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Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

There wasn’t much time. The summer was flying by. Soon Evan would go away to college. It would be a different world for him. No longer would he have someone to wake him up in the morning because the alarm was never enough. No longer would he have his mother urging him to get his homework done. No longer would he have someone to go to a teacher who sent a note saying Evan was close to failing a class because he had not turned in work. (Fortunately, the teacher had a son with ADD and understood the problem – he got a B). He was on his own. In some ways he was prepared and in some ways he was not. He would have to go with the best he had and see what this whole new world held for him.

John the Baptist has come preaching a whole new world – the kingdom of God. In some ways people are prepared. The Israelites have waited for this time to come for ages now. They have prayed for it and hoped for it. They are looking for a Messiah to save them, to free them from Roman domination, to create a new people, one that will do God’s will. One that will keep the rules and be rewarded by God with new life.

But in important ways people are not prepared. Because of their sin, they are not in a position to even recognize the kingdom when it comes, much less embrace it. Because they have turned against God, their hearts are not tuned into the right frequency to hear the words of the kingdom. So John comes out of the wilderness, an odd man in strange clothes who eats bugs. He doesn’t just proclaim, he yells and waves his arms and paces back and forth.

John comes out of the wilderness, that strange and wild place. God had led the Jews through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God’s people had been obedient and they had rebelled. They had created golden calves to worship and they had followed God’s lead only after God had brought some calamity on them. They had sinned big time and undergone judgment; they had been repentant and had been saved.

The wilderness was a perfect place for John to come from because of what he had to say. This new kingdom, this kingdom of God, required certain things of its potential members. People needed to repent of their sins and make a new start. If they did that, good things would happen. If they didn’t do that, awful things would happen. And there isn’t much time.

People are drawn irresistibly to John. There hasn’t been a prophet in Israel for so long and he is the real deal. They want to hear what he has to say. Israel’s prophets always had a lot to say about repentance of sins and John is no exception. To be a part of this new world, this world where God ruled, you had to turn away from your sins and promise to follow God’s word. People flock to the wilderness to do just that. John offers baptism, and people are grateful for the chance to turn over all the disobedient things they have done, to have their guilt washed away, to come out of the water clean on the inside as well as the outside.

Among the crowds that come are a bunch of Pharisees and Sadducees. John has no love for these teachers of the law, whom he feels are rule followers on the outside but sinners on the inside. Brood of vipers is about the worst thing he could call them. Snakes are unclean and the image is just horrible. They are being severely chastised for their self- righteous behavior and their assumption of privilege because they are children of Abraham. No defense there, John tells them. You have a much farther way to go than most of these other folks. You have to remember that being baptized means you have to bear good fruit. You can’t just follow the ritual and consider yourselves done. True repentance is the way in and it takes practicing love of God and neighbor to get there.

Now there are two things that might happen when the kingdom comes, and you have to hurry and decide what you will do. If you don’t repent, you are in big trouble. Unquenchable fire is in your future. If you don’t bear good fruit, you will be destroyed. You will be cut down and thrown into the fire. You will be like the rich man who ignored Lazarus and ended up in eternal torment. Or if that image isn’t enough for you, you will be the chaff that is separated from the wheat by the coming Messiah and also tossed into the fire. Either way, it is not a fate you want.

If you repent and bear good fruit, the kingdom of heaven will be yours. You will belong to a different world, one where God reigns. Even though this world is still here and still oppressive, you will be freer inside because you know that you are a kingdom person. You will be the wheat that the Messiah gathers into his granary. Fire will be in your future too, but it will be a purifying rather than a destructive fire. You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, God’s ever-present hope and love, and with fire that sends you out into the world and energizes you for God’s work. Just look at John’s fiery preaching to see the Holy Spirit at work.

Repentance, judgment, redemption. The hallmarks of the kingdom, John says. The hallmarks of the Messiah who is much more powerful that John who is coming to be your hope and your light in the darkness.

John the Baptist came a long time ago to announce the Advent of Jesus. Where are we today in the Advent process? Can we tune out the lights and the trees and the parties and the gifts even for a few minutes to reflect on where we are in our journey to Jesus? Can we find some time to recollect our sins and ask for forgiveness. The kingdom of God is coming and we want to be part of it. We want to make God’s path straight into our hearts. If we are twisted up inside with sin and guilt and shame and resentment, we will not be open to the grace of God that is coming to us, full of love for us. If we are cleansed and forgiven, we will be open to the right frequency and able to receive the reign of God in all its glory. God loves us unconditionally, but we are responsible for our actions, good or bad, rebellious or obedient. What we say matters. What we do matters. What direction our hearts are pointed in matters.

The kingdom of heaven is full of love and grace, but it is also a place where human action is considered very carefully. John’s images of the awful judgment awaiting those who do not repent is not what we usually associate Jesus with. Jesus loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, but he does not condone sinful behavior. But John feels the same in his own way. Why else is he out in the wilderness yelling and screaming. He wants repentance from everyone, even the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He wants everyone to be ready for the kingdom. His methods may be different than Jesus’ methods, but the goal is the same – trees bearing good fruit fit for the kingdom.

Evan made a mess of his first year of college. His grades weren’t good because he slept late and didn’t finish his homework and didn’t take the trouble to find out what the foreign professors he couldn’t understand were saying. But he repented of his behavior – not necessarily sin, but certainly stupidity – and graduated with honors.

Our life is a life where we sin and repent over and over again, so that we may graduate with honors from this world to the kingdom of heaven. This Advent take time to reflect on your sinful, disobedient behavior, to repent and to know with gratitude that you are accepted by God into the kingdom of heaven.

Amen

     -- Rev. Ann Barker