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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Advent 2 – Year A

It was a strange, strange scene that day by the Jordan River, domi-nated by a loud, eccentric preacher. Loud, eccentric preachers always draw a crowd, and this was no exception. Word swept through the multitude; and people came, in droves, to see for themselves. Down from Jerusalem they came; from all over Judea they came. And the talking heads talked: You won’t believe what this preacher was wearing! It was wild— camel’s hair, with a leather belt slung around him! And what did he eat for lunch? Locusts and wild honey! Yuck! And he kept on shouting! “Repent! The kingdom of heaven has come near!” People were rocked back on their heels—it was unbelievable! People began repenting openly! But the preacher simply wouldn’t let up: He shouted at them to show that they really meant it: “Confess your sins and be baptized!” And they did—hoards of them—right there in the river—at the hands of this strange preacher.
Then, down from the hills there came really “important” people, Pharisees and Sadducees. They had to get in on it too! Were they just being politically correct, conscious of their standing with the people? Or were some of these VIPs really moved to repentance? Whatever the case, the preacher insulted them right to their faces: “You brood of vi-pers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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.” John the Baptist minced no words!
There you have the scene as it’s portrayed in today’s gospel from Matthew. It is harsh, abrasive and uncompromising. And VIPs don’t like to be denounced! They didn’t then; they don’t now. During the Vietnam War, when Lyndon Johnson was President, the Rev. Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis was rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. One weekend the president was in town for a conference and went to church that Sunday morning. During his sermon, Cotesworth took a leaf out of John the Baptist’s book and thoroughly scolded the president for his handling of the war. Johnson was not pleased, to say the least. He raised the roof—all hell broke out, and Cotesworth had to leave town until things calmed down! He told me later, though, that his vestry and the bishop fully supported him through the ordeal!
Now, this Advent, I’m hoping you and I can hear those harsh, abra-sive, uncompromising words of the Baptist, and feel ourselves “on the spot”—feel challenged to repent of our own sins, and to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Of course, only you can repent of your sins, and only I can repent of mine. And it is only in our own hearts that we can decide how to make our own repentance real and genuine. But I do feel moved this morning to hold up before us all a particular sin of which I believe we all are guilty, individually and as a nation, namely, our unwillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good.
Let me start at the national level, where this sin is so blatant and so obvious. You know, and I know, that the principal reason why the Unit-ed States Congress is held in such low opinion by the whole nation is because it is deadlocked by rampant, self-serving partisanship. That simply cannot be allowed to continue! Let a few Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress muster the courage to come together and take a stand—and offer to sacrifice their hardened positions, offer some ge-nerous and reasonable compromises—and speak with enough humility and conviction that others will be moved to follow suit! Why can we not bear witness to a basic truth in our nation that for all of us to have enough, a lot of us must be willing to do with less? Whether the issue is health care, Social Security, taxes, the national debt, the size of the mil-itary, immigration reform, farm subsidies, or anything else, justice re-quires of every one of us a willingness to sacrifice for the good of all.
Now you may say we preachers should stay out of politics! Although I’ve never preached to the president like Cotesworth Lewis did, I’ve cer-tainly taken some flack through the years. But I’ve said in the past, and I say now, listen to the prophets! Listen to John, the last of the great prophets, who heralds the coming of Christ! Listen to Jesus! See how deeply they involved themselves in the political issues of their day. What does Isaiah say in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Chapter 11? He sees in his mind’s eye a heaven-sent Savior: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” And what does Jesus say? He declares in Matthew 25 that on the Day of Judgment the nations will be gathered before him and will be judged by how they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoners!
How might you and I in our own lives bear fruit that befits genuine repentance of our unwillingness to sacrifice? Listen again to John the Baptist: In Luke’s version of the scene at the Jordan River, the crowds are so awestruck that they ask him, “What then should we do?” And he responds without hesitation: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Let me dare to suggest that, for you and me, that might mean a willingness to wait longer to see our own doctors so that poor people can have reasonable access to some doctor. It might mean that those who are getting ready now to retire and draw Social Security are willing to work a few more years so that the next generation can have Social Security too. It might mean that you and I repent of our insatiable quest for more things and are willing to devote a much greater proportion of our income to the work of church and charity among the poor.
In the end it all comes down to what it really means to love—to love God and to love others. God’s love for us is unconditional and uncom-promising. God loves you and me beyond our wildest dreams! And that love has been personified for all the world, with saving power, in the crucified Christ. John the Baptist heralded the dawn of a new day when Christ’s kind of love would be the way of the world. He challenged all people to repent—to turn radically away from their old life—and to bear fruit in the most practical, down-to-earth ways in love for others. The famous song of Zechariah, John’s father, also found in Luke’s gospel, declares, “You, my child…will go before the Lord to prepare his way….In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
God is waiting for us—and a suffering world is waiting for us—to en-able that dawn to break. Only Christ’s kind of love, flowing though us, will pierce the darkness; only Christ’s kind of love, flowing through us, will bring food and shelter and healing and hope to the billions on earth who are without it; only a massive, revolutionary sacrifice of love will be the fruit of repentance for which John called, and usher in the new way of Christ which John heralded. Let us, you and I, this Advent, as God’s willing partners, offer that sacrifice!

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