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Dec 4th, 2016
Pews Rush In Where Pulpits Fear to Tread
Matthew 3:1-12



What is the best way to get the attention of the public these days? (show video)


Did you notice-People pull out their cameras. They start calling friends on their cell phones so they can hear too. People are smiling and they are awe struck. They have never heard anything so wonderful and seemingly so spontaneous in their lives.


Well, John the Baptist got the attention of the public didnít he! Like this artistís conception of "John the Baptizer" he was quite a spectacle out there in the wilderness of Judea, a straight forward, no-nonsense preacher. "Change your life. Godís kingdom is here." You know that kind of preacher who is so direct and penetrating that to hear them preach is to take your life in your hands. Whether they knew it or not, those who went into the wilderness to hear John did the same thing. He put their life right in their hands.


Is this what is wrong in our churches these days? Perhaps we are lulled in to the same old, same old and it does nothing for us. Do we need someone like that wild-eyed "Baptizer" to wake us up and shake us to our core? Do we need, someone to really challenge us about the urgency of what we are here about.


Dressed in camel-hair and leather, feasting on grasshoppers and wild honey-what a commotion, what a stir he must have caused in a crowd! Canít you just imagine that scene literally today?


John was in the Judean countryside preaching a simple and austere message, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. Godís kingdom is here." He didnít sugar coat the message or make sure he was being politically correct with his audience.


The text says, "people poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action." Where is that countryside for us today? The only place I see people pouring from these days in Caledon East is the liquor store. And I see them once again pouring in to the shopping malls-Shoppers World, Bramalea City Centre, the Toronto Outlet mall. So perhaps the mall is the place to evangelize with Christmas carols and wake those shoppers out of their frenzy of spending and bring them to their knees celebrating and looking joyfully out at one another and towards our Lord.


Where is the wilderness? Where are things for a few moments not quite the same as they are on the town street or on the shop floor or in the hectic office environment? How does our worship and church life take place in wilderness today?


Our church works at being warm, friendly, being inviting and doing what we can to make people feel at home. Nevertheless, worship is always something of a "wilderness experience." It is the place where people think through their lives and wonder about all that is unknown and frightening and causes them to doubt. We sit here and think through, checking and double-checking what is reassuring to us. But no matter how beautiful the sanctuary is, there are people sitting with us in the pew, people with fears, and their worries, and their responsibilities. There are some sitting here who just hope that Ďwikileaksí doesnít hack their computer and reveal the truth about them. It really is a kind of wilderness place here, where people can confront the howling winds, the thorny brambles, and the lonely emptiness of their lives.


John the Baptist didnít Ďbeat around the bush,í people went out to him and were baptized and confessed their sins. In the version Gaye read it says, "There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life." Here is where I might like to have that full immersion tank up front. Yes, the meaning is the same, but the very act of being immersed as a full grown adult into that water, is surely a more radical sign of new life than a sprinkling. In the early church the catechumen prepared for the day of baptism for months, perhaps a whole year and then on the eve of Easter they were baptized and were given a fresh clean garment to wear, signifying the new life they were beginning that very day.


John was what I would call an evangelical radical. He challenged the conservatism of his day (the law abiding Pharisees and Sadducees). He challenged the sense of entitlement of parentage or position. And he used straight talk about sin, judgment, and repentance. He expected everyone to live out their faith-to walk the talk.


The change in life that he called for was radical and life-changing-"turn your old life in for a kingdom life, Jesus will ignite the kingdom life in you, a fire within you."


Here is a 15th century painting of John the Baptist in the wilderness. In this painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, the wilderness does not appear dark and scary. Instead there is a lot of light. The trees appear to be still. Several birds are flying in the air, and a few animals are grazing on the land. John the Baptist is sitting on the bank of a narrow stream of water. He is dressed in a long, flowing, dark robe. Johnís head is propped on one hand, and his face is covered with exhaustion and worry.


I wonder what John is thinking about in this portrayal? Is he doubting his ability to reach the people? Is he thinking about the words of Isaiah and writing his sermon on repentance?


I wonder if this is a painting of John the Baptist after the baptisms occurred in the River Jordan. Is he wondering if the people will really change their ways? Did his call for repentance go unheard? Is his voice raspy from yelling? With whom or what is he wrestling? Would he wonder if our church can change to embrace a new life, one of hope and joy and acceptance?


This painting includes a bright, white lamb resting beside John the Baptist. The lambís face is turned toward John, looking upon him with pity. The animal is within reach, but Johnís face is turned away from it. The lambís entire posture is one of peaceful rest while John the Baptistís body language tell of worry and anxiety. Could this peaceful lamb be the Lamb of God? Could this little lamb be the painterís way of reminding us that we have nothing to fear or worry about because Godís love and grace will ultimately prevail?


Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! The lamb is coming! He is not to be feared. He is to be welcomed. He does not come with a fire of destruction. He comes with a fire of transformation. His fire melts and molds us into faithful disciples. He does not come to fill us with anxiety. He comes to calm anxious souls. He comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He comes to gather the wheat into the granary and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. He comes to ignite a fire within us.


We prepare for the coming of Christ by turning away from the ways of the world and returning to the ways of Christ. We prepare for the coming of Christ by sharing his all-consuming fire with others. We prepare for the coming of Christ by confessing our sins, repenting, and opening ourselves to a changed life. We prepare for the coming of Christ by going to the wilderness and being reminded that God is with us. The Lamb of God, our Saviour, has been born. Prepare the way of the Lord! Amen.


Acknowledging inspiration drawn from:
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p.45-49



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