What are we waiting for?

Second Sunday of Advent

The World is about to turn! Take Heart! God turns our barrenness into fruitfulness

  • Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot from stump of Jesse…Spirit…rest on him…
  • Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19 God’s justice, righteousness….glory will fill the earth
  • Romans 15: 4-13 Steadfastness and encouragement of scripture gives us hope
  • Matthew 3: 1-12 John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent”

Advent Waiting with John the Baptist

What are we waiting for? I have renamed this sermon with that question? It is a question that is already answered and demands our action — that is our active waiting. The Isaiah, Matthew, and Romans scriptures all pose the question and call for our response. Let’s turn to Matthew’s gospel and John the Baptist’s proclamation.

In those days, John the Baptist roamed the wilderness crying, “Repent, for the kingdom has come near!”

How would you respond if some wild-eyed preacher wondered the streets of our urban wilderness crying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near?” What is your reaction to this message? Is it like a blow to the solar plexus? Or does it just rub you the wrong way? Is it the call to “Repent” or is it the claim that God’s reign is taking place that makes it difficult to hear? Do we dismiss it as a quaint call from a faraway time and place because it is difficult to see signs of God’s reign today?

There are enough popular preachers today crying “Repent” while offering the reign of empire rather than reign of God to hone our cynicism. We experience enough cultural influences today to dull our ears to a call to repentance.

It is not hard to be skeptical to any claim that God’s kingdom is near or be cynical of our Advent theme that “the world is about to turn.” “In these days” it is hard to hold on to a hope that overcomes our cynicism and skepticism. It is impossible to repent if we live without hope that “God’s kingdom is near.” Without hope will we hear judgment upon us and our sin?

Advent offers us the reality of both hope and judgment. The first Sunday of Advent, the biblical word posed an apocalyptic vision of the contrast between God’s reign in Jesus Christ and the world’s reign in human empire. We are confronted by hope and judgment next Sunday when John the Baptist is in prison at Herod’s hands and wonders whether Jesus is really the Messiah and Isaiah the prophet’s cry from the wilderness. Hope and judgment fill Mary’s magnificent song the rest of Advent as well. The Advent message is “Repent” for “the world is about to turn!” Do we believe it? Dare we live it?

The message John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness introduces the meaning of Jesus as a call to repentance so that live into the turning world of God’s reign already begun on earth as it is in heaven. John is the new Elijah wearing the same kind of hairy clothing and leather belt that Elijah once did. John. John’s beginning in the wilderness is testimony to Israel’s wilderness sojourn out of slavery in Egypt and hope for deliverance from a false reign of empire into God’s reign of justice and righteousness. John is a very important introduction to Jesus as God breaking into the world in a new way and turning the world upside down. “Matthew wants the reader to see John and Jesus as allies in a common cause, joint heralds of the imminent reign of God which makes repentance so urgent” (Richard B. Gardner, Matthew , BCBC, 61).

Repentance is more than feeling sorry for our sins or an occasional confession and continuing on our merry way. It comes from the word metanoia ( metanoeo ) meaning to “turn” or to “return” – that is to “turn around” (our Advent theme again) and to “return to right relationship with God (cf. Deut. 30:2; Jer. 4:1, Ezek. 18:30-32; Hos. 14:1). When John appealed for repentance, he was inviting his hearers to make a radical break with their sinful past and to turn afresh to the God who would soon come in judgment” (Gardner, 61).

Who should repent? Isn’t this a message for those who are outside the faith? No one is exempt. But pay attention to what happens here with John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness. People flock from every where to come out into the wilderness to hear John prepare this way for Jesus. “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to [John]….and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Everyone is in need of repentance. But the most religious, the most holy find a special place in John’s cry. And it is not their accustomed place in the certitude of their religiosity. These Pharisees and Sadducees also come to John for baptism and he is shockingly harsh with them.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Matthew 3:7-10

John is pronouncing unflattering judgment on the good religious folk, the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You bunch of snakes… What leads you – of all people – to show up here?” (Gardner, 62). Those who consider themselves most holy are the epitome of evil and all their claims to be faithful heirs of Abraham are meaningless. Only those who bear the fruit of repentance and live in hope of God’s reign are worthy.

John baptizes them with water even while declaring that the one whose way he is preparing “is more powerful than I and will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Our Anabaptist ancestors knew well what John was saying and what Jesus embodied. Baptism is not just a nice innocuous water ritual in a comfortable church but a dying and rising with Christ in a threefold baptism by water and fire and Spirit. It costs not less than your life. Actually the Anabaptists taught the three-fold baptism as water, fire, and blood with the Holy Spirit at work in all three. And the Anabaptists not only knew their water baptism as a symbolic dying and rising with Christ but in the all too real world of that day life they knew the baptism of being drowned or burned to death for their faith.

Repentance and baptism into God’s reign following Jesus’ way meant a true turning around and returning to right relationship with God. Then we have eyes of faith to see that the world is turning as God’s reign breaks into the world of violence, death, and sin.

That is John the Baptizer’s call to us today as much as it was to any of his first hearers or to Matthew’s community or anytime in church history. That is what Advent does for us in preparing the way for Jesus and preparing us for the way of Jesus.

Advent Waiting in Today’s World

Sometimes we find prophetic insight that inspires hope and vision in unlikely places. Let me share four glimpses of God’s kingdom breaking into this world just as it did in John the Baptist’s world and has ever since that day John cried out in the wilderness.

I have found great inspiration in Vaclev Havel’s explanation for the unimaginable nonviolent demise of the Soviet Union, at least in the Czechoslovakian state. Havel explained that it was when they began to live by the “as if” rule. They lived “as if” their constitutional freedom was already being realized – to live “as if” the Soviet empire no longer had a hold on them and “as if” the greater truth and freedom they knew in Christ was already being realized. In living this “as if” truth whatever the cost, the Soviet bloc crumbled and they lived into a new freedom.

Another great inspiration for the hope of truth and the truth of hope comes from one of the great living spiritual leaders in a time when genuine spiritual leadership seems so rare. In the latter days of the evil, oppressive and seemingly invincible apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a service of hope and joy in a church lined with white South African soldiers armed to uphold the reign of apartheid. Desmond Tutu, with a fervent and fearless smile beckoned armed soldiers saying, “Come over to the winning side” and join us for in Jesus the forces of oppression have already been defeated. Archbishop Tutu has long had the eyes of faith and the courage of freedom to see that “God’s kingdom has come near!”

Preparing for this Sunday of Advent, I was inspired by the words of a woman’s voice speaking both as a mother and a theologian, saying:

The readings of the Second Sunday of Advent remind me of a sense of concern which pervaded pregnancy for me. It was a concern about the world into which my child would be born. It was a peace wish and a justice wish that made me think that if we mothers… if all of us would unite and tell the makers of war that we resent and will not tolerate any force that tries to undo what we have knitted together so patiently in the womb for nine months – if we did that, I believe that we would ensure peace from generation to generation. By extension, if we as members of a pregnant mystical body of Christ did this, made known our concerns by our seeds of justice and deeds of peacemaking, the promise of this Second Sunday of Advent would become true… Advent is the only future worth waiting for . (quoted by Verna A. Holyhead, Building on a Rock , 7)

Christian Peacemaker Teams member Rusty Curling recently told again of an experience of seeing God’s kingdom breaking in to the world ten years ago in Advent. CPTers were interviewing an Abejas leader in Acteal on the Chiapas highlands of Mexico. A paramilitary group of Zapatistas had raided Acteal on December 22, 1997, and killed 45 Abejas members, mostly women and children who were beginning 3 days of fasting and praying for peace leading up to Christmas day. The grieving Abejas members — a group of about 300 Christian pacifists – met to seek consensus on what to do next, including whether they would continue their pacifist ways. In their pained struggle they kept coming to one simple and profound truth, “Jesus would not have us hurt anyone.”

Would we dare to say that in similar circumstances? “Jesus would not have us hurt anyone?” Will you say it with me: “Jesus would not have us hurt anyone?”

In their simple words John the Baptist’s cry, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near” ring true. In their profound faith the peacable kingdom of Isaiah’s prophecy, “the wolf shall live with the lamb….They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” takes on flesh and blood. These amazing Abejas Christian pacifists give truth to Paul’s great benediction in Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Advent prepares us for God’s coming into the world in Jesus and beginning a new kingdom. “It is the only future worth waiting for!”

What are we waiting for? Let God’s living word in Isaiah and John the Baptist and Paul lead us into a time of silence and confession for about 5 minutes.

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BENEDICTION… Receive the benediction from Isaiah, Matthew, and Romans:

Rejoice, O people of God….the shoot of Jesse shall come….and fill you with hope.
Repent, for God’s reign has come near.
And now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Go in peace preparing the way of the Coming Christ!