Sermon – December 12, 2021
Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft
One of the nice things about being an independent, non-denominational church is that we are not bound by the rubrics established by a particular church affiliation. We can determine our own rituals and we don’t have to use the readings set in what is known as the common lectionary. But there is something to be said for having people all over the world, in various Christian faith traditions, reflecting and praying over the same texts on any given Sunday. So, whenever I’m asked to preach, I first check out the readings prescribed in the Common Lectionary. Given that the third Sunday in Advent focuses on joy, I was very surprised at what had been selected for today’s Gospel. But before rejecting it, I decided to sit with it for a few days and see what surfaced.
The last line of this Gospel reading really made me chuckle – “With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people.” To me this scripture reading doesn’t sound like good news at all. John appears to be scaring the crap out of his listeners and in desperation they seem to be asking, “What can we do about this?” And John gives them advice about how to change their lives in order to be found more acceptable.
It’s interesting that John was quizzed by both tax-collectors and soldiers about what they needed to do to be right with God. These were what we might consider secular Jews. The professions of both tax-collectors and soldiers, required cooperation with the Roman Empire. So Jews who were strict about their religious practice would not do such work. And yet these marginally religious, worldly men were shaken by John’s preaching enough to ask for his guidance. John had to have been captivating and a dynamic preacher.
Surprisingly we know quite a bit about John the Baptist. We know that he was related to Jesus through their mothers, and Luke gives us an extraordinarily precise date for the beginning of John’s ministry. He writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . . . the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins [Luke 3:1-3].”
John the Baptist might be considered a religious zealot. Many scholars believe that he belonged to the Essenes. This religious sect, made famous with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was an ascetic Jewish group preparing for the Messiah. Members lived in various places but congregated in a communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and a sparse lifestyle. In Matthew’s Gospel we read, “John wore a garment of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” And so, it seems that John had one outfit that he wore all of the time, and ate sparingly or maybe fasted.
John served as the forerunner or herald of the Messiah and was to prepare for him by fulfilling an Elijah-like role by calling the nation to repentance. And he did that with gusto. You may remember that John was arrested, sentenced to death and beheaded by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, after he passionately rebuked Herod for divorcing his wife and then unlawfully wedding his sister -in- law. And it was after John’s death that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee.
But though they were related and ministered in the same area, the ministries of John and Jesus were significantly different. John baptized people as a sign of their repentance. In other words, his followers needed to be made clean from their past behavior and be willing to change their lives to a more acceptable way of living. In this type of conversion experience, still practiced by many Christian churches, the focus is on the individual being saved. There are things not acceptable about them and they need to change. But when John announced the coming of the Messiah, he foretold a change. In John’s words, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)
Fast forward to Pentecost. The apostles were all together in one place celebrating the Jewish harvest festival called Shavuot, seven weeks and one day after Passover – thus the word Pentecost, meaning fifty. In Luke’s words, “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
Because of the festival of Shavuot, dating back many believe, to when Moses received the tablets containing the ten commandments, “Jews from every nation under heaven,” scripture tells us, were staying in Jerusalem. “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.”
Before this particular Pentecost, and the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, the disciples were huddled in the upper room, keeping to themselves, likely afraid that as followers of Jesus, the authorities might come after them and they might suffer the same end as Jesus. They were likely sad, missing Jesus. They were likely confused, “What do we do now?” – their charismatic leader was gone. And then the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. They were filled with strength, enthusiasm and joy. Scripture tells us that some people watching them thought that they were drunk. But the apostle Peter tells the crowd that they are full of the Holy Spirit. And then, Peter, only weeks after he had denied Christ three times courageously proclaimed the Gospel so effectively, that three thousand people believed and joined their ranks that day.
So, what is the difference between John’s baptism of water and Christ’s baptism? John’s baptism, or the term we might use today, the spirituality of John the Baptist puts the attention on the individual and the individual who is found wanting and in need of change. Unlike John’s baptism, with the baptism of fire the individual experiences being filled with Divine Spirit and with exuberance, focusses outward.
Oh yes, we are sinners. We are fallible human beings who mess up on a regular basis. But that’s not the story. Focusing on our frailty and our limitedness is like going to a world class museum and focusing on a gum wrapper on the floor that someone has dropped.
With the baptism fire, the Spirit of Divine presence becomes the focus. Individuals connect with the Holy and become aware of God’s unconditional love for them. They remember all that God has done for them and with gratitude and joy, change their way of living. We want to be more loving because we are so loved. We want to be generous with others in response to our many blessings.
And that is what we prepare for in Advent. We prepare to celebrate Emanuel, God-with-us, who loved us first. Not after we repent. Not after we change our wrongful behavior. In our mother’s wombs we were loved and accepted. And in gratitude and joy for this and for all of our blessings we try to imitate that divine love.
With the spirituality of Jesus, the focus is on the Good News – As we heard in the reading from Isaiah this morning, Shout and sing for joy . . .because the holy one of Israel is great among you.
In the baptism of Jesus that John foretells the image of fire and the experience of being filled by the spirit point to something joyful and yet, something life-changing.
Life-changing in what way? The first lines of this morning’s reading from Isaiah gives us a clue: God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid.
With the shift from the preaching of John to the coming of the Messiah we are being saved – saved from ourselves. We are challenged to shift the focus from ourselves, “How am I doing?”, and put it on God-with-us. Daring to open ourselves up to accepting God’s love. Daring to believe that we are and always have been loved unconditionally. Trusting that we are never alone.
If we are afraid of anything, it’s because we are focusing on ourselves.
And this is the work of Advent – We move from Old Testament Spirituality to a Spirituality imbued with the awareness of God-with-us and full of joy. We come to recognize or deepen our awareness of the Divine in and among us try as best we can to operate from a place of trust and joy.
In our Responsive Call to Worship this morning we prayed together, a verse from Philippians, chapter four, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, to “rejoice,” is “to feel joy or great delight,” while to rejoice in means to “have or possess that joy or delight.” So, Scripture is inviting us to have that comforting, secure, deep feeling of joy become a part of the fabric of who we are. Even with all of the bad things happening in and to our world we can experience deep joy from knowing that we are loved unconditionally. We can delight in the Lord knowing that we don’t need to improve ourselves in order to be accepted. And we are never alone. Never separated from this love.
In gratitude for that love, we try to imitate it through compassion, kindness, generosity of ourselves, so that others might experience God’s love through us. But if we don’t always do this, even when we are unkind, or hurtful, God does not withdraw his love. We can rest secure in God’s love, and try again to show our gratitude as Jesus taught and modeled for us.
Do we dare believe? Because it’s scary. Faith isn’t about believing that there is a God. Faith is daring to believe that God has always loved us and will always love us no matter what. It seems too good to be true. God is Love. God is unconditional love. And when we dare open our hearts and let ourselves experience God’s healing love, even for a moment, it can be overwhelming.
If Christmas was just the anniversary of the birth of the historical Jesus, we wouldn’t need Advent. But Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God-with-us. And that is so powerful a reality that for many of us it’s hard to really take in. I’m not sure that any of us can take it in fully. If so, we would always be at peace.
As we listen to Michelle play some meditative music, I invite you to do the work of Advent. I invite you to close your eyes, breath in and out slowly, and experience God’s unconditional and everlasting love for you. Rejoice in the Lord!