Life Can Be Different – An Advent Sermon On Matthew 3:1-12

The Second Sunday in Advent, Year A – Matthew 3:1-12

By Visitor7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

What if I preached like John the Baptist? What if I was as blunt and direct as he is? What if one Sunday I began my sermon like this? 

“So what brought you slithering in here today? You sons of … snakes. Why are you here? To get out of the cold? To see your friends? To make yourself feel better about how faithful and good you are? To get a cup of coffee and a donut? Are you here to give God that wish list you call prayer? And don’t even start with me about who you are or how long your family has been in this parish. I don’t care what you’ve done for this place or how much money you’ve given. I want to know what you are doing with your life? Where are you headed? Don’t give me some polite banal answer. This is not dress up and pretend time. This is serious and there are consequences to the way we live and the choices we make. So if you are here to change your ways, to live a different life, to open yourself to God, to truly love your neighbor as yourself, then show it. Live it. Let that be seen by the choices you make, the priorities you establish, the actions you take, and the words you speak. If that’s not why you are here then get out. Go on. Crawl back into the hole you came from.”

What would you think about that? How would you feel? What would you do if I preached like John the Baptist?

Call the Bishop? Meet in the parking lot afterwards and complain to others? Make some phone calls, send some e-mails? Would you get angry and leave? Withhold your pledge? Would you come talk to me about it? Would you send the senior warden to straighten me out? Would you ignore the sermon? Would you change your life?

My guess is that most of us don’t want to hear messages like John’s. I don’t. We’re pretty content with our lives and the world. I don’t mean we are content in the sense that everything is perfect and as we want, but that we have settled. Maybe we’re overwhelmed and feel powerless to do anything. Maybe we’re just too tired and too busy to make a change. Maybe we’ve been hurt or disappointed so many times that we’ve become indifferent or cynical. Maybe we’re so distracted or overcommitted that we that we’ve lost sight that “there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:42). Maybe we feel stuck and paralyzed to do anything different from what we are already doing.  

There are as many ways of settling as there are people here today. We find a way to manage our lives that at least on the surface is working. We learn how to “play the game” and sometimes even win. We become comfortable, maybe even comfortably numb, and we don’t want John or anyone else messing with our life, our plans, our system. We go along to get along. I suspect that’s often true for many of us whether preacher or parishioner.

John’s kind of peaching, that kind of message, gives us a lot of reasons to turn away. It’s a hard message to hear. It holds before us things about ourselves we often do not want to see or deal with. It’s challenging, critical, and uncomfortable. And yet today’s gospel (Matthew 3:1-12) says that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea and all region along the Jordan were going out to hear him. Even the religious authorities, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why?

Why would we ever want to hear a message like John’s? What is he really offering us? 

I wonder if there’s something in us that wants, maybe even needs, to hear John’s message.

If I am really honest with myself I can see and name the cracks in the veneer of my life. I know when my life is out of balance. I recognize the ways in which I resist others and struggle with certain relationships. I contradict myself. I often betray myself and my own integrity. I can see patterns and habits that are not helpful to me or others and yet I continue to do them. Sometimes I’m afraid and don’t want to face my life.

It’s easy to begin to believe that’s just how it is and how it will always be. That’s just me. That’s my life. And I settle for what is rather than what might be. I turn away from my future insuring that what’s alway been will continue to be. Maybe you’ve done that too. 

That’s when I need to hear John the Baptist. I don’t so much need him to tell that I need to change (I usually know that and sometimes I even want that); I need him to remind me that I can change, that life can be different. I need to hear a message of hope and possibility. That’s what Advent is about – hope, possibilities, the future. Don’t you sometimes need to be reminded of that?

We can change. Life can be different. That’s the message of John the Baptist. It’s the first thing he says in today’s gospel, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I used to think about repentance mostly in terms of behavior and morals. Somebody was in trouble. Somebody had better straighten up and fly right. To repent meant being sorry, remorseful, for my behavior, trying harder, and doing better next time. It meant being good. 

I thought if I could just be good enough and do it all right then everything would work out. Life has a way of dispelling that notion. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. All of us could probably tell stories about times when we did it right, we gave it our best, we tried hard, we made the right decisions, we met the expectations, we did what we were supposed to, and it still didn’t go the way we intended. 

So what if repentance is about more than trying harder or a program of self-improvement? What if repentance is really about returning to our truer and better selves? Reclaiming our own integrity and refusing to betray ourselves? What if repentance is first about what’s going on inside us – an interior condition – before it’s ever about what is going on outside us?

Maybe repentance is like learning to walk. It’s not so much about whether we will fall but whether we will get back up when we do fall. Maybe it’s about staying open to our future. Maybe it’s hoping against hope in the possibility of the impossible.  

What if repentance is simply about getting our life back on track – the opportunity to change our mind, have a change of heart, and change the direction of our life? So it’s not so much about guilt or innocence but about wholeness and fullness. It’s less about the past and where we’ve come from, and more about the future and where we’re headed. 

Repentance gives us a future. It invites, calls for, and solicits a change – a response from us. 

It doesn’t have to be huge, or fix everything. It’s not a once and for all thing. Repentance is a way of life. We repent our way through life. We repent our way into wholeness. What would that look like for you today? How will you begin?

What is one change you could make today – or at least begin – that would bring more wholeness and fullness to your life? 

What is one change you could begin today that would deepen a relationship you have? What is one change you could begin today that would open your eyes to beauty in the world? What is one change you could begin today that would help you love and accept yourself more than you do? What is one change you could begin today that would soften your heart to the pain and need of someone else? What is one change you could begin today that would open the way to forgiveness of another or yourself? 

What is one change that you could begin making today that would let you turn to the future with hope and the possibility of the impossible?

One change. A new start. A future. That’s Advent and Advent promises that something is coming.

Repent, not because you’re bad, but because you are worth it. 

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