Text: Matthew 3:1-12
“Prepare the way of the Lord!” roars John the Baptist, his camel hair shirt being battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. But he speaks from a place outside of his body with an authority that isn’t his. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
People had to travel pretty far to hear these words. The Jordan River wasn’t exactly on a main street with good traffic flow. I guess John missed the book that detailed the best strategy for amassing a crowd. Near a McDonalds, on a corner, and there must be a stop sign in front. Not that John needed a plan. The people kept coming. Their ears were hungry for a true word from God. Not the faith of the temple, that came filtered through the official Roman creed of fidelity to Caesar to first. No, they were looking for red meat; something with substance. People put up with the blisters and stubbed their feet on the rocks because they craved access to God to receive the freedom they craved. And John didn’t disappoint.
He even looked the part. His clothes ragged and his voice hoarse. He ate what he could find out there in the desert and a not drop of wine ever touched his lips. Only water for this prophet. His words were so rough and so true that they cut deep wounds in people’s self-delusions. He spoke truth to power. Clearly, John had no loyalty to anyone other that God and had no other trade other than proclaiming God’s message. John lived the freedom the people craved.
And the people came. Crowds flocked to hear this strange little man shouting hard words of repentance. People who had been kicked out of the temple for failing. Failing at religion. Failing in their job. Failing at life. A lot of these folks weren’t part of what you would call the comfortable middle-class. And to be honest. If you saw one of them walking toward you downtown you’d probably cross the street and walk on the other side.
A week ago one of these introduced himself to us when an intoxicated Aboriginal man banged on the church’s front door during our Saturday morning Stephen Ministry training class. He asked when church service started. I told him it was tomorrow at 8:45 and 11:00 and that he was welcome to come to join in. Then he just stood and stared at me. After a minute or two he asked for something to eat. So I gave him three apples, the only food I had in the fridge. Then he sat down on a chair in our “Welcome Area.”
A woman from the Stephen Ministry class sat down with him to talk. We resumed our class in a nearby room. Suddenly we heard the man yell “Somebody help me!” and myself and a man from the class ran out to the hallway. The woman who was sitting with him was pale.
She whispered to me “He said he is suicidal and asked me for a gun.”
Not knowing exactly what to do I called 911 and explained the situation. They asked if he was drunk and if he was native. I said “yes” on both counts. They said they would send a police car around.
10 minutes later an officer arrived. He obviously knew the man.
“Hi Ron, are you causing trouble around here?” asked the officer.
I said to him, “No, he’s not. We called because he said he was suicidal.”
“When Ron gets drunk he says lots of things he doesn't mean.” The cop replied, dismissing my concern. “Sorry pastor,” the officer continued, “I’ve got no compassion for these people.”
Then the officer parked Ron in the back seat of his cruiser and took him away.
We said a prayer for Ron and the class resumed.
But the class was wondering if we did the right thing by calling the police. My training had taught me that once the person says he or she is suicidal then all pastoral bets are off and I have to notify authorities. But folks raised good questions. Did we “care” for Ron as Jesus would have? Was calling the police the best way to handle the situation? Was it at coincidence that he showed up when we were learning how to be Christian caregiver? Was he an angel who had visited us unawares, as the bible said might happen? What else could we have done? After all, we’re not miracle workers. One visit with us is not going to change this man’s life. No matter how earnest and well-intentioned we are.
I really appreciated the questions the class asked because they recognized that this person was one who is traditionally shut out of respectable religion and was hungering for more than what we gave him. We gave him food. But I wondered if he hungered for the bread of life. Let face it, our churches aren’t populated with aboriginal people, especially ones with substance abuse problems. But I wonder if these were the types that flocked to hear John. I wondered if these were the ones who entered the waters of the Jordan river, the river of freedom, and emerged on the other side a new person. “Ron” was clearly hurting for more than food. He wanted someone to talk to.
Good Shepherd is a remarkably caring community. I've been taught how to be a better disciple by the witness of many people in this congregation. But I'm always wondering were we can grow. And I wonder if the fellow who visited us last Saturday taught us where we can reach deeper in our caring. The discomfort this person brought to us is a holy discomfort. Like John the Baptist, he challenged us to make our embrace reach wider. I know that we want to do more, we want to be more loving, we want to show the world God’s love. We certainly do not want to see hurting people led away from our church in the back seats of police cars. We want to do more. We know we can do more.
For us, when we hear John’s message, I don’t think the judgment we fear is the fires of hell, but the fires of our own consciences.
American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor concedes that “one of the most frightening things about John’s vision of judgment is that unquenchable fire of his. It is not possible to live in the Bible belt without a vivid image of Hell, much more vivid than the clean streets of heaven. But if you read the Bible very much, you have to wonder about that fire. Throughout Holy Scripture, fire is the reliable sign of the presence of God. God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush; a pillar of fire guides the people of Israel through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt; when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments from God, it looks to those down below as if the mountain itself is being devoured by fire.
“I do not mean to minimize the danger” she continues. This is not a safe fire; it can still burn and kill. But it is God’s own fire, the fire of God’s presence, fire that wants to speak to us, guide us, instruct us, save us. It is the fire of a potter who wants to make useful vessels out of damp clay. It is fire of the jeweler who wants to refine pure gold from rough ore. It does not have to be the fire of destruction, in other words. It may also be the fire of transformation, a fire that lights us up and changes us, melting us down and reforming us more nearly into the image of God. It is the fire that with which Jesus himself baptizes us, inviting us into a bright, hot relationship with him. Even when the fire seems bent on consuming us, like Meshach , Shadrach, and Abednego, in the fiery furnace we find that we have company, and that even in the hottest regions of our own personal hells we do not sweat.” (BBT, Changed in to Fire)
So the fires that meet us, like small bonfires that keep us warm but alert, or the infernos that threaten to overwhelm us, leaving us scarred and often unrecognizable, are the fires that transform us into what God wants us to be. But also, it is important to remember that we do not start the fire. God strikes the match sticks and hauls out the can of gasoline. Our salvation does not depend on our own goodness but on God’s goodness. I wonder if John’s message would have been a little softer, a touch gentler if he knew that the Messiah, Jesus was much more willing to forgive than to destroy.
But yes, John the Baptist was right. Jesus is our judge. But as one writer puts it, “the chambers from which he presides is the chambers of his compassionate heart.” All he needs is a handful of dust willing to be transformed, willing to be caught on fire, for heaven’s sake,” (BBT, ibid) because he knows that fear and discomfort is the furnace in which faith is forged. In fact, as one preacher says it, “the greater the fear, the more heroic the faith.”
It is my prayer, that in this Advent season, God will disquiet us enough, make us uncomfortable enough, that our embrace will widen, our love for the world will deepen, and our fear will enlarge our vision of your kingdom in our lives and in the world. Maybe for us, repentance means looking to a broader vision of what God wants for us in ministry, keeping us hungering for more of the kingdom alive in our midst. Amen.