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12/4/2022 Sermon

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Isaiah 11:1-10 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 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.’ ” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 9 and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

At the recommendation, on Facebook, of one of my friends from seminary, I watched the movie, “Spirited” the other night. The musical is a modernization of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.” This was part of my friend’s thoughtful assessment of the movie. Ryan Reynolds is the New Scrooge. In his work, he intentionally divides people / companies / groups in order to promote his clients for profit. He uses marketing and social media, and he manipulates people with incredible ease. It struck me -- watching him plan his manipulations -- just how susceptible we are to people like him. … We live in a challenging environment with lots of people and companies competing for our attention -- consistently attempting to manipulate our thoughts, intentions, feelings, self-image, and actions. Today, and moving through Advent, I'd like to be increasingly selective regarding whose message I'm listening to and for.”

Today we heard messages from the prophets Isaiah and John.

Where are their words leading us this week? Isaiah describes a righteous leader that springs forth from the family tree of Jesse, that will come to herald the new peaceable kingdom of God. This ruler will bring peace as we have never known it. Justice to the oppressed and security for those without food or shelter. This ruler will honor the dignity and worth of all people, all creatures, all the universe. This prophecy from the Book of Isaiah envisions that when we achieve this peace on earth, even wild creatures, predators and prey will live together without conflict. A heaven on earth.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew, and scholars over the centuries, have pointed back to this, claiming certainty that Jesus came in fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah. The author of Matthew also reads John the Baptist into another of Isaiah’s prophecies, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

John comes in advance of Jesus to make things ready. A good scriptural segue to Advent and making ready for the coming of the Christ child. John was different. We learn from reading scriptures that he was a wild man; he wore animal skins and he ate what he could forage with his hands. Over the centuries some have tried to paint the picture that John the Baptist was bordering on mental instability. Likely those were his detractors, those attempting to silence his message, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. They must have had a difficult time understanding his choices: foregoing companionship, status, and comfort for wilderness and self-reflection. I wonder if he wasn’t choosing the better path? Rejecting the hypocrisy and pretense of the power systems and choosing the honesty and simplicity of living close to nature, living close to God. Of course, that is framing it as either / or and life is rarely, if ever, that simple.

Now, more than ever, when we view our choices through the lens of both / and we are richly rewarded.

John recognized the plight of the commoners. They were overlooked in society. They were marginalized by the rich and powerful. He was making space for them, accepting them as they were, and offering them hope for a better tomorrow.

And so, John expressed anger and outrage when the elite, the powerful showed up at the river to be baptized, asking for a piece of this action. To John, and to Matthew, it was either / or. Either you give up your riches, your status, your power to raise us up with you, or you have no part with us. You have to bear good fruit. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. John baptizes them, but reluctantly. He warns them of the one to come that will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. God will not be fooled, he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees. I will baptize you with water, but if your hearts are impure they will be winnowed, chopped, thrown into the unquenchable fire.

And then along comes Jesus. God in human form. And yes, Matthew tells us that he comes to separate the wheat from the chaff. In this context, it is easy to think that Jesus is separating people, classes of people, good people from bad people. That is how I have most often heard this preached and heard this in my own mind. Literal fire and brimstone preaching. And I can tell you that it created in me great discomfort.

I believe we hear the scriptures best when grounding them in love. I believe we hear them best when they are inclusive rather than divisive. I believe we hear them best when we approach them with humility, with openness, with curiosity.

It is good to come to the scriptures each week with new eyes to see and new ears to hear. To ponder not only what the scriptures meant to us decades ago, but what they mean to us now.

How do I hear this today? With the help of Matthew Myer Boulton of the Salt Project; when I read the verses about separating the wheat from the chaff, I hear inclusion rather than exclusion and divisiveness.

The metaphor of separating the wheat from the chaff does not need to mean separating the sheep from the goats, separating the haves from the have-nots, separating the sacred from the secular. Hear the metaphor as it applies to each one of us indivudually. I need to purify. I suspect that you do too. We need to separate our own wheat from our own chaff. God will gather us in. All of us. The separation involves the parts of us that we need to let go. Let go of our anxieties, our self-absorption, our apathy. Let go of our chaff. Let it burn away. Let the fire purify us.

Matthew Myer Boulton writes, “As we prepare for this new era of shalom, John challenges us to change our hearts, minds, and lives — for the days of peace have come near! Make way! Remove the obstacles, the husks that get in the way! Bear fruit! The Prince of Peace approaches.”

I invite you to re-visit, “A Christmas Carol.” Go see the live show at The Grand in Ellsworth, with the added bonus of seeing Pat Summerer and Amelia and Lucy Ashmore on stage. Or watch the new adaptation of, “Spirited.” And here’s the thing, don’t simply be a passive viewer. Project yourself into the starring role of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Imagine your life being examined. Spend some time contemplating, what do your personal ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future have to teach you?

Rev. TJ Mack – December 4, 2022

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