Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Matthew 3:1-12 & Isaiah 11:1-10
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John the Baptist
I wake up before sunrise and during Advent I light a candle–more candles as the weeks progress. I'm still. I pray. I wait. I drink tea. I listen. I journal. I know that not everyone can do this–either temper mentally or due to life circumstances. So I try to do it well–for all of us. Yet during Advent every year Saint John the Baptist appears. John upsets my well-positioned candles and disrupts my contemplation. He's shouting or singing or crying. In any case, he's loud. John is a prophet. He lives in the wild, sustained by grasshoppers, honey and the Spirit of the living God because nothing else will do.
If you find some Christmas cards that feature John the Baptist and he doesn't appear to be a white man, please let me know because I will buy them. I'm attracted to the radical transformation to which the Baptist calls us…and I cringe. He's going to skewer us. He's going to challenge the whole church–Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelicals. Trust me, the Anabaptists are not exempt from John's message. Repent.
I grew up Baptist and I became an Anabaptist. So these baptism stories are important to me and to the church traditions which have most shaped my faith in Jesus Christ. All four Gospels connect the Advent of Jesus' public ministry to John the Baptist's loud and disturbing prelude. All Christians claim these stories. We all have John as a spiritual ancestor. But sometimes in Advent, the power of a prophetic life moves the church. Today some of us may be moved for the first time toward baptism. [May the words of my mouth…]
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repentance, means being sorry for our sin and grieved by the sins of the world around us. You thought I was going to say that repentance means turning around and moving in another direction, right? Good for you! That's good head knowledge. But it has to move from the head to the heart to fuel our action. Most of us don't change our behavior just because we get good information. We change because we are motivated emotionally, spiritually and personally.
Specifically, repentance means turning from dominating power that perpetuates harm, and turning toward true spiritual power–the power of the Holy Spirit–which sponsors movements of people for justice, peace and life. Scripture clarifies and Christian history confirms and we proclaim that this power comes from Jesus Christ who baptizes us with…the Holy Spirit and fire.
An image of repentance some of us learned in a racial equity training was that to become an anti-racist church we need to not just stop walking on the moving walkway of systemic racism, but turn around and run in the other direction. Repentance means refusing the status quo of the moving walkway that harms us all. Now if repentance isn't challenging enough. The prophet John questions the authenticity of our baptism. The Bible says that many Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism. This seems good. The reforming party of Pharisees and the compromised religious and political leaders of the Temple establishment and are entering this new order of justice, peace and life. Here's the bad news. Like some of us the Pharisees, are just playing along with this ritual, being absorbed into the crowd at the Jordan River. Like some of our church institutions the Sadducees, are not really walking the walk. We want credit for showing up, even if there's no real change we're pursuing. John's skepticism about whether we're sincerely repenting is hardley veiled. He says to us: You brood of vipers. Well, not to us…He was talking to them. And even if John said such inflammatory things. Jesus would be kinder, more circumspect. Except that he wasn't. Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus uses this same "you brood of vipers" against the Pharisees, the religious reformers, because there's no evidence of a commitment to justice for the poor.
Are we sincere in our baptism? Is there any evidence that we belong to the world re-ordering kingdom of justice and peace? All of us are harmed by injustice, yet for some of us it's easier to ignore because we benefit from these same injustices. This is certainly true for predominantly white churches like ours. If our neighbors can't see our lives as particularly interesting, let alone that we belong to a new pattern in the world, a kingdom that rivals all others and endures forever, then perhaps John and Jesus would preach the same unsettling message to us today. The good news is that when we repent–this repeated turning away from the status quo and toward the kingdom of God–Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Notice the Spirit's Activity
Some of us are reading devotionals at home during December. As you listen to God's word in scripture, notice that the Holy Spirit is very active in this season of repentance. In Isaiah 11 God's Spirit is characterized by wisdom and knowledge that surpasses that of former kings, priests, judges and prophets. When the status quo is injustice, then the Spirit of God brings wisdom and equity. In today's terms, when the status quo is inequity in housing, health, education and wealth, the Spirit brings new social and political vision that delivers justice. When the status quo is prejudice in hiring, policing and financing, the people with the Spirit are undoing prejudice by wisely re-training their minds and crafting new policy. When the status quo is racial discrimination in courts, incarceration and food security, then the Spirit of God brings a deeper knowledge to our systems, so that the poor and marginalized receive not just equal treatment, but equity–where everyone has what they need. The Spirit of God is always empowering us toward justice and peace. To be a peace church where everyone is welcome we must work for justice.
Of this new leader with whom the Spirit of God rests Isaiah says: with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. We see this prophesy of justice for the poor become the vocation of Jesus–who came in solidarity with the poor. When churches take up a vocation of justice we are being true to our baptism. Now a lot has changed since Isaiah released this prophetic message. What remains is the Divine pattern of justice and peace expressed in persons and organizations who are filled with this spiritual leadership and power. During Advent, as you read scripture, pray and ponder your own life, our church and our world, notice how the Holy Spirit leads. The Spirit creates life where there was none–in Mary's womb–and prompts a righteous and reputable man like Joseph to risk becoming a husband, a parent and a refugee. He could have dismissed the whole matter and mother. Joseph lays down his privilege in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.
You can ignore Advent this year. You can stay focused on a seasonal shopping list. You can throw up your hands in helpless, hopeless incapacity in the face of all that is wrong in the world. You can retreat into a mildly religious stupor, unaffected by the cries of creation or the poor. Or you can attend to John the Baptist's disturbing prophesy. This Advent, God invites us to a repentant life, baptized, forgiven and dependent upon the Holy Spirit for wisdom, counsel and strength for a vocation of justice, peace and life.
Ignore the Splash?
When the Lord gives me opportunities to renew my baptism, I try not to ignore them–even when they're humorous or symbolic. I always wonder what these splashes might mean for myself or for the church of baptized followers of Jesus. Over Thanksgiving Kent and I were in PA visiting family. One morning my father-in-law and Kent played frisbee golf in Roland Park while I made a loop on the walking trail. When we met up, the men still had some frisbee holes left, as well as an extra disc, so I decided to finish the round with them. These guys are frisbee experts; I'm a novice. But I did pretty well on my first two holes. Then we approached the water hazard–not the Jordan River, but a man-made pond. At the tee-off I was well-coached by both gentleman about how to aim. On his first throw Kent demonstrated skirting the pond rather than risking going straight across and coming up short. So, I followed suit and avoided the drink. Don did the same. On his next throw–now in a better position–Don aimed to throw across the water. And splash! I ran to the edge of the pond to see where the disc went in. The pond had lots of leaves floating on the surface from a nearby oak tree and there was no evidence of the frisbee. Lost to the baptismal waters.
While I was still at the edge Kent took his next throw. Accepting the necessary risk, he aimed across the pond. Another splash! This time I saw where it went in–maybe 8 yards from the edge. It was 34 degrees that morning, so not really cold, unless one is thinking of wading into a pond. Kent was unlacing his shoes, but since he was wearing heavy jeans, I thought my leggings were better suited for fishing out the disc, so I hiked up the leggings and waded in. Here's where you have to imagine the voice of one crying out in suburbia. It was cold. I was about 3-1/2 feet submerged when I reached it, plunged my arm down and emerged with orange disc in hand! Naturally another set of frisbee golfers was watching us from the hill above. Perhaps they assumed these two men were making their servant wench redeem their otherwise lost cause. I didn't take my last shot on the course. We're far more conventional than John the Baptist. We had driven a car the mile from home to the park. We all jumped in and I had a hot shower before lunch!
Sometimes we have all the right coaching in faith. Maybe we're even experts in religion and still fumble. Some of us are novices. We barely know the course of a kingdom-oriented life. We're never quite ready for baptismal life. It's a shock to the system. But our collective failures and even our attempts to save ourselves will not do. If we're becoming Jesus' people, we're going to embarrass ourselves and onlookers may laugh when the Holy Spirit begins to chart a new course for our lives and our churches. Maybe the splashes and the getting wet aren't necessarily errant throws–but part of the turning.
VOICE and Isaiah
Several leaders from Faith in Action have been researching national networks for congregationally based justice organizing. We're planning to affiliate with such a network for ongoing training and resourcing, so that we're faithful in putting our faith in action in terms of public justice. Of course we looked at websites, but much of the research is in person, on the ground, discovering how effective faith-based justice work is being supported and strengthened. So last week I went to Northern VA and participated in a clergy caucus of about 30 pastors, rabbis and Muslim leaders who were reporting on local justice work, clarifying current issues in their region and making commitments for their next steps together in criminal justice reform, education and affordable housing.
I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit during this meeting. Seeing the diversity in race, ethnicity and theology as well as a shared commitment to justice for the poor stirred me. The headscarf, the Franciscan habit, the priestly collar, the yarmulkah, the pendant crosses marked folks as religious leaders. Their actions revealed their shared path of justice. I got to know Terry who sat beside me. She is African American and active in her local NAACP chapter. She became personally motivated to act for justice after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Terry belongs to a historically Black Christian denomination. She sees justice ministry as core to the church's vocation, even though her congregation has focused much more on direct service ministries in their neighborhood. Through her leadership her congregation now belongs to the coalition of congregations in Northern VA called VOICE–organizing for a new dominion of justice and participation. Terry chose during the meeting to be one of the spokespersons when we met with VA secretary of public safety and homeland security, Brian Moran regarding the governor's priorities for criminal justice reform and present the priorities of VOICE.
Isaiah proclaims that that the leadership we should expect, this root from the stump of Jesse, is spiritual leadership which creates equity for the poor and meek. This is not status quo leadership. This is not quiet in the land–look at my peaceful way of life–leadership. This is not command and control leadership. This is Terry and VOICE, the Holy Spirit and fire. To me, it seemed like baptism–like nothing else would do. To be a peace church where everyone is welcome we repent, take up a vocation of justice, relying on the Holy Spirit.
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