Advent 2A: Is 11:1-10; Ps 72:1-7, 18-19; Rm 15:4-13; Mt 3:1-12
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL on December 7, 2013
I feel a little sorry for the Pharisees and Sadducees. I know they were no saints, but they are really not that much different from a lot of people I know. They put their trust in the spiritual disciplines, the law, which had been passed down to them, taught to them by their fathers, for their salvation. I don’t think they were bad men. I think they were probably relatively good men, just a little misguided.
Pharisees and Sadducees prided themselves on the keeping of the law and the deep theological thinking that went along with being a religious authority. And I don’t think either of those things is bad in and of themselves.
Moses commands keeping the law, the 613 commandments or Shabbat, to the Jews. These commandments are at times practical”the kosher laws and purification rites are to limit disease”and at other times reminders of the sacred”you can only take 3000 steps on the Sabbath. Some seem a bit insane”leave your beard unshaven, don’t wear garments of mixed fibers, bear children in pain. Some seem mean”stone adulterers, kill magicians. Some seem easy and maybe kinda fun”love thy neighbor, bind money to your hand, be fruitful and multiply. But all are either protective in nature or about keeping the sacred.
A. J. Jacobs, by blood a Jew, but self described an agnostic raised in a secular family, spent a year attempting to keep biblical law. He grew out his beard; had his clothes inspected to ensure they were of non-mixed fibers; stoned an adulterer in Central Park”albeit with permission and the use of a pebble; and gave up cheeseburgers”you can’t eat meat and dairy together when keeping kosher. He describes his year in his book, The Year of Living Biblically.
After his year ends, an interviewer asks him if he is still agnostic. Jacobs says that the experience was life-changing and perspective-changing. He claims that a person immersed in religion for twelve months, especially at the level of discipline that he maintained, cannot remain unaffected. But he’s still not sure about God. Now, instead of simply agnostic, he describes himself as a reverent agnostic because he does believe in the idea of sacredness”that rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred, and there is great importance to that.
What Jacobs doesn’t yet get is that you can keep the law and participate in that which is sacred, and that can and is important, but there is more to it than that. I kinda think that this is what John is getting at today when he calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers. Yes, it is rather strong language, but John is nothing if not outlandish”he is dressed in a camel hair tunic eating bugs and yelling at everybody to repent. He grabs people’s attention and then challenges them in a way that would make any of us stop and think”it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do.
John has come baptizing as a reorientation of life, one based on repentance. The Jews have only ever oriented their lives, based on the law. This is something new, revolutionary”it’s no longer about the law, about being descended from Abraham, it’s about bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
We are no less a brood of vipers in John’s understanding: How often do we reorient ourselves? How often do we prepare the way of the Lord? How often do we truly repent and bear fruit worthy of that repentance?
Instead, we have put our trust in what we profess to be, in our own spiritual disciplines, in our practice of Christianity. We read the Bible, pray every day, go to church on Sunday”and these are good things, but they are about keeping the law, participating in sacred discipline
Reorienting ourselves is something more”it is taking these things and transferring them to daily life so that we and the world around us is transformed. The Pharisees and Sadducees had a hard time doing that. They only understood Temple worship and keeping the law, they had forgotten compassion and care, their responsibility in nurturing another’s soul.
Keeping the sacred is important work, but it is not sacred to allow another to hunger when you could feed them, it is not sacred to allow another to be lonely when you could visit them, it is not sacred to allow another to suffer when you might do something to ease that suffering. Bear fruit worthy of repentance
We gather in church Sunday mornings to profess our faith and offer a pleasing worship as a corporate body. We get that there is something to community, to relationships, we hear the Word, we share in the breaking of the bread, and then we are blessed and dismissed to take what we have done this day out into the world”to be Christ bearers to others.
To transfer the sacred from the pew to the street and thereby transform the world, that is the reason we come together to worship”it is not about earning our salvation in some way but learning how to be a people who have been saved and then acting like it because we have been reoriented. We do this week after week, month after month, season after season”and if all we are doing is showing up and professing ourselves as faithful people, but not bearing fruit worthy of repentance, then we are no better than a brood of vipers.
John is outlandish; he is an attention getter”in appearance and in message. But his purpose is good; his reasons are not egocentric but altruistic. He knows one is coming after him and that he is not even worthy to carry his sandals.
And that one, Jesus Christ, will baptize us with Spirit and fire, burning away from us that which is not righteous. John is preparing us for the coming of Christ. His words, belligerent and frightening as they may be to those coming to him for baptism 2000 years ago, should continue to give us pause today and remind us of our need to prepare.
Jesus has come. And he will come again. We are reminded of that every year in this season of Advent. We are preparing to celebrate the arrival of a babe, humble and meek in a manger”with all the trappings of too much sentimentality and a negation of our own humility. We search for the best gifts, that which will please our friends and families. We spend hours decorating and cooking. We attend balls and parties. And these things are fine”it is a good thing to be jolly and this season, more than any other, draws us into closer relationship with others.
But it is not sacred if we are not being drawn closer to Christ, if we are not preparing for his return, the Second coming. Yes, by all means celebrate the first coming, but at the same time take time to repent, reorient, return to the Lord and bear fruit.
It is not simply a holly, jolly season. It is a holy one. One in which we recognize the sacred is the most important thing because it brings us purpose and desire, hope and salvation. But we cannot simply recognize that, we must live a sacred life as well. The kingdom of Heaven has come near and we have a choice: we can remain a brood of vipers or we can bear fruit worthy of repentance.