Are You Among the Living?

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 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.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

In the continuing struggle to live in this world and figure out life, I am here to declare that it really isn’t as difficult as it seems.  We make it harder than it really is. We are the ones who turn grace into legalism – God doesn’t do that. We are the ones who turn mercy into unforgiveness. We are the ones who take love and turn it into control.

Early in my ministry, I was amazed and often disappointed to find out that for most people and for most churches, that the true heart of Christ’s message, the true heart of our religion was being obfuscated by our own desire and need for control and security. I have found in many churches, religion was much more about law and much less about relationships and grace. One of the reasons I actually considered dropping out of seminary in 1993 and going to law school was because what I found in churches when I began working in them was not what I found in scripture. Isn’t that sad. What does that say about our churches that a young preacher actually thought it would be purer and more real to be a lawyer??

This Advent, we hear the message of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to get ready! Make way for the coming of the Lord. John was the great illustration of the Old Testament prophet (in the wilderness, crying out, wearing animal skins, living like a hermit) but he was announcing a NEW message. John declares that in the coming of Christ, what you thought was true religion will be dashed on the rocks. Law will be supplanted by grace. Unforgiveness will be supplanted by mercy. And anger, gossip, and pettiness will be supplanted by love.

We are now the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming out to John to proclaim we want this baptism of Jesus – we want to share in this message – yet we cling to old ways. We are the ones who take pure religion and turn it into a farce – a hypocritical institution where the rest of the world refuses to enter in because, they say, “I know those people, I see how they live, how they treat people, how they talk to others, and how they refuse to love those not like themselves. I don’t really want that kind of religion.”  As Thomas Merton reminds us, pure love desires only one thing – the good of the one loved. Yet we have made it a selfish love – many of us love for what it does for US.

For most of our lives, we church folk never realize this great tragedy. We justify, reify, and glorify (ourselves) into believing that the way we do religion is the right way. The way we worship is the right way. The way we live life is justified totally because …. it is how I live it. And that is enough of a rationale and reason to make it right – because it is the way I do it and the way I want it done.  Simply put, we stand in our own way of freedom, grace, love, and mercy.

Now before any more of you think about getting up to walk out this morning, just know that is John’s message – (not John Stephens but John the Baptist) crying out in the wilderness. Are we ready for Christ to really come and be Lord in our life? We are confronted with this question today – what does your religion look like? Is it the true religion of Christ who came to transform, recreate, and make new? Or is it the religion of old – the religion that Jesus came to confront – a religion of rules, control, power, security, – a religion fashioned in our own likeness rather than the likeness of God.

The great contemplative Thomas Merton also wrote, “Every person becomes the image of the God they adore. He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes a dead thing. He who loves corruption rots. He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow. He who loves things that must perish lives in dread of their perishing. The man who leaves the Lord the freedom of the Lord adores the Lord in His freedom and receives the liberty of the sons of God. This man loves like God and is carried away, the captive of the Lord’s invisible freedom. A god who remains immobile within the focus of my own vision is hardly even a trace of the True God’s passing”  And this was exactly the message of the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge; “Let me show you what Christmas really is and not the limited construct humanity has made it.”
Dickens writes of Scrooge’s journey with the spirit , “Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.”

Scrooge, believing Christmas to be a farce and an invention of rich men to steal accuses the spirit of all the selfish things done in the name of Christmas and faith, the Spirit replies, “There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”  The Ghost of Christmas Present is similar to John’s voice crying out in the wilderness. “Be careful that you think you have it all understood – it is much simpler and richer than you could ever imagine, but you have to get out of your own way first.”

True and pure love is the simple answer. Not in control, not in legalism, not in unforgiveness, not even in buying stuff!  This lesson is beautifully lifted up as the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to the Cratchitt’s home. In watching that poor and simple family celebrate the simple essence of love, Scrooge learned that:
• True happiness cannot be bought, that it begins and ends in the heart, and that the fulfillment of our living is found in relationships not in regulations.
• That the value and worth of a person is not found on their net worth, but in the quality of their character.
• And he learned that redemption is found in seeing and caring for the poor.
Not the most profound and intricate of philosophies and theologies. No scripts, no expectations of what religion looks like from you or me or some other overly pious control-ridden Pharisee or Sadducee. True joy and happiness is found in relationships – true religion is rooted in love.

When it is all said and done, the secret to living life fully is not that difficult to figure out.  Let us move beyond control, legalism, and judgment toward to power that can set us free.  Love.  The greatest of these is love.

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