about others, but my point is that I’m the beneficiary of many good relatives who have helped shape my life. But you don’t have to be a blood relative to people to receive those kinds of blessings. I believe one of the great blessings of life is the way in which we come in contact with people 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 or maybe even a coach.


I never had a great relationship with a coach. The fact that I wasn’t very strong or fast or committed probably has something to do with that, but I had a great relationship with my 10th grade biology teacher. His name was Wes Shaver and he grew up in Tuckerman. I know some of you knew him. Mr. Shaver had a powerful impact on my life. He was smart and funny and caring and he made me want to be smart and funny and caring. I may not be so smart or funny, but I try to care, and he showed me what that looks like. Being exposed to him made me want to be that way. I stayed in touch with Mr. Shaver, and he had an ongoing impact on my life. He died not long ago and I miss him, but what he did for me remains.


Good aunts and uncles and coaches and teachers show us what we can be, and that’s a beautiful gift. I became a preacher because of a man named Lewis Chesser. We’d be late for lunch if I tried to explain how I got mixed up with him, but I’ve been a United Methodist minister for right at 30 years because of him. I don’t know if he gets credit or blame for his influence upon me, but he had a powerful impact upon me.


We in the United Methodist Church claim John Wesley as one of our spiritual uncles. He lived in England in the 1700s, and his own spiritual reawakening prompted a powerful movement within England and the Anglican church. And our Uncle John Wesley was powerfully moved by what our Uncle John the Baptist had done in the wilderness. John Wesley created small groups of people who came together to support one another and to hold each other accountable. These small groups transformed an uncountable number of people, and the only thing he required of those who sought to be a part of one of those groups was that they had the desire to flee the wrath to come – which are words that came from the mouth of our uncle John the Baptist.


Both John the Baptist and John Wesley were concerned about our spiritual wellbeing, and they didn’t want us to go through life without regard for God’s desire to be at the center of our lives. And if we don’t allow God to define who we are we are likely to let some other things control our lives that will lead us in to highly destructive behavior. I don’t believe God is vindictive, but I do believe we get ourselves in to some ugly situations when we live without regard for God and our neighbors.


God doesn’t demand that we allow love to be our guide through life, but something is going to guide our lives, and if it isn’t love it’s going to be something that’s going to create trouble for ourselves and others.


Last week marked the death of Fidel Castro. He and my aunt Helen were born the same year – 1926, and he died on the day we were having that party for my aunt. One of the first things I heard on the news that day was that there were these large gatherings of people who were celebrating his death. I’m sure there were some people who loved him and who felt loved by him, and they weren’t celebrating his death, but the fact that there were these large groups of people celebrating his death got my attention. What a sad thing it is when thousands of people are moved to celebrate your death. None of us make great decisions at every moment of our lives, but who wants to live the kind of life that causes people to celebrate your death.


Our good uncle John the Baptist didn’t want us to live in such an unfortunate way. He wanted us to seek the source of true life and to be nourished by the goodness of God. It’s not an easy thing to allow God to be at the center of our lives. In fact we’ve got to go out of our way to enable God to guide our lives, but that’s the good thing that can happen to us if we are willing.


People had to make an effort to find John the Baptist. He didn’t make it easy to hear and to respond to what he was saying, but successful living is never an easy thing. The easy thing is to not pay attention, to not make an effort, and to not care about God or your neighbor. But the richest thing is to listen, and to hear, and to love, and to care. John the Baptist wasn’t an easy person to be around, but what he said was true, and where he pointed was right. The Lord of Life was coming in to the world in the life of Jesus Christ. He has come, and he can be the one to guide our lives away from wrath and in to the light.


Thanks be to God!




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