Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
He will baptize you.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to baptize us with Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In today’s gospel, what is it that we hear Matthew telling us about John the Baptist? “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.” In other words, prophecy was being fulfilled in John—prophecy that was spoken by Isaiah some 800 years earlier. Remember my sermon last Sunday where I said that waiting was a Biblical principal. Well, obviously a number of years and a lot of waiting took place before Isaiah’s prophecy came to be realized in the person of John the Baptist.
What was the purpose of John fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy? As we heard, John came to “[p]repare the way of the Lord, [and] make his paths straight.” John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, the way of God—no small task. Where is it we find John? We find him in the wilderness, a desert area. We don’t find him in the city. We don’t find him at some restaurant. We don’t find him at the theater. We find him at what appears to be a place of desolation. Then again on second look we see that it is a place free of the distractions from what we like to call the world.
Needless to say, we are assaulted by all kind of distractions today. You know the list: cell phones, computers, television, exercise programs, children’s sport as well as any number of responsibilities and to-do-lists to mention but a few. In other words, these distractions distract us from seeing God, being receptive to God. John the Baptist was no less aware that the people of his time and place were the victims of many distractions. He had chosen to live in the wilderness, a place with limited distractions, so that he might be closer to and better hear God. Even John’s diet was distraction free—locusts and honey, as well as his wardrobe, camel hair with a leather belt. If we were to look into our individual wardrobes how many options of distraction would we find? How many of us took time to figure out what we would wear to church this morning? How much time did we spend at that task?
So, the people who lived in distraction from Jerusalem, Judea, and all the region along the Jordan came to hear John and be baptized by him. John’s unique style aside they knew that something wasn’t quite right with their lives. (Might the same be said of us?) They knew they had gone astray from the God of their ancestors, their God. It was easy “pickens,” so to speak, for John to call them to repent from the many distractions of their lives, including their sins. They had gotten lost—lost from God, lost from themselves, and lost from their neighbors. Being lost is not a good place to be.
Being baptized in water was a way to start afresh, a way to get clean, and that is exactly what John offered—a way to get clean, un-lost, and right with God, neighbor and self. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It reminds me of when I was a boy scout and we hiked the Horseshoe Bend trail, just north of Montgomery. After eating and sleeping around a campfire, after an 18 mile hike with a pack on your back, you can imagine how we smelled—mostly like a campfire, well smoked. I did not realize how dirty I was, what a stench I gave off, until my body was cleaned with soap and water. The analogy is an apt one. Though it is politically incorrect to say, we likewise do not realize how filthy with sin we are until we begin to repent and get clean.
The hard part is that we kind of like the dirt and that is where the Pharisees and Sadducees had gotten into trouble. They thought they were clean, but underneath it all they were not. They looked clean. They looked polished. They did religious things. In the words of Jesus, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27).
In other words, the Pharisees and Sadducees were hypocrites, who asked of others what they themselves could not and would not live up to. Hear again what Jesus said of them. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4). It is no wonder that John called them a brood of vipers.
To say one thing and to do another is the height of hypocrisy. Bear fruit worthy of repentance John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Show Batman video clip at https://youtu.be/WW1a_cNKapY
In the words of Batman, it is not what is underneath that defines you; it is what you do that defines you. Sounds good, does it not? John said to bear fruit worthy of repentance, but isn’t that something of what hypocrisy actually is—feeling one thing and doing another. Now, this is not all bad. We read about cases of “road rage” and know that we too have gotten angry in traffic as recently as a day or two ago. For the sake of integrity and lack of hypocrisy should all of us allow our anger to burst out in a fit of road rage? Think of the harm that would do. When we were asked how we were this morning, was it hypocrisy, even a little deceit, to say we were fine when in fact the weight of the world was upon us?
Jesus’ perspective on this is unnerving, pushing us to realize that though we are not a Pharisee or Sadducee we all fall under the category of hypocrite. We may look and act good, appearing beyond reproach, but listen to Jesus’ words. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28). For Jesus it isn’t just how we act that matters. It is what is going on in our hearts that ultimately matters.
So, the Pharisees and Sadducees, despite their efforts to look good (morally above board) seemed to sense that wasn’t quite good enough. They knew that they were dirty on the inside. What reason instead did they give for being deserving of God’s goodwill and blessing? They had Abraham as their ancestor, so they said. John the Baptist nails them on that as well, does he not? What did he say to them? “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.” In other words, neither good deeds nor who they knew (Abraham) would get them into heaven. Neither could justify them. Like you and me they were under the misconception that if our grades weren’t good enough to get us a certain job, for example, then certainly having the right connections (who we know) would make it possible.
The even greater, disturbing reality for the Pharisees, the Sadducees, as well as us is that there are feelings, emotions, desires, and impulses that roll within us over which we seem to have very little control. Sure, we may stuff those feelings or desires. We may find ways in which to vent them, at least temporarily especially when they are at their height. Still, those feelings and desires are there. No matter how much we may push, pull, or punch ourselves they cannot be eliminated.
In the words of St. Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:15-20). Notice that St. Paul does not try rationalize or justify his sinfulness by saying, “This is the way I was born. God made me this way.”
There is a wonderful story about Frederick II, an 18th-century King of Prussia, who went on an inspection tour of a Berlin prison. There he was greeted with the cries of prisoners, who fell on their knees and protested their unjust imprisonment. While listening to these pleas of innocence, Frederick’s eye was caught by a solitary figure in the corner, a prisoner seemingly unconcerned with all the commotion. “Why are you here?” Frederick asked him. “Armed robbery, your Majesty,” came his reply.
“Were you guilty?” the king asked. “Oh yes, indeed, Your Majesty. I entirely deserve my punishment.” At that Frederick summoned the jailer. “Release this guilty man at once,” he said. “I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it.”
Do we not protest that we are innocent when indeed we are not? It would seem that this charade of proclaiming our innocence, unwilling to acknowledge our guilt, has a long history. Do you remember when it started? “But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:9-12). You see now how original sin applies to us, infects us even today.
So, then was the water baptism and repentance to which John the Baptist called his followers a sham, a deceit? The reality is that John’s water baptism was only skin deep; no less than when we wash our dirty hands or bodies is also skin deep. John’s water baptism could not cleanse the human heart. John’s water baptism could not cleanse the human heart. Less we think that is a small thing (it doesn’t really matter), then we need to remember that it is our human heart that causes all, all the trouble in the world. Where then does that leave us? Is it hopeless for us? We cannot change ourselves, not really. What are we to do if anything?
With a humility (“I am not worthy to carry his sandals,”says John.)that stands in stark contrast to the vanity and pride of the Sadducees and Pharisees John provides us with the answer and the means to cleanse the sinful, human heart. Indeed the human heart and being sinful are synonymous. What does John say is the answer to correcting our sinful hearts? “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.” That one who is coming, of course, is Jesus. Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire.
What will the Spirit do? “[T]he chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (The Holy Spirit is a he and not an it or a she.) The chaff is the husks of grain or other seed separated by winnowing or threshing. The chaff is that of our hearts that does not bear fruit worthy of repentance. The prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament speaks of what this Spirit baptism will do. “I will give them (says the Lord) one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19).
We hear this heart with a new spirit described in this way by St. Paul: “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:22-24).
So, the question before us this morning and it is a big one is this: Have you and I been baptized with the Holy Spirit? Most certainly, we have been baptized with water, but what about with the Spirit—the Spirit with which John tells us that Jesus will baptize us. “He will baptize you with the Spirit and fire,” as we heard in the gospel this morning. Have we received that Spirit baptism? It may interest you to know that Jesus never baptized anyone with water. We read in John 4:2 these words: “[I]t was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized (with water).” No, Jesus did not come to baptize with water but with the Spirit.
Again, have you and I been baptized with the Holy Spirit? Look at it this way: not to be baptized with the Spirit is like driving around with non-inflated, flat tires. Not to be baptized with the Spirit is like having a bank account with no money in it. I would suggest that not to be baptized with the Holy Spirit is being a Christian in name only. Remember what the word Christ means. It means being anointed with the Spirit. Being a Christian means being anointed with the Spirit. How can we be Christians if we are not anointed, baptized with the Holy Spirit?
How about it? Do we want to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Do we want to be fully Christian, fully anointed? Who here has been baptized with the Holy Spirit? Are you willing to stand to testify to such? What then did it feel like when you were baptized? How were you different as a result? Did your Spirit baptism look anything like what occurred on the Day of Pentecost? “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4).
If we want this Spirit baptism, we have only to ask. I would be more than happy to pray with any of you that you be baptized with the Holy Spirit, just ask me, even now.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.