First United Methodist Church
December 4, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Advent 2: Sacred People
When actor Matthew Morrison decided to explore his roots on the Documentary, “Who Do You Think You Are,” he was surprised to discover that one of his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. He was a war hero, but he died a criminal’s death. Captain James Linden made a choice to remain loyal to the British Crown, and he went to bold lengths to defend his beliefs, including stealing gunpowder, sabotaging supply shipments and leading a battle against the Continental Army. The third time he was captured, he was sentenced to death by hanging, and was buried in an unmarked grave. If Matthew had not intentionally searched for him, all memories of his existence would have been buried with him. A few court documents noting his arrests, escapes and eventual hanging, and a newspaper article describing one of his exploits are all that is left of a man who proved to be quite a nuisance for the patriots. Even his family chose to erase his memory. It’s quite possible that his wife and children had no idea what happened to him.
James Linden is not the first person to find himself on the wrong side of history. Margaret Plantagenet was beheaded by her nephew, King Henry VIII, because she refused to embrace the new Church of England and ultimately committed treason as she tried to remain faithful to her beloved Catholic Church. During the French Revolution, almost 2750 people were executed in one day, all considered criminals, because they fought for the side that didn’t win. They made a choice to support a cause that they believed to be right, and as a result, they lost their lives.
Today’s advent word is “love.” The sacrificial love that Jesus describes throughout the gospels is lived out everyday by ordinary men and women who make a choice. It takes a lot of love to stand up for something that you truly believe in.
There were others who found themselves on the wrong side of history, including John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus and the prophet Isaiah, whom Paul quotes in our scripture today. These men not only believed in their mission, but they were also willing to confront the authorities who disagreed with them.
John was beheaded by King Herod for speaking against his marriage, Paul was executed after being imprisoned for years, primarily for promoting the Christian faith, and Isaiah was condemned to death by King Manasseh for prophesying against the Kings’ actions. Legend says that he hid in a tree and when found, the tree was sawn in half with him inside of it. All three of these men should have been forgotten. That was the intent of their executioners – that they along with their followers would disappear from society. The Romans and the Jewish Priests wanted the same thing when they crucified Jesus, but none of their ministries died with them, because they preached a message that calls for life – a new life with God walking beside us.
Although we may see an uncertain future all around us, both scriptures we read today remind us of the radical and unexpected ways that God’s love shows up. Advent reminds us that the birth of a baby into a divided and dangerous world is God’s way of pouring love into humanity. Jesus is coming to show us how to be more fully human. John the Baptist’s presence reminds us of the moment when Jesus is baptized by John and the voice of God says, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased. We have a birthright of original blessing from God because we know this to be true of the One and Universal Christ.
The Romans scripture is part of Paul’s argument for the inclusion of Gentiles in the emerging Christian movement. In fact, the reason he was arrested in Jerusalem was that while delivering the money that was raised for the church there, he entered the Temple with a Christian Gentile. In his letter, he quotes ancient prophets and invokes the Holy Spirit to support this inclusion. His desire seems obviously to come from a deep love for the people to whom he writes – a love that wants to see them at peace, embracing joy.
In Matthew, we read about John the Baptist. In his own (peculiar) way, this character also sings of the radical love of God in Jesus. He calls out in the wilderness saying, “God is at work here. New life is emerging.”
Isn’t that what he said? Actually, John enters the scene screaming: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” He is reinterpreting Isaiah, and within his passionate and angry words, he is saying that even the “brood of vipers” has the potential to repent and bear fruit.
John the Baptist is what you'd call the front man. He comes out ahead of Jesus and gives instructions in how to prepare for Jesus' arrival, who would soon begin his ministry in Galilee, proclaiming the same message as John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” The difference between John and Jesus, of course, is that John’s mission was to prepare people for the kingdom; Jesus’ mission was to establish it.
John's teachings epitomize the theme of preparation that is central to the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew's gospel there are numerous instructions regarding how we are to prepare for our exit interview from this earthly life or for judgment day, whichever comes first. We are not only to hear Jesus' words, but we are to do them. We prepare for the coming kingdom by active obedience to the teachings of Jesus. ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven," Mt. 7:21-23.) Many of the parables that Matthew includes in his gospel have this theme of preparation: [The Ten Bridesmaids (25:1-12), The Talents (25:14-29), The Last Judgment (25:31-46), and The Great Feast (22:1-14)].
The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials. "We have Abraham as our ancestor" (Mt. 3:9). Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare. Inaction is not the way to prepare. Making excuses is not the way to prepare. Being distracted from Jesus' coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare. Not then and not now.
John the Baptist sums up the way to prepare in one little six-letter word: repent. And then follow that up by "bearing fruit worthy of repentance" (Mt. 3:8).
John’s message may be hard to hear and may seem to contradict this week’s emphasis on love. But, if we take a moment to picture him – a man in the wilderness crying out for the people and standing with them in the water as they are baptized, for the sake of their salvation—a man who continues to preach purity and repentance, even while in prison – we might sense the deep, love this disciple had for the people of God.
John the Baptist challenges us to make specific spiritual preparations for our baby, Jesus, who has now grown to adulthood, who is about to begin his public ministry.
Our attempt to see the sacred reflected in all people may be the biggest challenge for us during this advent season, but it is very likely the most necessary. When we look through the lens of the sacred, we prepare our senses to recognize the holy in all people – to come to know them in a “steadfast and encouraging” way. Our world is crying out for harmony and being able to see the Christ reflected in each other makes a path for this to be accomplished. We are called to be sacred people who usher in the presence of love.
God’s Advent word of love comes to sit with us this week. As we strive to bear fruit worthy of repentance, let that fruit be love. Amen.