Sermon from December 12th, 2021
Luke 3:7-18; Isaiah 12:2-6
Pilgrim Church, Harwich Port
December 12, 2021 Advent Three
Rev. Dr. Helen Nablo
Quick, take a moment to name in your head
five people who come to mind when I say the words “holy people”.
Just five “holy people”,
personally known to you, or more broadly known and recognized.
So how present day or back in time were they?
Are they currently living, or a blessed departed saint?
Did your list include a friend or relative? A person in this church,
currently, or in the past? Someone who engaged others for bringing about change?
How did they, your holy people, show others what it was to walk with God?
Today we encounter a rather unusual holy person, John the Baptist.
That’s right, every Advent, if you follow lectionary texts, John bursts onto the
scene, wild and wooly.
He’s described as wearing camel hair and eating wild locusts.
He doesn’t hang out in well decorated sanctuaries, but out in the wilderness
where dry winds blow and artifices and pretension fly away.
He’s preparing the way for Jesus.
And he starts by calling people snakes – a brood of vipers!
Hasn’t anyone taught John how to be nice?
This is hardly a way to win your people over.
Imagine, it’s Christmas Eve, and your interim pastor comes down from
the pulpit with a gleam in her eye, and says to all the good people gathered here
“You brood of snakes? Who warned you about the wrath that is to come?”
It would be sort of anti-church growth now, wouldn’t it?
It would be hard to imagine more people in the pews the following Sunday.
One thing you can say about John – there’s hardly a pastoral search committee that
would go for him!
We need, of course, to understand what’s been going on, the setting of
our scripture today.
John has been preaching a message of repentance, and it must be pretty compelling
because more and more people are showing up, heading out to find him by the banks
of the Jordan River.
Whereas at the start of his ministry, people came to him with open hearts,
they were the down and out, needing to hear good news
John’s become an event, a “let’s go see!” – like Houdini.
John’s primary message of course was that someone was coming
who would change them from the inside out.
But the people now who are coming to hear, to see
they are not so much the down and out, but the winners,
they are the more well to do, including the soldiers of Rome,
and the tax collectors who helped keep the whole thing going.
They are also the marginally religious, the ones who keep the form
but not necessarily the spirit of the faith
because honestly, things are going well for them.
John looks at them and sees a new crowd, a different audience if you will.
And the truth is John’s been happier speaking to the AA crowd,
the ones who know they are defeated, reached the end of their efforts to be good,
the ones who are more than ready to give up the notion of control.
So while John is initially harsh, speaking to those who have just come for the show,
soon his remarks include them as well.
Do you want to know life with God?
Then lead an ethical life, John says.
If you have two coats, give one to someone who needs it.
If you are a tax collector, collect no more than what is proscribed.
If you are a soldier, don’t extort money from people, threatening them in all kinds of ways,
and be satisfied with what you yourself make.
Alongside the “Prepare the Way of the Lord” message is this message that we all of us
must live as ethical beings, for daily we have decisions to make about how we use our energy,
our position, our personal power.
Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey,
live generously and justly John says.
There are forms of faith that are much more about what we do than what we
say or believe.
John appears to be that kind of faithful, that kind of holy.
His message is about getting real.
It’s your life that matters, not how many times you make it to worship,
or how eloquently you can speak your faith.
It’s your life that counts, how you are living it.
He wasn’t just a man named John, he was John the Baptist.
He followed in the prophet’s mold, speaking truths that needed to be spoken.
Out there in the wilderness, he encouraged people to away from all their self-protective
defenses, such as their claim they were “children of Abraham”, and to turn to God.
And those who were so moved, to state that intention, that decision if you will,
were then marked with water, with a dunking in the river Jordan.
As people came up out of the water, they were invited to begin anew.
Years ago my husband and I had the joy of traveling to the Holy Land.
We were on a “faith based tour”, a gift from the church in Scituate Massachusetts
from which he resigned.
We visited the Jordan River, and the people on the tour asked Mike
if he would baptize them there.
I watched my husband don a white robe and wade out, watched as one by one
the members of this tour came to him.
Mike had explained it was an affirmation of baptism, we only need to be baptized once,
but it was powerful nevertheless to watch these people come forward
in their white robes, their faces full of hopefulness.
What were their stories?
What had been their joys, their sorrows, their disappointments in themselves and in others?
What did this river dunking mean to them?
It was also a little funny.
Mike wore a beard in those days, and he really did
Look like John the Baptist, waiting for people standing in line
at the River Jordan.
But there were these tiny fish that nibbled on the skin of Mike’s feet
and at first, he kept flinching with that.
In our worship books, when an adult is baptized,
there are questions asked, asked about the meaning of what is taking place.
There are questions about being a disciple of Jesus.
There are also questions about “renouncing sin and evil and turning to God in Christ.”
This is exactly what John was about, “a baptism for the repentance of sin.”
Likely you’ve heard this before: to repent means to turn around.
To change an orientation, a way of behaving.
John tells the people what their lives will look like when they have indeed done this.
They will have new energy, new drive for living justly and generously.
A minister addresses an infant when he baptizes her, saying
“Little child, you belong to God; you always have and you always will,
and now the mark of Christ is upon you.” (Feasting on the Word, vol 1, year C, p. 73)
I found those words this week in a book, but I like them.
In many ways it is too bad the mark of baptism isn’t a visible one, like the bindi,
worn in India, to signify a woman is married.
When someone is being hostile to you, are you tempted to return that, and then some?
Look in the mirror and remember the mark that has been placed on you.
When the glossy catalogs come in, with their gorgeous clothes and Labrador retreivers
by the fire, and you find yourself longing for more, for that sort of perfect life…
look in the mirror and remember the mark that has been placed on you.
When someone who is really struggling needs not just a listening ear, but some
concrete help, but you are tempted to hold on to what you have….
Look in the mirror and remember the mark that has been placed on you.
You are baptized.
We are only baptized once, though there is that wonderful movie with
Robert Duvall, The Apostle,
where Duvall plays a southern preacher who baptizes himself in the river again
after he commits a crime of passion, brutally attacking a man.
We are only baptized once, but again and again we have moments
when we are challenged to live out our identity, and to begin again.
So it needs to be said: It’s the holidays, and sometimes that puts a strain on us all.
People get irritable and anxious. The best isn’t always shining through.
The pandemic has gone on so long, and we are all sick of it!
Who are we when times are tough?
I think today is a great day to remember the life to which we were called when we ourselves
passed through the baptismal waters.
Our baptism as a claim on us is not one and done….it is an ongoing call to each of us.
John the Baptist doesn’t come so that people will feel miserable about themselves.
He comes so that people will remember there is a Life Source we can turn to --
We can turn to God, we can re-orient ourselves,
turning from all that distracts and distorts life,
turning towards all that gives the life that is really life.
John came for people’s well being, their spiritual well being.
What he said, especially to those who had power in this world,
was we must live the faith we claim to possess.
Are you having struggles living the faith you claim to possess?
Do you find that challenged in these times, or with particular circumstances
you may be facing?
Today, after the benediction and during the postlude
(and before the congregational meeting) I’d encourage you to take a quiet moment
to stop by the font.
As was made clear at the start of our service, there is water in the font.
Whatever your need, whatever it is you are feeling you need to turn from
be it judgementalism, or weariness, or some situation that you keep trying to control
that isn’t yours to control
whatever it is
stop at the font, put your hand in the water, and remember.
Remember your baptism, remember the mark on you.
Today is a good day to be preparing for the coming of Jesus in this way.