The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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.'”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
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? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 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. 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.
“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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and wil gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable ni your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Our reading from Isaiah begins with a very interesting line: “A shoot shall comeout from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” This is an agricultural image, of a seemingly dead tree stump bursting forth with new life in the spring.
This part of Isaiah reminds Delmer Chilton of a story that his Grandpa Reid Chilton told him. It happened to him when he was a boy.
Grandpa Reid was the oldest at fourteen and they left him in the care of his Uncle Arrington, a Bible-thumping Primitive Baptist preacher and farmer. Reid lived with his family and worked on the farm.
Fourteen year oldReid was baseball crazy, and apparently quite good, good enough to be an outfielder for a semi-pro men’s team. In the early 1900’s Reid got $2 a game playing one game a week. Uncle Arrington cared nothing for this ball- playing foolishness, but Reid wasn’t his child and as long as the work was done he did not feel empowered to stop him. On Saturday there was to be an important game at Dry Pond, twelve miles away, at 4:00 PM. Reid went to ask Uncle Arrington if he could borrow a mule to ride to the game. Arrington thought a minute and said, “Sure, long as you get this bucket of peas planted in the cornfield before you go.” Reid’s heart sank, there was no way. He bravely set to work, planting the peas where the vines would grow up around the cornstalks. He had no watch, but he could tell by the sun he was running out of time. Suddenly he came upon an old burned out stump. In those days many farmers cleared a field by cutting down the largest trees and burning out the stump and leaving it in the field to rot away. Reid quickly looked around, dug the old leaves and ashes and other debris out of the stump, then poured the rest of the peas in, covering them with dirt. He ran out of the field, showed Uncle Arrington the empty bucket, grabbed his uniform, and glove and jumped on the mule, arriving just in time for the game.
Things were fine for a month or so, until Uncle Arrington was plowing the corn and happened upon an old stump overflowing with an abundance of peavines. He came roaring out the field shouting “Reid!” while simultaneously pulling his belt out of the loops.
When Grandpa Reid told Delmer that story, he would always stop at that point and with a pained look in his eyes, say, “Who knew peas would grow in a stump?”
Who knew peas would grow in a stump? Who knew a new king could arise from the ruins of a failed kingdom? Who knew a new era of peace and justice could emerge from the scattered remnants of destroyed country? Well, Isaiah knew. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Al our lessons this weekend are filled with images of hope, of the promise of renewal that God is bringing into our lives. Isaiah is a promise of God’s new day in the middle of what looks to be a hopeless situation. In the last part of chapter 10, Isaiah has talked about how God wil cut down the kingly like trees, “He will strike down the forest thickets with an ax,” (Is. 10:34 CEV) yet chapter 1 begins with a promise of hope; Jesse was King David’s father, so the stump of Jesse is the decimated kingly line of descent. A righteous branch sprouting from these wiped out roots is a sign of God’s power to bring us all back from the edge of failure and death to the new dawn of joy and life; joy and life represented by the beautiful images of the peaceable kingdom to come.
Romans is full of reminders from Paul that our God is a God of hope and our story is a story of promises made and promises kept. We read the scriptures, that we might have hope.” (15:4) Christ came to be a servant leader (a shoot from the stump of Jesse) “that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” (15:8) And especially in the last two verses …” the root of Jesse shall come, the one to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit?” (15:12-13)
In Matthew, John the Baptist calls upon the people to repent to turn around and go the other way, head in a new direction. That’s the simplest meaning of the word metanoia which is translated “repentance” in our Gospel lesson. It is a difficult word for us to hear right now, as we are in the midst of all our “getting ready for Christmas” business. Most of us have a list of things that MUST be done in the next few weeks; and truth be told, for most of us, most of them aren’t done yet, or aren’t on schedule, or aren’t things we really want to do, and certainly aren’t things that help us be more aware of God’s will and way in the world. But, it’s on the list, and we’ve always done this forChristmas. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Etc. Etc. But, if there is any of this that is just getting to be too much, that is getting in the way of our relationship with God in Christ, there is a simple fix. Go a different way. “Repent” Put down the Christmas “to do” list and back away slowly. Take some time to think and pray before you celebrate.
When you really think about it it must have been hard to be John the Baptizer. I don’t mean the odd diet and living in the harsh desert environment. John chose that life. He willingly embraced the Hebrew prophetic lifestyle. I am saying that it was hard to be related to Jesus of Nazareth. Can you imagine living in the shadow of the person who defined how civilization came to define history? Before him, time was measured in one manner. After his birth, we changed how years were counted. How easy was it to relate to Jesus in your family, especially if you had even the faintest understanding of his role?
Yes, it was never easy being John the Baptizer. You knew you were destined for big things. God had given you a message on par with the most critical and socially challenging prophets in the Hebrew Bible. People heard your words and responded accordingly. The rich were uncomfortable.
The poor listened to you, and it was unmistakable; God was on their side and would not let them down. You preached a need for a fresh start when everyone else was comfortable with a miserable, dirty, rotten status quo. You lived with such integrity and ferocity that some people came to believe that you, John, a poor boy from Galilee, might be the one to free Israel in the manner of Moses or Joshua. John knew he was a prophet and prophet alone. Someone else from Galilee would come and, like Elijah and Elisha, take his mantle and continue his work after his death. Because prophets do not live long, especially those who make rich people angry, hold a mirror up to reality, and ask the world to practice what they preach.
John was human, like all of us. John has no claim to divinity. He was an eccentric vet effective preacher. He said all the right things, did everything he was supposed to do, and would never see how Jesus would take his vision to a place he never imagined. John’s life was no rose garden and should not be idealized. Yes, it was never easy for John the Baptizer. Like a country music singer from the mid-1950s who led to people like Elvis and Johnny Cash. Without John the Baptizer, we might not know Jesus. We need him because I believe you can’t have one without the other. We need John to see Jesus and Jesus to hear John.
As we dive fully into Advent and continue to look through Jesus’ mirror at ourselves, our community and our society, how might we imitate the faithfulness of Jerusalem, all Judea and the lands around the Jordan?
The first step to repenting is acknowledging that there is a problem, and the
second step is committing to do something about .ti What in our lives, our church and our communities isn’t the way it should be? What can we do?
Like John in his day, faithful voices cry out in the wilderness so we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. Instead, we can remember our baptisms and be freed from slavery to sin, death, and all that corrodes and corrupts to produce fruit of righteousness. As we prepare to welcome Jesus into the world and into our lives yet again, let us, in his power and name, reject evil and prepare good fruits.
Remembering to repent is not so much to beat yourself up for being a bad person, or crying out to God about how sorry we are; (believe me, God already knows). John the Baptist called upon the people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” We are called to do the same today. We are called to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus. And if not, now is the time to move ni a new and better direction. For no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God.
Peas can grow ni a stump, righteousness and justice can emerge from failure. Turning to go a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of God’s people. So, this Second Sunday in Advent, as you find ourselves rushing through life to do the next thing on our list, to find the next place on our itinerary; if we discover ourselves confronted by a burned out stump of the soul; if we find ourselves in a miserable place of the spirit, a place we neither expected nor wanted to visit take a moment to reorient ourselves. Consider this a call to repentance; a call to turn and take our Christmas celebration and our life in a new direction-a direction filled with “fruit worthy of repentance.”
But stand back! Watch out! Who knows what abundance of God’s goodness might burst forth in abundant life right before our eyes! After all, peas can grow in a stump, and a righteous branch did grow from Jesse’s roots.