Roadways and Repentance

Roadways and Repentance      Matthew 3:1-12      December 5, 2010
I’m getting used to John the Baptist and his camel hair, with his breath that smells like locusts and honey.
He comes to us every year, his appearance and his message never change, you know?
Year after year, he comes to us as we prepare for the coming Kingdom.
All he ever says, is “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!”  and you have to admit, that’s a message that just doesn’t seem to fit this time of year.
He is the voice of one calling in the desert, the one crying out “Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight paths for him.”
But we’d rather he stay quiet, stay in his place.
Aren’t we already busy building God’s highway?  Aren’t we already making straight paths?
What more do you want from us, John?
I’ve come to think of John the baptist as something like that strange uncle who always comes to your Christmas party and tells the same story or joke for the hundredth time.
He doesn’t seem to remember that you’ve heard it all before.
You have to be polite and let him finish, but let’s face it; it’s easy to write him off.
After all, we’re looking forward to Christmas; which means parties and cookies and decorations…it means snowflakes and shopping and holiday music.
Our hands are full, John, so why don’t you leave us alone?
Go talk to the Non-Christians, the ones who need to hear your message.
At this time of year, I’d like to send John the baptist back to the desert.
But instead, he’s right where he always is, in the wilderness, in the same old clothes, eating the same old food, bearing the same old message that he always carries.
Repentance and the Kingdom of God.
He comes with a message of fire, and I get the feeling that he wants to wake us up.
The problem is, we don’t even know that we’re sleeping.
We’re such busy people; we’re doing such good things with our time and our resources.
Our adult Sunday school classes are starting some really interesting studies.
The coffee class is taking a scriptural look at the Jesus of the Bible, and another adult class is looking at the Naked Anabaptist (relax, it’s a book), and What We Believe Together (it’s another book).
There’s another book study that’s been happening, looking at the 12 marks of a new monasticism.  There’s a group of people living together in the house across the parking lot. They’re doing some exciting stuff together, too!  They’re doing things that have to do with Art, and God, and getting to know people beyond their comfort zones!
We’re busy people.
Then there are rumors that another interesting Bible study video series is going to start sometime in the new year, and that’s not to mention the ways we’re connecting with Share a Christmas and Help Me Grow, both community projects that give resources to the needy among us.
We’re heavily involved at Save N Serve, giving our time, or our stuff, or both towards funding the ongoing mission of MCC and providing a local place to engage the need in our own community.
And if all that weren’t enough, we’ve all got jobs, and families; people we’re responsible for.
We’re busy people!  Who has time to sleep?
Yet it seems that John the baptist isn’t convinced that we’re staying awake.
So he comes to us every year with this message of repentance.
It’s something we need to hear at least that often.
We’re busy with great stuff.  If the highway of God were something we really could build, I think we’d be doing a pretty fantastic job.  I mean that.
But that’s the problem.  This highway that John is talking about; it’s nothing we can build.  It’s nothing that’s going to suddenly be there because we’ve donated a certain percentage of our time or our money to worthwhile causes.
The highway he commands us to build IS REPENTANCE!
It Isn’t our flurry of holiday activity.  It isn’t the studies that we do.  It isn’t the church we attend, the friends or family we enjoy, or the parties and cookies we consume.
All of those things make life all the more enjoyable; but without repentance; without conversion; without a change of heart and a re-ordering of life, none of it will serve God’s purpose.
Isaiah painted a vision generations ago.  You heard it this morning; a vision 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.
That’s God’s vision for His creation.  It’s God’s hope and dream, that the spirit of wisdom and understanding would rule the land, that a righteous ruler would not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  It’s a world where the cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
This is the vision that Isaiah had, and it’s the vision John the Baptist carried forward.
We are busy people.
But are we busy with the right things?
The bricks that form this roadway through the wilderness are repentance.
We build it by admitting that we are fallen, and that we need the word of God to guide our steps.
It doesn’t matter what wilderness we’re in, the highway John proclaims leads to Jesus.
And it’s name is repentance.
It’s not just a one time thing.
You might have noticed that John gets pretty rowdy with the pharisees and the sadducees in this passage.  He doesn’t seem real interested in making friends with them.
I’ve always wondered why he singles them out, you know?  Surely they were better people than a lot who were coming out to see him.  I mean, at least they were religious, right?
At least they minded their P’s and Q’s as they say.
So I’ve often wondered, why is it that John yells at them like he does?
As we know, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were two conflicting political, religious groups.
And from what I know about groups of people, whether we’re talking about political groups, religious groups, family groups, or just groups of friends–groups of people tend to maintain division.  There’s often a kind of ‘we’re better than you are’ mentality, and it’s often connected to a kind of competition for more members, or more prestige, or more power.
I can’t imagine it was much different back then.
So I think John was calling them out.  They came to him for a kind of endorsement of their position or their group.  That’s why I’m guessing both the Pharisees AND the Sadducee’s were going out to get baptized by John.  I’m guessing both groups wanted him to pick either one or the other for the baptism he was offering.
But he saw through it.
And God sees through us today, too.  We’re not that different from the Pharisees and the
Sadducees.  We love our “Either, Or” categories, too.
We’re either Republican, or Democrat, or I suppose Independant.
We’re either Rich, or Poor, or I suppose middle class.
We’re either Christian, or Not, or I suppose somewhere in between.
We’re either Millers, or Yoders, or I suppose a family with a different name.
We are divided people.  But do not think our petty distinctions matter to God for one minute.  Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
The ax is already at the root of the tree.
Repentance is what’s important, not membership in any group.
See, baptism is a symbol of acceptance, whether it’s the baptism John offered, or the baptism that Jesus commanded.  Even though the person being baptized has a lot of growing, learning, and changing to do, it’s a commitment to a way of life and a community of people who are going to help create meaning.
But it begins every day, with repentance.
And that repentance is a turning away from other loyalties we nurture.
Turning away from other commitments we have made to a secularized, materialistic lifestyle that we call the American Dream, away from grudges we love to cling to, away from the greed that consumes us.  Away from hatred of self, neighbor, and enemy.  Away from fear, away from lust, away from judging others before ourselves.
The roadway is repentance.  The bricks are free and yet cost us our lives.
So let us hear John, this tired old prophet.
We can learn from him lessons in divestment.  He shed himself of everything that could block the path he was called to prepare.
He wasn’t just awake; he was wake-ful of God breaking into our world.
He falls like a bombshell into our pre-Christmas landscape.
He reminds us that Advent and Lent are very similar times of year.
He brings us back to the wilderness and its invitation to let go of all that keeps us from God.
Beneath the Christmas lights and tinsel that dominate these pre-Christmas days, there is a reality that is rocky and hard, yet durable.  It’s a way that leads to Christ and the abundance of life that he offers.
So pay attention.  Wake Up!
The hope of the world turns upon you.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

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