Oh how we modern-day Christians love to play the martyr card! It’s always tucked into the corner of a hand, ready to whip out at the tiniest provocation – people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, for example. In a post-Christian secular world, we’re not dealing well with having the privilege of centuries revoked. I think there’s a lot we can learn from this week’s lectionary reading:
Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV)
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. 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, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Folks, there’s no nice way to say this, but many of us are in fact the brood of vipers. Though we ostensibly believe in Christ, in most biblical stories we’ve become the Pharisees, Sadducees, the scribes or lawyers – the people who act as emissaries of God, deciding who qualifies for his love, care, justice and protection in a myriad of ways: Do you attend church? Do you tithe? Do you outwardly conform to our specific religious standard? We’re standing outside the narrow gate with checklists. Is it any wonder it’s getting less and less traffic? (And note, we’re not passing through it ourselves…)
I’m not judging here – boy, do I understand! Grace is absolutely terrifying. Grace has no boundaries, it doesn’t conform to worldly rules and expectations, it doesn’t quit, it doesn’t run out. Grace is both unpredictable and the most unchanging thing in the world. Grace isn’t safe. God’s love isn’t staid or tame. It’s a wild thing, resisting expectations and restrictions and bucking free of our attempts to control it.
And we do attempt to control it. Last week South Africa was abuzz with news of a pastor spraying his congregants with insecticide to “heal” them. But this is only one of the most visible – and abusive, and bizarre – examples of trying to control God’s power. Any time we attach a “But…” to salvation. Any time we drag works into the picture, kicking and screaming, using it as a measure. Any time ego enters the frame… We rely on these things in the same way the religious leaders of Jesus’ day relied on calling Abraham their ancestor. But Abraham is dead, and our churches are dying.
Tomorrow is the first day of December. Advent is in full swing. The dusty Christmas decorations have come out; the string lights are mostly untangled and draped over uncooperative plastic trees. Nobody wants to be talking about how our religiosity, our works-mentality, our judgmentalism, our fear of loss of control is suffocating our faith. But what better time than now, when we’re celebrating the birth of our Saviour, to acknowledge and ground ourselves anew in the fact of “one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry”? One who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”?
If there was ever a time to give ourselves, our congregations and our communities over to the cleansing flame of the Holy Spirit, then surely now is just such a time? We’re preparing to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. What better way to celebrate him than by actually allowing him to save us?
Blessings for your sermons,