December 4, 2016
“Prophets Are Terrible Dinner Guests”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
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 the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek 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 and the fatling 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.
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 the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
9 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; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; 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.”
It is Advent, friends, and that means we get to encounter once again the wild-eyed wonder that is John the Baptist. As we plan our joyous Christmas celebrations and make our Christmas lists, John feels like the piece that doesn’t fit.
As we set the table for Christmas, we have to set one more place for our awkward relative.
He’s invited because he is part of our story and our family, but he is not the best dinner guest.
For one, he talks too loudly. He shouts for a living, preaching in the desert. And he talks about things that perhaps we wish he wouldn’t in polite company.
He wants to talk about the end of the world, and we just want to talk about the weather.
He rails against the status quo, criticizes all the politicians, complains about hypocrisy.
Sometimes he rattles off things we don’t even understand and asks questions we don’t know how to answer.
He complains that our chairs and our lives are too comfortable, and when we offer him some of the roast, he makes a face and asks if we have any honey he can dip his bugs in.
And we are glad when we can close the door behind him.
See you next Advent, John – good luck with the preaching of repentance and all the baptizing.
But perhaps we are too quick to discount the prophets in our lives.
John was a prophet, basically from birth. When he was born, his father composed a poem about his life: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And we are told in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life that John grew strong and tough and lived in the wilderness until it was time for him to do what he needed to do.
From birth John was cut from a different cloth.
He would have to do something which makes no one popular – he would have to tell the truth to people who did not want to hear it. He would have to tell people to change, and people hate change.
He had tell people things that would make them uncomfortable, that would make them squirm and feel guilty. He knew that the dawn of God’s kingdom was coming, and he had to convince people they were sitting in darkness.
That kind of thing can get you killed.
Prophets are part of God’s story – they always have been.
When we are content to float downstream with the current, it is the prophets who try to knock us out of our boats to get us swimming. It is the prophets that speak what God needs them to say.
It is the prophets who use language we already know in order to paint a picture for us of a world we can barely imagine.
Like the words of the prophet of Isaiah from hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, who says (my paraphrase), “Imagine a world that is not defined by categories like the powerful and the powerless.
Imagine a world that doesn’t run on fear.
Imagine a world where people don’t stumble around in the dark trying to figure out how to live their lives.
One day the root of Jesse will be the signal, the beacon of hope, that all this is possible.”
It is prophets who force us to look at the injustices around us.
It is prophets who call us out when we bend the truth.
It is prophets who remind us that we have spare bedrooms, and there are people in the world with nowhere to live.
It is prophets who remind us that we are more forgiving of complete strangers then we are of our own family.
It is prophets that remind us of the promises we made that we haven’t followed through on.
It is prophets who cut through the haze of our busy minds to remind us of things we used to feel really passionate about.
We stand with John on the banks of the Jordan River, watching the people come.
They seem to know that something in their lives and their world needs to change. John the prophet has done his work.
So they come to the river not only to be made clean and whole before God, but to choose a new direction for their lives.
And we also hear John scream at the religious leaders who have come along too. Why are they there? Are they curious? Sincere?
Are they trying to find a way to get John in trouble?
John seems to know them and know that their hearts are especially hard.
He uses a bit of prophetic profanity and calls them a brood of vipers.
He questions them, “Why have you come here? Who told you to come here?”
He tells them not think they already have it all figured out, that their lives are ok just because of their family tree or because they go to church.
God can make new children out of even rocks – God can take things that have no life at all, and bring them to life.
And we are watching all this play out, grateful that John is not calling us the spawn of snakes . . . he isn’t, right?
Because we’re good . . .at least good enough.
Certainly, we are not the kind of people who would sit around in darkness, and not know it.
Perhaps we need a prophet after all.
We’ve got John who tells us to examine our lives and turn in a new direction, turn in the direction of God’s kingdom.
And we’ve got people and events in our lives right now who make us feel uncomfortable with the truths they tell.
There is one pastor in my Doctor of Ministry cohort who is so deeply passionate about justice, for every kind of justice for every single person, that I feel uncomfortable about my own complacency.
There are people in this congregation who remind me regularly that the status quo in our community is just not good enough.
When I read about the work of the International Justice Mission and the prevalence of violence and enslavement of the poorest people in the world, I have this heavy burden of knowing that in the supply chain of many things I own there was slave labor.
My own children, with all their questions about what I do and why, they make me look more closely at my behavior (I feel this especially while I am driving and perhaps not saying the nicest things about another driver).
But there is hope for us. John tells us to repent, that change is possible, and if we do repent, something important will happen to us.
Always, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – but it can also be true that repentance and a transformed life go together. In the few weeks we have in Advent, how might we pay closer attention to the words of prophets who call us to let go of the past and live in a new way into the future?
How might we come before God in repentance, admitting the things that keep us separated from God, and letting go of the things that separate us from our neighbors?
John reminds us that there is something deeply valuable about preparing for God to enter our world and our lives. Amen.