December 4, 2016 / What Used To Be / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 3:1-12
In our journey through wonder, together, this Advent, a piece of that experience is Dani Dodge, here, this painting that was only a blank canvas last week, became this work of art – and it is still in progress. As we named last week, we can experience beautiful moments of wonder in times of waiting. Like waiting for the creation of art. And as Jesus’ followers, we hold a posture of active waiting, of believing that God really is up to something, even and especially when we wait. We continue to hold that as Dani continues with this masterpiece, and as we continue into this landscape of wonder.
Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, are often spent retelling pieces of the larger story of God. The bigger narrative captured in the Bible and then continued through history. How this inbreaking of a baby in a manger had been long anticipated, and that the work of Jesus flowed out of the moment in the manger. Today’s reading connects all of this, the looking back, the looking forward. For Advent, we are reading from Matthew’s gospel. Today’s reading is from Matthew 3, just after Jesus’ birth and the few stories we have of his childhood, these verses occur just prior to the adult Jesus showing up on the scene. There’s a lot going on here, so engage your brain, imagine it in your mind, as we meet John the Baptist.
Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV) In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
So – as we meet the eccentric John the Baptist, and in this text, which has a lot going on, much of it all hovers around this one word, a word that comes out of John the Baptist’s mouth repeatedly. The word: repent. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…I baptize you with water for repentance…” So let’s talk about repentance.
Now, stepping back from the text for a moment, we have spoken here a few times (and even a few weeks ago) about this word: repent! And we’ve named how this is a loaded, often negatively-associated word for many of us. I know for me I have this kind of association with it: (Dude with sign pic). Anyone else? And maybe if you’re like me, with this association or others, can I suggest this meme with Gene Wilder (Pic): Right? We must remember that the associations we carry may have been cultivated by (frankly) the misuse of this word by people.
And that there is an original way in which it is used in scripture and even how Jesus used it and that we here at Salt House and folks who are Jesus-followers, we can cotinine to reclaim this word as a powerful, provocative, life-giving word and process for us. Say it with me: repentance. Yeah.
And here’s why this is such an amazing word. To repent actually means to turn around. Repent = Change direction – the word repent also means a change of heart. Open ourselves up to a new way of thinking and being. So. Look at that. Is it such a bad word?
So getting back to this text, notice what Matthew (who writes this) says about John the Baptist’s words – Matthew says: this is the guy, who the prophet Isaiah told us would come – and the prophet Isaiah is quoted in the text. John the Baptist’s words are connected to this message of repentance that had echoed through the life of the Jewish people for hundreds of years, ever since these words were first uttered in Isaiah 40. The prophets had said that God would come back when the people repented, turning to God with all their hearts. God would at last bring comfort and rescue to God’s people after the exile. So into that history John the Baptist is saying: Get ready! It is finally happening.
And people came in droves – they came for baptism. Notice with me how this moment in the river is connected to Israel’s past. John the Baptist is plunging them in the water of the river Jordan as they confess their sins. Over a thousand years before, the children of Israel had also crossed the Jordan when they first entered and conquered the Promised Land. They are in these same waters again. Now, going through the river again makes the connection that God is doing a new thing in history – the thing they had been waiting for. So this isn’t just an individual, cleansing baptism, but they were getting ready because God was moving to defeat all evil and establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. We don’t want to miss how the story is connected to what has been unfolding for hundreds and even thousands of years – pretty powerful stuff.
The other piece about repentance in the Bible is that its linked to the idea of ‘returning to God.’ A movement toward the sacred, the holy, the intimate God of the universe. A coming home. This is at the heart of the summons of both John the Baptist is giving here and what Jesus embodies in his own life and ministry.
With this definition and understanding in mind, we can see why John the Baptist gets so snarky with the Pharisees and Sadducees. These guys are good church folk, but to an extreme. They are self-appointed religious experts who play a well-choreographed game of looking good. Of going through the motions. Of knowing and following and enforcing the rules. Did you notice the snark? John calls them: “You brood of vipers!” But then he adds this key phrase, he says, you guys: “Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” The metaphor he’s using goes back to fruit trees. You know it’s an apple tree because you can pick apples from its branches (right, Kristin?). But it wouldn’t have apples on the outside, if it weren’t an apple tree from its roots to the tips of its branches. John is saying: let what’s on the outside be the fruit of what’s happening inside. Don’t show us your perfect rule-following selves. Show us signs of inward change. Show us the fruit that grows out of repentance. Make sense?
And my friends, this is one of those core misrepresented yet beautiful realities of Christianity. God, Jesus – is not interested in having us follow all the rules and looking good and like we’ve got it all together on the outside. No. God is 100% concerned about the growth and transformation of the human heart. The change of heart and direction, the moving toward God into who we are uniquely made to be. For the sake of then being people who partner with God in the growth and transformation of others, and our communities, and our broken systems, and our hurting planet. And it starts with repentance – our yeses to God’s work in us, as we change direction, as we change heart and mind, as we are changed by the work of God in us.
In our journey through Advent, we’re naming that we are people who can open ourselves up to great wonder, which absolutely means diving in to this reality of repentance, of seeing that God is always up to something IN US. That is beautiful, good news, that we know that we never have arrived, but can see ourselves through a lens of hope, of possibility, of grace.
So at this point in this sermon, there are a few directions we could go. We’ve just worked through this text a bit, landing on this reality that our lives as Jesus followers is on-going repentance, which means always a work in progress. And we could, right now, roll up our sleeves and work through tools to use to let God change our hearts, or seven steps to greater repentance. And in all honesty: I love that kind of stuff because I am so wired for becoming, for moving into growth. Love that stuff.
But instead, for our journey through Advent and this landscape of wonder and believing that God is always up to something, I want to name one of the dynamics we find ourselves in because we are people of repentance. And it is this:
To be God’s people of repentance means that our lives are marked by the slow and steady letting-go and saying goodbye to who we have been; our lives are marked with grief as we move from familiarity and comfort into unknown territory, again and again, in every part of our lives.
In other words: as God’s people, we face a lot of grief. Because, to say that we repent and change and move, means grief. Because: All change brings grief. Even the good, wanted, positive changes. Even change we’ve longed for – like graduating from college, getting a job, even getting married. All change brings grief.
I want to dig into a personal example of this, and I invite you to pay attention to what comes up in your own life and story as you hear this. Grief came up for me in a surprising way in October. I had a fabulous weekend back at PLU in Tacoma – it was Homecoming weekend, but it was also the 90th anniversary of the Choir of the West or “COW,” which is the top choir at PLU, which I sang in for my sophomore through senior years of college. I was actually a music minor – I majored in Psychology and minored in Music and Religion. Your fun fact for the day, you’re welcome.
So at this reunion, we had a weekend of reliving the musical experiences of college. We had rehearsals Friday night, Saturday, a banquet on Saturday night, and then a concert on Sunday afternoon – 400 of us in total, ranging from folks who used walkers to get onto the stage, to folks who are currently in college at PLU. There was a profound sense of connection and legacy.
And as we are rehearsing, performing, I was standing across the choir and next to folks who I had sung with and had so much life with. Back in college we rehearsed four times a week, always right before dinner time, so we’d all eat dinner together. I toured the west coast with this choir, sang the hymn “A Mighty Fortress in Our God” in front of the castle in Disneyland, and even toured Norway and Sweden together. My brother sang in the choir, my boyfriend at the time sang in the choir. So many inside jokes, fun times together, and also – the most profound musical moments of my life, in the kinds of sounds we made, the lyrics we shaped into form – it is an experience that has absolutely formed my connection to God and others.
And I had a weekend, of feeling like I was back there – the people, the music, the phenomenal director I had, the amazing concert hall we sang in. Which was awesome!
So then afterward, on Monday morning, and Tuesday, and Wednesday that week, I expected to be flying high from the fun, good-for-my-soul experience of all of that. But I found myself crying. I felt such grief, and I didn’t know why or what to do with it.
And it wasn’t until I was sitting with a friend at coffee on Wednesday, talking about how weird I felt about feeling sad after such a great weekend, and she nodded and listened and said: “It’s ok to grieve the you you used to be.”
I have loved the many seasons of my life and I absolutely loved being in college. The music, and it was my first time really falling in love and learning how to love, and making friendships on a real, vulnerable level, and having freedom to stay up late and not have a real job and be surrounded by friends and community and able to order pizza at 2am and wrestle with the big questions about what I believe and what will I do with my one wild and precious life?
And what my friend did in that moment was give me permission and words to say that it is ok to grieve, to miss my life then. And where I was getting stuck (though not realizing it), was feeling guilty about my grief. Feeling guilty that somehow if I miss that time so much, then I must not like or appreciate my life now. But that ain’t it, at all. I love my life now – I love my husband, my children, this amazing work of starting a church with all y’all, of what God is doing in this community and the kinds of big questions we’re wrestling with – I love this life.
“Prepare the way for the Lord” – Isaiah said it. And part of that preparation, that practice of repentance – is holding the tension of all the feels. Of knowing that we can hold grief alongside gratitude. Missing what was does not cancel out what is, now. And remembering that, I can feel the grief, and yet also feel so grateful for the 15-ish years since. Where I have experienced so much change, so much repentance, returning to God and being transformed again and again and again. We must hold the grief alongside the gratitude – a necessary part of living this life of God, a life of love, a life of wonder, a life of change.
And I bring all of this up now – not only because of what we’ve heard in our text today, but also for two reasons. First, we live in a culture that does not do grief well, and we don’t do change well. Most of us come from families that did not model for us how to express grief. We don’t often know how to mark goodbyes and hellos, endings and beginnings, the letting-gos, with meaning, with a way to express the kind of emotion that we often carry through those times. And yet: change is the one constant in life, right? Especially following Jesus. So we know that we need to make room for grief, to encourage others to grieve, to say: it’s ok to grieve what used to be and still be grateful – because we don’t get that message in our wider culture.
And second, we name this centrality of grief now because the holidays have a way of bubbling up all the change and grief we have – right up there to the surface. Many of us will gather with family and friends for Christmas, and there will be an empty chair, someone who is absent – and there is grief. Many of us will gather and feel all too aware of the things that are lacking in our lives. Many of us will gather and have a hard time because we have changed, which makes it bumpy to be with family who expect us to be just as we always have been. We bring this up now because in the midst of the twinkly lights of this season, my friends, it is ok, in fact it is normative, to feel grief and sadness alongside the joy of this season. Can we just give each other permission for that?
And so we bring it back to ask: what God is saying to us in all of this, and so I ask and wonder: what do you grieve? What do I grieve? You didn’t just have a weekend immersed in part of your past like I did – so I know you can’t dig up the same kind of experience I had, and yet I wonder where there might be touches of grief, ways in which you grieve what used to be?
And maybe the easiest place to start is asking: (Add) Where is there change in my life? Where I there loss (dreams, relationships, etc)? (leave on screen)
Not for a moment do I pretend that the work of repentance and the subsequent grief is easy. It’s often disorienting and painful. John the Baptist gets at this in his final words, as he talks about Jesus, he says: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” This is not about good people and bad people getting sorted, with some thrown into the fire, but about how we all have wheat in us, and we all have chaff. That yes, in the process of repentance there is the refining, the burning away that can be painful and hard as we leave behind what is familiar, yet we find life for the better on the other side. A change of heart, a change of mind. And yes, it is unquenchable, in that it keeps coming, we are always a work in progress.
And as we close our time, and hold these questions, let’s bring it back to this painting. If you were here last week or if you saw the time-lapse video of how this painting has progressed so far (and if you haven’t check it out online), then you know that as Dani began it was these beautifully bold streaks of color, interplaying with one another. And then that color was slowly consumed by darkness. Mixed in with black. And I felt in myself, watching it, that sense of – wait! Don’t cover up all that beautiful color! And last Sunday it was finished as a nearly black canvas, with hints of color.
The work of repentance, changing direction, God’s work in us can feel at times like being consumed by darkness. Like there is no color left – everything is dark, unfamiliar. And yet. We need the darkness to see where the light shines. It is only in the creation of a night sky that we can begin to see the light of the stars.