Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Dec. 4, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Dec 4, 2022 in Advent, Sermons

The Second Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2022

John prepared the way and made straight the path by calling people to turn from their worldly ways of fruitlessness, and denouncing the coat-tailing on their spiritual heritage through Abraham. Even John’s baptizing them will not save them, they must do the work of repentance and the change it demands for themselves. He’s saying time is short, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John is very popular, to the point of worrying Herod Antipas about an uprising. We only get a taste, but enough to know he’s dynamic and inspired, legitimately convincing. John preaches and baptizes while seeing on the horizon the coming kingdom of God, and he wants us to take notice! Matthew quotes Isaiah to identify John, whose message and appearance both evoke the power of the early prophet. 

He’s pointing to the coming of Jesus, and declaring that they (and we) have work to do, namely a true turning to God which is known by it’s fruits; this is what John means by ‘repentance.’ Jesus will later use the same words John uses here, but Jesus will go further in his expectations, calling people to the fruits we see in his ministry; acts of forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, hospitality, embracement, love, and service to God.

One scholar of the Gospel of Matthew* explains it this way; “For Christians repentance is not a religious moment or experience in which we “come to God,” —and then continue to live as before, within the social narratives and structures that constitute life as usual.” Instead, he explains, “Repentance is a perpetual state of readiness to challenge our commonplaces,” or stock answers, and the myths we live by. Those ways don’t produce “the fruit of repentance” John speaks of, rather they simply continue —perhaps condone?— practices of alienation and violence we assume will always be. Repentance is an ongoing willingness to examine and appraise our own responses to the world we live in. More than that, our response is part of heralding the Messiah too.

Granted, it’s overwhelming to consider all the world’s ills at once, and insurmountable to respond to all that needs doing. So many of you put your passion into healing this broken world that you are also an example for others. I’m wondering if we can share this ‘fruitfulness’ even more intentionally? Lets use Advent to begin; first take time to find a partner, and together choose one small thing you care about in your circle or community that needs changing. Choose steps to respond to that need. If ‘repentance is a perpetual state of readiness to challenge our commonplaces’, lets ready ourselves to turn one more injustice or problem a little closer to that beautiful vision from Isaiah. Maybe it’s a commitment to provide food for others, to help children feel God’s love for them, to speak up in the face of prejudice, cruelty, or abuse. Is it helping with the stockings for teens who are at risk or feel alone, uncared about? What makes you angry or worried? Our overuse of plastics, polluting our waters, addiction, homelessness… Take one single cause for concern and choose a faithful fruitful step you can do. Do it together or check in with each other as you go. Repentance recognizes that God’s way is before us, and a response is called for.

John is baptizing people “with water for repentance” and without skipping a beat says that one greater than he “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” What did they envision hearing that? Baptism is something we so closely associate with Christianity, that we need to remind ourselves that John was baptizing before there was such a thing. His was at once both similar and different from other Jewish water rituals; priests in the Jerusalem Temple performed washings in preparation for sacrifice, as a ritual of purity. A Gentile who decided to become a Jew did a ritual immersion. Such washings were self-administered and often undertaken more as ritual than a sign of turning to God anew. John’s baptisms were administered by another person with you, it was done only once, and done in preparation for the coming kingdom of God and final judgement, emphasizing conversation and moral purity over specified ritual. 

What jumps out to me is how relational and ‘hands on’ our baptism is. We cannot baptize ourselves, like a priest can’t do Communion for just him or herself, we cannot lay hands on ourselves. We need the other. Each other. We are Christ’s heart and hands in the world, the face of Christ to each other, and this faith is not a solo sport! A month from now we will baptize Edith, or Teddie as she’s called. Her parents, Godparents, grandparents and you, her faith community, will pray for her and to promise to support her life in Christ. My joyful anticipation reminds me by great contrast that of all challenges of the pandemic, the inability to be together and touch one another is the most widely devastating impact. We need it at our deepest places, and know we know it, fully! Who held your hand when you wept at the death of a loved one? Whose presence will ‘touch’ you today, and for whom will you be that one? This is part of why I asked that you find someone to partner with a moment ago. Our linkage matters, and those of you joining in online know this more than anyone. People are a bit startled in arriving the first time because some things require touch, presence, and that experience grows in us.

Our reading from Isaiah today says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” Isaiah prophesies the coming of the Messiah, and he is no stranger, he’s part of the family tree, cut down though it may have been. Isaiah tells of a tree (the Davidic line) so devastated that only a stump remains, and yet, life still come from that stump! A new shoot emerges for us, renewing the tree.

The very first lines of Matthew’s gospel gives the genealogy of Jesus, linking him with Abraham and Jesse and David, with Isaiah and here with John. Matthew’s audience sees this link in John’s the baptisms of Jesus. This scene at the Jordan River has less to do with any foretelling of Christian baptism, it does focus on the identification of Jesus as “the one who is more powerful than I” says John, and the eschatological import of Jesus himself. 

Imagine John’s perspective here, anticipating the coming of Jesus’ ministry, and with no knowledge of his future crucifixion, death and resurrection. John acted faithfully, looking back, looking around him, and looking at the horizon he saw ahead. We ourselves cannot un-hear or un-learn these truths, and they become part of how we know God. We know this Jesus’ command to baptize, to receive the Holy Spirit, to remember him in the breaking of the bread and in the wine. It is at once ancient and immediately present to us. 

We look back to these Jordan River baptisms two-thousand years ago from the perspective of our own faith stories, our own baptisms and when we share in the baptism of another we also look to a horizon with Christ. He is there at our last days and with us now in our call to love and serve. In his words to the disciples after the resurrection, in the very last lines of Matthew’s gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

How fitting to evoke the importance of relationship with Christ in his closing words; “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

*My thanks to Stanley Saunders Faculty Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia. Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Also see Sacra Pagina, The Gospel of Matthew, Daniel J Harrington, S.J. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1991

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.