The Good News!

Welcome! I am the Rev. Ken Saunders. I serve as the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Greeneville, Tennessee (since May 2018). These sermons here were delivered in the context of worship at the various places I have served.

[NOTE: Sermons (or Homilies) are commentaries that follow the scripture lessons, and are specifically designed to be heard. They are "written for the ear" and may contain sentence fragments and be difficult to read. They are NOT intended to be academic papers.]

Sunday, December 5, 2010

RCL Year A (Advent 2) - December 5, 2010

The Rev. Kenneth H. Saunders III
Christ Church
Cleveland, NC

RCL Year A (Advent 2) - December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

As you just heard in today’s reading, John the Baptizer is a bit of a “STRANGE” character… And, I’m not just talking about the way he acted… just look at the way he dresses. He is all dressed up the latest wilderness fashion of the time with his camels hair and leather, not to mention the “strangeness” of his diet – Locusts and wild honey.

I am wondering what would you think of John if you came up on him today? Would you recognize him as a great prophet of God and then follow him into the wilderness to hear his prophetic message? I doubt it very seriously.

Now, I know that we shouldn’t judge folks by what they wear or what they eat, but I know some folks that tend get in those little gossip circles with their friends when they run across someone who they feel isn’t dressed right. But somehow, someway, people were intrigued with the strange character of John and his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” What could he possibly be talking about??? They were all fascinated…

The folks back then knew the ancient scripture of Isaiah and they knew what it said about a voice crying out… (by the way, there was no punctuation in ancient times… so the interpretation of Isaiah is a bit askew) It was either a voice – ‘crying out in the wilderness’ or a voice crying out – ‘in the wilderness...’ None the less, Matthew’s take on it was this… “There’s a voice crying out in the wilderness – prepare the way of the Lord, make strait in the desert, a highway for our God.” They wanted to know more… so they followed John.

Have you ever been lost in the wilderness? The desert or the forest… (It’s probably easier for us to associate wilderness with forest…) I mean really lost - deep in the woods? It can be a very scary experience. You look right an left and everything looks the same. After an hour, it is hard to tell one tree from another. You get more and more frustrated by the second, and cannot find your way out. I am sure that most of you can understand that feeling.

Now put that on top of going into the woods with a man as different – as “strange” as John… it’s not a very comfortable feeling. And it probably shouldn’t be! The wilderness is a scary place! In the ancient world, any kind of travel was dangerous… especially through the wilderness. You only traveled through wilderness places for specific reasons (for family, for feasts, or for business)… So traveling TO the wilderness was definitely unheard of.

The wilderness was considered the home of demons and a very unlikely “destination” for anyone. So, why the wilderness, and why with John?

All four of the Gospels tell us something about John. The evangelist, Matthew, spends a few lines this morning telling us what John is wearing… I think that his manner of dress might be a clue for us… Please understand that coarse camel’s hair and leather was not the preferred ancient Palestinian dress. It was extremely different, and definitely worth mentioning. But not only worth mentioning… I think that it is significant to who John is and the message he has…

This isn’t the first time we have heard of this “outfit.” Some of you may remember in the first chapter of the second book of Kings where it describes a prophet of God who is “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” – sitting on the top of the mountain… He made fire come down from heaven and consumed 2 kings armies before going down with the third to meet the king – Only to tell the king that he is going to die.

This was Elijah the Tishbite. The great prophet of the living God of Israel that shook up the Hebrew scriptures. Now, if I were a good Jew, for me – that would be enough reason right there to follow John anywhere. The folks back then were actually thinking that John might be Elijah that had come back to give them a message.

But John wasn’t giving just any old message. He was telling them to get ready for something. He is here to shake them up – and give them a reality check! He was telling them to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

So, to the Jews, John was Elijah the Tishbite who had come to prepare the people of Israel for “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” This excites the Pharisees and the Sadducees so they come out to John to be baptized…

You remember the Pharisees and the Sadducees… The Pharisees (the pompous religious elite – and the Sadducees, the non-believers in resurrection) But John ridicules the Pharisees and the Sadducees and compares them to snakes running scared from the judgment that is coming. He challenges them to change their heart, “repent” of their sins, prepare, and make their selves worthy.

Last Sunday, we were reminded again that Advent was a time of preparation and anticipation. We learned that we are the keepers of the watch, and are to keep awake and live honorably… to make ourselves worthy.

Those themes continue this week with today’s text – And John is here to show us the way… and to shake us up a bit and give us a reality check. In Advent we are called to search down deep… Deep down into the dark wilderness places of our lives… Deep into those desolate places where our demons dwell… Places we don’t like to go… Places that are strange and different to us… We go to these places to prepare and examine ourselves… to see if these “trees” that we are growing in our life are truly bearing the good fruit?

This process of examination, discernment and repentance can be a difficult one. It requires us to have an open mind wanting be changed and a heart wanting to be warmed. It requires us to be ready to admit that to ourselves that we DO need change and guidance, even when we think we don’t.

John is here this morning to help us take that journey to those wilderness places, and the strange and different John gives us a message… The message of hope that something great is coming and we are to get ready.

But the narrative that we are given today in the third chapter of Matthew doesn’t really identify the one who is coming…. (now, we know the rest of the story, and we know that John is talking about Jesus the Christ) But, today it’s not revealed to us… All we know now is – that John says that the person is very powerful and he is not worthy to even carry his sandals. The lectionary leaves the rest a mystery careful not to reveal the story too soon - of the awesome glory of God that is just around the corner.

So we are called by the text this morning to exercise a little restraint… and not get too terribly anxious… We are called to spend some time in active anticipation, looking inward at the fruit we are bearing, in hopes that we are bearing the true ripe sweet fruit that our God expects of us.

Because the rest of the story will unfold to us in due time and ALL will be reviled… All we can do today, is sit here in our advent anticipation and examine ourselves… and repent, for the kingdom of God has come near! We sit here today and hope that when whoever comes… we are truly ready!

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