Making Room

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for Advent 2 Year C  

Isaiah 11:1-10;  Matthew 3: 1-12

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

St. Martin’s had an exciting couple of days this past week. The church was used as a location for a half-day film shoot for a TV show. It was quite an operation; massive amounts of bustling activity throughout the day, all for what will probably be a two-minute cameo by our church in an AMC TV supernatural thriller about a continual showdown between good and evil. 

We got to see how much effort goes into setting a scene—examining the context, understanding the audience, evaluating the resources and people available to tell the story well and effectively. A lot rides on doing it well. In the case of a TV show, it’s ratings and ad revenue. In the case of a Gospel, it’s the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God. No pressure.

Matthew’s chronological context was a few decades after the Resurrection. The sense of the immediacy of Jesus’ expected return had waned, and the nascent Christian community was unsure of what to do next. How were people to wait for the promised Second Coming if it wasn’t imminent? How would Matthew assuage any doubt about Jesus’ identity as Messiah and retain the urgency of the message of the coming Kingdom? Matthew’s project was to tell the story—to set the scene—in such a way that the followers of Jesus did not lose heart as they waited and as they struggled with growing division from the synagogues and persecution from the Empire. Matthew needed to offer them hope in the face of an uncertain future.

So he found his resource— the story of the enslaved Jews liberated by God through Moses and led to the Promised Land. In his Gospel he portrayed Jesus as the New Moses, sent to liberate the people of God from enslavement to sin and to lead them into the promised Kingdom of God. Matthew established his main character in the scene—John the Baptizer—dressed to evoke Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah predicted by the prophets. The focus would be offstage as John pointed toward Jesus, the greater One whose sandals he was not fit to carry. The setting; the Wilderness, at the turning of the Age, with the Day of Judgment on the near horizon. The plot: a showdown between good and evil.

It’s time now to dispense with the theatrical metaphor, because while it was useful for a moment it is important to understand that what we hear in today’s Gospel isn’t celluloid. It isn’t just a story. None of the Gospel is just a story—we wouldn’t be here Sunday after Sunday if that were the case, but today’s lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent is particularly jarring and confrontational, and we don’t have the luxury of leaving its message on the cutting room floor. As difficult as it may be we have to listen to what John has to say. We won’t be able to greet the Christ Child in Bethlehem until we have traveled through the Wilderness and learned what it has to reveal.

For some people, when they think of wilderness, the first thing they envision is literal and physical; a rugged place of wonder and challenge, often encountered alone. Others carry wilderness inside. It may be an arid desert of self-doubt or a tangled jungle of anger and resentment; it may sound like a cacophonous din or icy silence. It may be traveled during the daylight in a slog through unfamiliar existential and spiritual territory. Or it may be a lonely 3:30 a.m. sojourn haunted by fear and uncertainty.

The Biblical Wilderness is an icon for all of this. The Wilderness into which Matthew places John the Baptist is an allusion to the wilderness in which the Jews wandered for years–fractious, stiff-necked and occasionally grateful—lugging massive literal and figurative baggage and oh-so-gradually forming their identity as an imperfect community, ready to enter the Promised Land and establish themselves as the People of Israel. 

Also characteristic of the Wilderness into which Matthew sends John is that it is distinct from the center of power in Jerusalem. It is a marginalized and isolated place, set over and against establishment and empire. John comes to the Wilderness to find and be found by people from all around the surrounding country whose own baggage was the weight of sin, and who yearned for a word of hope; for a sign that God was leading them into a new land of promise—the Kingdom of God. John’s words to them, while jarring to us, were exciting and uplifting even as they were challenging. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The world, he says, is about to turn on its head. This news was balm for the wounded soul and sustenance for the starving heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, interestingly, are silent in this episode. Also interestingly, the word that describes their presence is ambiguous; it can be translated to indicate that they were there either because they were against what John was doing (because baptism was the purview of the Temple), or, as stated in today’s version, that they were there for baptism by John.  Either way, their mere appearance provokes an outburst from John that takes us to the heart of the matter, which is Jesus, salvation and judgment. A showdown between good and evil.

Even now the ax is at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

What are we to make of this today? We dance around it the way I’ve danced around writing about it all week. We simply can’t tippy-toe past the fact that Advent isn’t about preparation for the Christmas Pageant or longing for the warm glow we get when gazing at the Christ Child in the manger, although that’s part of it. Advent is about acknowledging the wonder of Incarnation and (not ‘or’) yearning for the second coming of Christ and our ultimate facing of judgment before God.

Yes, we’re going there.

John’s apocalyptic language, like all apocalyptic language, is born of conflict between principalities and powers and those who were oppressed by them. The oppressed wait and yearn for divine deliverance, and violent fiery imagery helped bolster their hope that the defeat of evil was imminent and would be decisive. The people who heard the words of John were hopeful, not dreading what was to come. We can’t forget that.  They were ready to be cleansed by the water of baptism so that they would be ready to present themselves to God. They were ready for salvation–for the Messiah. They couldn’t wait for the time of world-turning that John so forcefully proclaimed.

Advent calls us to tap into this yearning. But getting there is a very, very uncomfortable journey. It requires that we come face to face with a very broken world, and with our very broken selves.

A showdown, if you will.

Biblical scholar and storyteller Richard Swanson wrote just a few days ago: “This Advent feels more like a charged season of waiting and expecting than any since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat… John and his preparation for conflict makes more sense this year. And that scares me. “

Bolster Swanson’s observation with the fact that there are those who use the language of final judgment and apocalypse to divide, to threaten and to oppress, under the guise of being oppressed themselves, and it is indeed a scary prospect.

How do we find hope? By declaring that we won’t speak of the judgment of God without speaking about the love of God as well.

God’s judgment is not what history, culture, and yes, parts of the church, have led us to dread. God’s judgment does not involve a set of arbitrary fear-based standards of conformity and morality based in homophobia, racism, sexism or any kind of ism that refuses to acknowledge the diversity of the family of God.  Yearning for Judgment is about the hard painful work of co-creating the Dream of God—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and preparing to meet the loving gaze of the God who created us and called us good. It calls us to eagerly anticipate the day when we can finally know that God sees us as we truly are and then scrub and scrape away the baggage —every last thing that has come to separate us from God– that has come to cling to us like barnacles. The barnacles of fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, rejection, self-loathing and greed which, when projected on others, just become layer upon layer of pain and anguish in the world as we find more and more ways to hurt and reject each other; war, poverty, discrimination, cruelty, and the complicity that comes from willing blindness to it all.  Because the very real evil that bedevils us begins with the wildernesses that we carry.

So the winnowing of the chaff that John proclaims, the burning of the unfruitful branches—this happens within us, not between us. Not to destroy, but to cleanse us.  To make room for the Dream of God that Isaiah envisioned, where:

the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isn’t that something to look forward to?

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