December 9, 2001

Matthew 3:1-12

While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called "the Baptizer," was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here."

John and his message were authorized by Isaiah's prophecy:
     "Thunder in the desert!
     Prepare for God's arrival!
     Make the road smooth and straight!"

John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: "Brood of snakes! what do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It's your life that must change, not your skin! And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.

"I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life, the real action comes next: The main character in this drama -- compared to him I'm a mere stagehand -- will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house -- make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."

<The Message >


1. Advent is a most joyous time. While we are expectantly waiting there is time to reflect on what has brought us to this time. We know that change is in the air, but we are uncertain about the timing and direction of that change.

One hint we have is that if there is going to be a change we ought to at least pay attention to what is and the direction it is going in, because this is what is going to be changed away from.

A primary part of Advent is confession of what is. Confession here not being an "O woe is me," but a realization of the current state of affairs and how it is we got here.

2. What is not being looked for is novelty or emoting. What is not being looked for is an easy or facile explanation. What is not being looked for is the way to change the least and keep going on as much like what currently is as we can.

Religious leaders like to get in on the emotions of the day to work on them and justify them so we can feel good about retrenching and doing more of the same. The with-it religious leaders of John-the-Baptizer's day would be out studying his "technique" for getting crowds in the desert. If they can capture the emotion behind that imagine what grand programs they could foment and make a mint (whether measured in the coin of the realm or the prestige of leadership.

Religious leaders like to get in on the blame game, explaining away how their God was still in place and in charge. The with-it religious leaders would want to be the best apologists they could be for the current religious structures which either have them at the top or nearing it. If they can figure out how argue against John-the-Baptizer they will have a leg up on advancement. The talking head who gets the most air time, must be the winner and learning to manipulate the language which is drawing folks away in order to draw them back again is a very valuable commodity to the status quo.

Religious leaders like to get in on incrementalism - the seeming to change without changing. It's as though a half-degree turn is significant. This might be of some minimal help if one continues to go full-speed-ahead. Advent comes to say slow down. It is far easier to turn around at a slow speed than a fast one. If they can fool us into thinking that a small change will lead to a large change they will have done their job to keep their job. To jump from one image to another without much transition, it is like thinking a spinning gyroscope is going to make much progress. Its very turning keeps it still. Religious leaders are famous for either under-stating the needed change or over-stating it.

3. Imagine that you have slowed down enough to confess where we are and how we got here. Go on to imagine that now you can talk with GOD heart-to-heart. From this "mind-melding" will come clarity about what is valuable and what is not. From this vision will come the energy to do something about it. It will burn within you without your having to apologize for being a sandal-tyer or whatever dismissive turn of phrase is most common with you. It will burn within you as it did within all who have listened to the prophets Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, or another in more recent days. May you slow down enough to burn well. Thank you for this light and warmth which will come through you participating in this joyous time of Advent.

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