Again, welcome! as we gather to celebrate this happy day with John and his parents Frandine and Bruce, in this place, and virtually joined by family in Haiti.
To them: Bonjou, byenveni nan fanmi an nan Frandine koute soti nan. Sa a se yon jou kontan pou nou tout!
Today’s first and third readings are quite vivid, with sometimes clashing images.
The remaining stump of Jesse regenerates with roots and shoots like a mulberry tree! And there are enough incongruous animal pairings to keep the internet resounding with “oohs and aahs” for a while. This vision of hope and tolerance from Isaiah encourages us today, as it has our Jewish siblings through several exiles over millennia, and our Christian siblings from their roots and persecutions to this time.
In our Gospel we meet John the Baptizer, a striking figure in rough garment, foraging in the wild and castigating the Pharisees and Sadducees who join those seeking baptism. He calls them vipers, invokes an ax clearing unproductive growth – and Jesus carrying a winnowing fork and bringing fire?
What to make of all this? For starters, let’s recap to whom this Gospel was written.
Matthew was addressed first to Jewish Christians, around 80- 90 of the C.E.
Quite possibly a community in northern Syria. Recall that In suppressing the Jewish revolt against Rome a decade prior, the Roman military had utterly destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed, or died of famine. Others were enslaved or fled as refugees. Their priests and leaders were gone, their resistance crushed. Their hearts and shared worship were shattered, and the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious groups lost.
Let’s take that in for a moment, and join our hearts with all those living under similar siege in today’s world.
Though the horrors of war are not intimately known to most of us, maybe you do know how discouraging it can be to lose a vibrant, robust and colorful home community. Maybe your place of worship, a Church or Temple with the history of generations of families; maybe a bustling city of many voices, and precious neighbors. Loss and mourning can make it hard to embrace the new.
As the Gospel was taken West, Gentile Christians came to outnumber the Jews who followed Jesus, and with their differing practices the tolerance between these groups was increasingly strained. Their religions were becoming distinct.
The author of Matthew addresses them in a time of loss and upheaval.
With only the Pharisees remaining and no central place of worship, it was they who drafted an orthodox program to study Jewish Law in local synagogues throughout the diaspora, and to the present.
In today’s Gospel, John calls out the hypocrisy he sees in those Pharisees he observes. They emphasize strict obedience to the law, and line up for baptism, but neglect the good deeds that this act of repentance requires. John warns that all who claim Abraham and Sarah for their family tree must bear fruit – or be chopped down and thrown in the fire.
His critique is apt for we Christians as well. We must not slip into comforting ourselves with cherished rituals in beautiful spaces, but neglecting to engage our living faith in the world.
The proliferation of lies, greed and violence in our time is disheartening, Yet! Each day we are called to lift up an alternate possibility: a more just reality, based on the truth, proclaimed by the life and teachings of Jesus.
The Gospels teach us that the Word of God became flesh and claimed this world as his home. If we accept this as Truth, then we live within the Reign of God he heralded. The witness of how we live and love makes it true and welcoming to those we meet.
For we who follow this Way, dignity is the birthright of every human, justice and mercy is their due and our charge, regardless the cost. The common good has priority over my wealth. We live the truth of Christ’s witness or we live as if he never came, neither taught nor challenged anything, and did not for love give his life for us.
This love in which we and now little John are baptized, and the communities we create of it, are to be spaces in which Christ’s truth is practiced and celebrated.
When it seems too much, and we are tempted to give up and lose hope, the very Spirit of God breathes in us, strengthens us in trusting, and assists our efforts.
In this way the Spirit confirms the promises given to our all ancestors in faith, and to each of us in baptism, in order that we too as believers might glorify our merciful God. Mesi Bondye!
Let us pray:
Let us pray this Advent season for growth in hope in this assembly, in communities of faith locally, and throughout our nation and world. May our daily efforts of hospitality, prayer, generosity and justice, nourish our faith and serve as the leaven of peace, let us pray, Come, Christ Jesus, Come.
For those serving in elected offices in Wisconsin, and across our nation and world, that they do so out of commitment to the common good, and promote equity and sustainability for all, we pray, Come, Christ Jesus, Come.
For a just peace in the many places of war, unrest, and famine in Ukraine, Russia and surrounding countries, South and Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and again, Syria and Haiti. For all who are endangered, we pray… Come, Christ Jesus, Come.
Let us offer a special prayer for Francine’s family, and for all those who are facing danger, famine, and cholera in Haiti today: Ann lapriye Bondye, nou an pou fanmi Frandine an Ayiti. Ak pou tout pep an Ayiti, nan moman an gwo danje sa a. Papa Nou, pwoteje tout pitit, ou renmen anpil.
Please join in responding in Kreyol: Vini, Kris Jezi, vini.
Let us pause to call to mind those in need of our prayer, you may speak their names quietly, and all named in our Book of Intentions. Come..
Loving Mother/Father God, you give us hope from the examples in scripture about people who did not give up and were helped by you. Accept our prayers as confidence in your mercy; grant that with your Spirit – who helps us when we refuse to give up – grace us with steadfast joy to live in the Hope made possible by Jesus, your beloved. Amen.
With a mutually comfortable sign of Peace, please welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the Glory of God.