Welcome Warning

THEME:  An Unexpected Hour……Silence (the word for this Sunday)
TEXTS:  Isaiah 11:1-10 – A shoot from the stump of Jesse…
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 – Judge with justice….
Matthew 3:1-12 – John the Baptist’s welcome warning

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,    Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,
and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John,
and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to 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.
Even now the axe 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.

‘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.
This one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing-fork is in his hand,
and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the
granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Holy wisdom, holy word!

Advent’s Call to Waiting and Silence

Last Sunday we began Advent with a strong word from Jesus late in Mathew’s Gospel. Sarah reminded us in her sermon that this gospel promises that “Jesus is coming.”

Jesus’ words were a wake up call for Matthew’s community – an urban, wealthy, comfortable community some 40 years after Jesus – people whose initial fervor and faithful discipleship was waning.  It is a wake-up call for us in a community not unlike Matthew’s urban community living under empire. Come to the adult study hour following worship to hear the biblical choice and contemporary consequence of living under urban empire when Wes Howard-Brook will introduce his new book, Come Out My People.

Last week’s Advent word was waiting – alert waiting that awakens us to God’s reign in Jesus. This week’s Advent word is silence. Having heard the gospel and Isaiah I am tempted to let us sit in silence waiting on Jesus in the midst of these visual aids for worship: the Advent candles, the sundial, the words waiting and silence. Instead I want to guide us in our response to the gospel with your participation and some silence.

John the Baptist’s Welcome Warning

As I listened to the Gospel two words kept coming to me: welcome warning.

Is John the Baptist speaking a word of welcome or of warning? Is it for people of the first century or the 21st century? Hold that in your heart and mind for a moment and we’ll get to those questions with time for silence and your response.

First, a word about Advent connected with today’s gospel. Advent means “coming” – from the Latin word ad-veniens meaning “coming toward.” God’s reign is “coming toward” us in Jesus. John the Baptist proclaims it as “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and is already happening in Jesus. But God’s reign “coming toward” us calls for our “coming toward” God’s reign of faith, hope, love, peace, justice, truth, mercy, and grace. We recognize God’s reign “coming toward” us to the extent that we “come toward” God’s reign in Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of “Repent” – our turning around and “coming toward” the reign of God that is already coming toward us. Our repentance is both communal and personal.

John the Baptist is the no-holds-barred preparer of the way who brazenly opens the door to God’s coming reign and begins baptizing people into it. In the gospels we hear and see John in living color.

Is this bold preparer of the way proclaiming a word of welcome or warning? We will listen again to three portions of John’s proclamation. Then we will ponder our question focusing on a phrase from each of John’s 3 proclamations.

JB Proclamation 1:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Do we hear John’s word as welcome or warning?

Sit and ponder that question in silence for a minute. [.…silence….]

You may choose to remain in silent pondering within your own heart. Or you may turn to the person next to you and both share briefly whether you hear “Repent” as welcome or as warning. Take just 3 minutes for this — so each of you have a minute to say something and then a minute talk about it together. [….3 minutes talking in pairs….]

Who would like to tell us what you shared in your conversation with another person?

JB Proclamation 2:

Next we hear what John wore and ate and who all came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. Suddenly John the Baptist ratchets up his words from the strong word to “Repent” with a stronger word to some people coming to the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. Listen again:

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to 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.’

Sit in silence again pondering whether this is welcome or warning. [….silence….]

The NRSV Bible has the “Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism” – which is the version we just heard. But the NIV Bible has them “coming to where John was baptizing.”  Whether the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to be baptized or to check out or confront John’s baptizing efforts, John speaks strong words to them.

Calling others a “brood of vipers” – that is a “bunch of snakes” – hardly has a ring of welcome into God’s reign. What is John the Baptist thinking with such strong words? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” at least offers the possibility of welcome as well as warning.

But let’s focus on John saying, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” Is this a word of welcome or a warning? This time lets reflect and respond in the whole group. [….take time for people to respond….]

Perhaps we too easily stereotype and scapegoat the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are not Pharisees or Sadducees! Or are we? They were doing their best to be faithful observant Jews.  What would be the equivalent way John the Baptist would address us today?  How about, “Do not presume to say, ‘We have Menno as our ancestor!’” Or “Do not presume to say, ‘We have a good Mennonite name.’” John makes it clear that being Mennonite or having a Mennonite name will not get us into God’s reign.

JB Proclamation 3:

Third, John promotes and performs baptism, busily baptizing everyone in sight.

John says: ‘I baptize you with water for repentance,
[The one who is coming] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Again sit in silence with John’s words and ponder whether it is welcome or warning. [….silence….]

Let’s reflect and respond in the whole group again. Is the baptism by water, Spirit, and fire that John speaks of a word of welcome or warning?

In our Mennonite Confession of faith, Article 11 on “Baptism,” we claim that we “are baptized into Christ and [Christ’s] body by the Spirit, water, and blood.

Next Sunday we will baptize Bob Gerwig with water. And we will recognize that God in Christ baptizes Bob with the Spirit. But what about baptism by fire and blood? We welcome baptism by water and Spirit. But who wants to be baptized by fire or blood?

Four women of El Salvador

Perhaps we consider baptism by fire and blood to be an ancient artifact, part of our story from the distant past. Baptism in the 21st century does not have the same life or death consequences as it did in the sixteenth century for our Anabaptist ancestors – or for others in the first centuries of the early church. Or does it?

I don’t know about you but I am deeply shaped and inspired by mentors and models, especially mentors and models who are pray-ers and prophets who live their full baptism.

I want to conclude by connecting with a story of 4 women who were mentors for some, became models for many, were pray-ers with their lives, and became prophets in death. They are contemporary ordinary saints who lived their baptism to the fullest.

It was 30 years ago last week, which I consider contemporary and a marker for my life. How many of you are 30 or under? You weren’t alive yet so 30 years ago may seem ancient or irrelevant. Thirty years from now you will change your mind. For those of us well over 30, who remembers the tragedy of 4 women on December 2, 1980?

As the wars of Central America were escalating, fueled by our nation’s tax dollars and training, many faithful people were called to stand in solidarity with suffering people in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Among them were Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Jean Donavan working with poor and suffering people in El Salvador. Maura, Dorothy, Ita, and Jean saw Jesus in “the least of these” and worked for justice in El Salvador. Their fearless faith made them enemies of the state – El Salvador and the United States.

Thirty years ago on the night of December 2, 1980, Maura, Dorothy, Ita, and Jean were abducted, by Salvadoran military as they left the airport and were never seen alive again, Their raped and battered bodies were found a few days later dumped along a country road.

As we know all too well, these four were not the only martyrs of El Salvador or Central America. Oscar Romero and others had already been killed for living their baptism into Jesus Christ and God’s reign.

Maura, Dorothy, Ita, and Jean were ordinary people of great faith – no different than every one of us here at worship on this Advent Sunday. They knew that John the Baptist’s call to repent and bear fruit was for them, for real, for life even in death. They lived their baptism not only of water and Spirit but by fire and blood.

Advent and our BaptismI believe more than ever that this Advent and the coming years calls us to a renewed deepening baptismal life together.

The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history. Ten years into the twenty-first century the bloodshed continues. John and Jesus have shown us another way – God’s Way.

If we heed John’s wilderness cry and follow Jesus as a community of faith we will increasingly know our baptism not only by water and Spirit but by fire and blood. Look around this sanctuary and see the members of this beloved body of Christ. Know that our baptism will lead us – with Maura and Dorothy and Ita and Jean – into life and death and resurrection with Jesus Christ.

Even now John the Baptist is crying out a prophetic word and powerful witness in the wilderness of empire – a word of warning, to be sure, but even more a wonderful word of welcome!

Repent and be baptized! God’s reign has come near!