Holy Covenant UMC, December 5, 2010
Second Sunday in Advent
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
When I was growing up, I loved superheroes, and my favorite was She-Ra, Princess of Power. She’s He-Man’s sister…together they worked for justice. I spent countless hours on the preschool playground pretending to be She-Ra, using my power to save the world. We live in a culture that loves superheroes, longing for someone to swoop in and save us. We love for a superhero to reward the good guys and punish the bad guys. And we can’t get enough of their superpowers, and wish we had them ourselves (that longing hasn’t gone away, even as I’ve grown up): the power to fly, the power of night vision, the power to be invisible.
John the Baptist is like a superhero of the 1st century.
You can picture him on the front of a comic book: Hands on his hips, hair long and blowing in the wind; he wears a cloak of camel’s hair, flowing behind him like a cape; all held together by a leather belt with a shiny JB on the buckle; wilderness in the background. Across the top of the comic are the words: The Wilderness Wonder: Reversing Power.
Unlike superman, he doesn’t swoop into the city to save people; John stays in the wilderness, and the people come to him to be saved.
He draws his energy from locust and honey flavored protein bars, which he always carries with him. He takes a bite and he’s ready for action.
John’s a bit rough around the edges, a straight shooter who tells the truth and doesn’t mince words. But in spite of this, his magnetism draws people towards him.
He has many superpowers, but specializes in: baptism, repentance, and prophecy.
His greatest superpower? The reason people flock to him day after day, why people beg to be baptized? Long to confess their sins?
John turns insiders into outsiders and outsiders into insiders.
In John’s wilderness world, the powerful are weak and the weak have power; the religious leaders are vipers and the common people are elevated; God holds the authority, not the emperor; John turns insiders into outsiders and outsiders into insiders. No wonder people flock to him, especially those on the margins—they’re ready for some power, finally.
The Wilderness Wonder: Reversing Power.
John’s task in today’s episode is to prepare the people, prepare us, for the coming of the Messiah. It’s a day like any other day, people have traveled from their farms, fields, and city dwellings to meet John by the river. They line up to be baptized. But today is not like any other day; for John has a very important proclamation:
He takes a bite of his protein bar, puts his hands on his hips, and says:
“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.’”
John’s justice, his purpose, now, is to be that voice crying out; to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. How are we to prepare? By repenting.
Now, all of us are in the midst of preparing for Christmas, for the coming of the Messiah. And my guess is, on our holiday to-do list, none of us have “Repent” at the top in big red letters.
But John insists. Listen, John, this word doesn’t exactly give me the holiday warm and fuzzies. I’d rather drink hot cocoa and sing hymns. But John says: Turn around! What John? Turn around.
The word repent comes from the Greek word that means “to turn around”. Turn around. So when we take time to truly repent, we aren’t simply confessing our wrongdoings and feeling like terrible and guilty people. Not at all. When we repent, we examine what we need to change in our lives so that we can turn around.
So to prepare for the coming of Christmas, we are to turn around. Not to look back and feel guilty, but to face the future, the newness that is breaking in, with fresh and changed lives. This is what John spends his life doing, his greatest superpower: He turns insiders into outsiders and outsiders into insiders.
For during his time, the city, as it is today, was the center of it all; the wilderness was on the margins. But John, through extraordinary superpowers, made the wilderness the center…people moved towards him. And by all accounts, he didn’t have any power, at least the earthly kind; we know his name and voice today, but at the time he wasn’t a commentator on Fox or CNN; didn’t use the microphone of a politician; didn’t even have his own pulpit at a church in the city, where it’s warm on the inside and people come week after week. He’s more like the guy on Michigan Avenue who holds a cardboard sign saying “Jesus is coming”. That’s what he looks like too, because even though his parents were of a priestly caste, he chose to wear the clothes of the poor—camel’s hair. In the eyes of the world, he should have been powerless.
But John turns power around and becomes the voice that prepares the way for the Messiah. We expect it to come from Priests and emperors, but instead this good news is from a wooly wilderness preacher. God chooses John, this man on the margins, to prepare for Christ. He’s like living, breathing repentance. He turns power around.
For those with the most power, the religious leaders—Pharisees and Sadducees, the insiders of the day, come to John, this outsider, and desire baptism and repentance. But John, quite out of line, says to them: You are a brood of vipers! You think you can come and be baptized with water and think that makes all of your actions ok? It’s not just about words you say, it’s about your heart. You have to talk the talk and walk the walk. And your hearts, guys, haven’t turned around. You still wield earthly power and keep people marginalized. You tell some people they are outsiders and not welcome at your table. It doesn’t matter that you have fancy titles or an important family line—you can’t flee from the wrath! And it’s coming—for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Repentance isn’t just about words—John prepares us for turning, and it’s not only a turning in our hearts, but a turning in our actions. He tells us if our lives don’t bear fruit…if we don’t turn around with our hands and pocketbooks and our relationships…then we’re not really repenting.
It’s quite a challenge, isn’t it? To be ready for Jesus, we’ve got to not only talk the talk (coming to church) but walk the walk (allow Jesus to break in and change us). At Holy Covenant, we are up for this challenge. For the second year in a row, we are participating in the Advent Conspiracy, a movement to spend less, give more, and worship fully.
To do our part, we are encouraging our community to get outside of the malls, spend less, and create and buy handmade gifts for loved ones. On Saturday we’re hosting an Alternative Giving Fair right here in this sanctuary. All the proceeds from the fair will be going towards emergency relief in Haiti, a place in need of clean water and of healing.
It’s one way this year we can repent, turn: Turn away from the messages of the world that tell us spending will save us; and turn towards: the good news that GOD alone saves us; and we are called to share God’s love with the whole world. Especially those on the margins. This is how we prepare for Jesus…by turning and bearing fruit. By sharing water with a world who is thirsty.
Because Jesus, friends, is coming…and he’s not just going to baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit. John predicts he’s going to say: if you’re bearing fruit, I will gather you into my arms; but if you’re not, you will be thrown into the fire like chaff, burned away. Haha! This is the kind of justice we love. It’s the kind of justice superheroes bring about. There are clear divisions between bad guys and good guys; those who have mistreated us, who abuse their power, will get what’s coming to them. Justice. We love this part of the story! The Wilderness Wonder: Reversing Power!
But just as we get self-righteous, cheering on our superhero, and eager for those bad guys to burn…we start to wonder: are we insiders or outsiders? Wheat or chaff? Powerful or weak?
Who, exactly, is included in God’s vision?
What kind of justice is Jesus bringing, and is it for us? For we’re all thirsty. None of us is perfect. In fact, we’re pretty broken. On which side of the dividing line do we fall?
As we’re pondering this question, wondering who’s in and who’s out, God swoops in, saves us, and turns everything around. Ultimately, John the Baptist isn’t the one who saves us. He points to the one who brings salvation….prepares his way. John’s right, preparing for Jesus is about turning….but he can’t quite imagine just how radical this turning will be. For God, God, does the greatest turning of all. God turns toward the world, turns towards us, becomes Emmanuel, God-with-us.
God doesn’t wait for us to come, but meets us where we are, here on earth, roaming around in human bodies. In the person of Jesus, God wanders all over the middle East, displaying power in vulnerability, welcome in the face of division. And John’s right; Jesus is powerful. Jesus preaches good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, gives voice to the voiceless. But what John can’t quite imagine is how radical this new kind of power will be. We, too, need to open our imaginations. For John reverses earthly power, but Jesus completely destroys it. Burns it up.
For Jesus, God made flesh, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is power. God turns power away from our human divisions and breaks even the power of death. God gives us a kingdom where there are no human divisions of power–all are welcome, safe, and nourished. A kingdom where peace reigns and justice rolls down like waters. All will have food and shelter and love and we’ll study war no more. There are no insiders and outsider, no good guys and bad guys; no generals and civilians; starving and full; free and prisoner; no laws saying some adults can get married and others can’t; some with access to bottled water, safe tap water, sparkling and still, and others without a cup full to give to their children. God’s kingdom is free from these divisions.
This, this, is the great turning of Advent…God turning towards the world. We’re not the ones who turn the world around…God has done, is doing, and will do the turning. Our task, as we prepare this Advent, is to wake up and participate. To remember our baptisms, and live out the invitation that we receive at this communion table: all are welcome to come and feast.
We love superheroes, in our culture, determining who is good and who is bad, drawing strict dividing lines; but judgment isn’t ours to proclaim. God’s justice is ours to live out. This Advent, we are called to live into God’s kingdom, not out of fear of fire but out of the hope for peace. So we turn…away from the world’s justice, made up of superheroes and guns, legislatures and fire and battlefields; And towards God’s justice, where all live in a world free from human divisions. A world, infused with the power of Jesus, where every child has a full cup of water on her nightstand.
So this Advent, may we turn to this welcome table. Live with hope. Work for justice. Prepare the way of the Lord.
For the kingdom of God is near.
Thanks be to God! Amen.