Message Manuscript for “U-Turn to Peace” Matthew 3:1-12
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, December 8, 2013 The Second Sunday of Advent
The news cycle right now is dominated by stories about Nelson Mandela, whose death on Friday at the age of 95 caught the attention around the world. Even though his death was not unexpected, his loss was immediately felt in South Africa. No one else had come along for them like Mandela. He, one who was raised in the injustice, poverty, and racism of South Africa’s powers that be, never ceased speaking out and working to break the chains holding down his people. He, the Lion of Africa, after 27 years of imprisonment, courageously provided them with their liberation. This week, and for years to come, reporters and historians will struggle to capture in words the enormous impact he has made on the world.
The news of his death came as I was working on my sermon, trying to enter the scene in our Matthew text for today about John the Baptist. I couldn’t help but think of how he was a kind of John the Baptist. Here, like John, was a voice crying out in the wilderness, speaking out boldly and courageously. Here was a man speaking truth to power, even if it meant being carried away to a prison cell. I don’t know if Mandela was a student of John the Baptist, but he sure fits the role of one called to prepare the way of the Lord in the world, doing so with the peace of God’s kingdom. What he did is what we are all to do—prepare the way of the Lord in our world today. This was John the Baptist’s role.
A look through the history of Israel in the Bible reveals the obvious pattern of God’s people continually getting off course with God’s way for them in the world. We see how often and easily they veer off course and lose their way. God leads them out of slavery in Egypt and puts them on the road to land of promise, but they take a 40 year detour of wandering in the desert before getting there. When they get there and find it does indeed have promise, flowing with the milk and honey, they quickly forgot why they were there and what they were to be doing. The blessings became distractions and the hearts once open and tender to their Deliverer had become hard and closed. They would ultimately wander away from God’s destination for them, distracted by the things of other nations, captivated by their gods and then captured by their rulers and exiled to Babylon. They would spend 59 years away from where they were supposed to be until God delivered them again. Time after time, through the years and up until the time when Jesus arrived, they would head in the wrong direction.
John the Baptist was acutely aware that his people were headed in the wrong direction. He was so aware of it that he was willing to do whatever God needed him to do to get them to turn around. I’m not sure if he knew that surrender to God would involve maintaining a diet of locusts and wild honey or wearing an outfit made out of camel’s hair, but this is what he would do for God. He was a man on a mission, to prepare the path and the people to be on it for God’s way in the world; for the One God had sent to be “the way, truth and the life.” Fueled by locusts, honey, fire, and brimstone, John called on everyone to recognize that they were headed the wrong way, Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. In other words, “If you want to get to peace with God, you’ve got to turn around.” Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his Message translation, Change your ways, God’s kingdom is here. However he said it, his point was well taken. Well, his point was not so well taken by the people John just referred to as a “brood of vipers.” He didn’t care. The truth was the truth. The preparation for God’s arrival in the world was the same for everyone, even for those who understood themselves as God’s chosen people and of a certain lineage. Everyone needed to prepare themselves. Everyone needed to change their ways.
The force of his rhetoric and sound of his voice went up a notch when he saw the religious leaders coming his way. He suspected their visit was not one out of genuine conviction over their sins. He knew they didn’t believe they were on the wrong path to God, even though their lives were void of any evidence that they were headed in God’s direction. To him and to God, they were a brood of vipers, a tree without fruit. What they were doing was really not the problem. It’s what they were not doing. They were not doing the most important thing God had given them to do: shine His light for the world to see. By ignoring God’s directions for them, they were heading down a road to nowhere.
I read an article this past week from the Huffington Post about a woman who got lost driving. This was news because it rarely happens. It’s men who usually get lost and are never willing to admit it. Women are wise enough to stop and ask for directions. The reason this woman was lost was not because she didn’t stop, but because she was following a faulty GPS system. As the article noted,
In January 2013, Sabine Moreau, a 67-year-old Belgian woman, was driving to pick up a friend in Brussels, about 90 miles from her home. But based on the faulty directions she got from her GPS, she drove all the way to Croatia—nearly 1,000 miles away. The journey took the woman across five international borders. She stopped several times to get gas and take naps, but she kept pressing onward until she hit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
After a few days her son got worried and called the police, who located Sabine by following her bank statements. She told a Belgian reporter, “I was distracted, so I kept going. I saw all kinds of signs, first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I continued driving because I was distracted. When I passed Zagreb, I told myself I should turn around.” (Source)
“I should turn around.” That’s the message we need to be sure to hear on this second Sunday of Advent. If we are ever going to experience the peace of God in our lives and within our world, some changes need to happen. The first part of preparing the way of the Lord is preparing it within ourselves. Maybe the first thing you and I need to change about lives is our thinking that what matters most to God is our religious belief or heritage. Like the religious leaders John criticized for depending on their ethnicity, knowledge, belief to please God, we can so easily fall into the same kind of thinking, that what matters most to God is right belief, not right action. As John said, we become a tree without fruit. Could it be that we are like beautiful trees God has created, growing up in the rich soil of faith, taking in nutrients, growing impressive limbs, yet bearing no fruit? This seems to be the message Pope Francis keeps sharing; that the church needs to turn from obsession about doctrinal truth and get busy doing the work of Jesus. Is it likely that we are holding up God’s peace from fully arriving in our lives and in our world because we are missing the point of our faith, so focused on ourselves that we forget that we are here to produce fruit? If so, let us turn around.
Making a U-turn toward God is not just about changing our thinking. It is changing our behavior. This is that part of “repentance” we would rather not hear. If we have to hear it, why not just in the season of Lent, when we can mark our heads with ashes and give up all of our bad habits until Easter morning. Do we really need to change some things in this season of indulgence and consumerism? Yes, but only if we want to be involved with what God is bringing into the world. If not, no worries, until God inspects your tree. If you do want to be involved, then take a look this week at whatever it is in your life that is keeping you from living fully at peace with God. Take some time to reflect on what sidetracks you from living fully for God. We are all distracted by things that promise to make us whole and convince us we can’t live without. Yes, we say to ourselves, I know God’s direction to real life, but I think my way will get me there too. We may even convince ourselves that we can have it both ways, going God’s direction and going in ours at the same time, forgetting the reality Jesus expressed that we can’t serve both God and mammon. And so we careen on down the road to nowhere.
Churches can shoot u’s too. Just as we need to make changes to our behavior as individuals, so the church at large could do some things differently. What needs to change to get our focus off ourselves and on to the work of preparation for God’s arrival? What do we need to do differently in order to make crooked paths straight? There are still plenty of crooked paths in our world that need our attention as we see cycles of poverty, causes of homelessness, lingering effects of war, alarming statistics of school dropouts, consequences of greed, violence of hatred, and stains of injustice. These crooked paths surround churches around the world, but they also run right here in our community. Volunteers of America has been posting some jarring facts on social media this month: Nearly 30,000 children in Shreveport live in poverty, on any given night, there are 100 veterans homeless in Shreveport, and female Sr. Citizens are three times more likely to live in poverty than men. As we sometimes say in our public confession, we ask forgiveness for the what we have done and for what we have not done. Perhaps our biggest sin is the work of preparation for God’s kingdom that we haven’t done.
The good news here today, though, is that we can turn around. As a locust-eating man in the wilderness has proclaimed so boldly, change is up to us. Change for ourselves and change for our world.
Audio of sermon is here.