January 18, 2021

Sermon: Advent II – Sinai’s Last Thunder

Dark Sky

Sermon: Advent I
Sinai’s Last Thunder

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.”

• Matthew 3:1-12

• • •

Sinai’s Last Thunder (Matthew 3:1-12)

What are we going to do with John the Baptist? John is one of the most vividly drawn characters in Scripture and each Advent we come face to face with him again. The four Gospels show us that Jesus’ public work began in the context of John’s ministry, and this text from Matthew summarizes it well.

▪John lived in the wilderness. He lived an ascetic life, living under vows that limited his dress, his diet, and his vocation.

▪John was a prophet to whom the Word of the Lord came.

▪Like the Hebrew prophets who came before him, John preached repentance, urging Israel to turn back to God.

▪John complemented his preaching with the prophetic action of baptism.

▪John came to fulfill God’s promise given through the prophet Isaiah — he came to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, who was about to arrive, bringing salvation to his people.

How should we approach today’s description of John the Baptist? One way would be to discuss the theological words in this Gospel lesson. Note the rich, profound concepts that are meaningful to our faith: the Word of God, the wilderness, baptism, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, God’s promises through the prophets, the coming of the Lord, God’s salvation. We could meditate on these rich words and concepts this morning.

Another way we could approach John would be to try and understand the historical context of his ministry. We could talk about why he appeared in the wilderness and why he baptized in the Jordan River and what that would have symbolized for the Jewish people. We could discuss Israel’s relationship with the Romans who ruled over them at that time, the Jews’ continuing sense of being a people in exile, and how John was raised up to address that situation.

Today, I’d like to look at this Gospel text from a close and personal angle. You see — and I am going to be frank here — I have an idea that John the Baptist is not a person I would like very much. And I doubt that most of you would care for him either. I’m quite sure he would not be welcomed with enthusiasm in most of our churches today. He was strange, abrasive, different.

▪ First of all, John was a hermit. He lived in the wilderness. He lived under a Nazirite vow which meant he didn’t do a lot of the things you and I consider normal. The Gospels say he dressed in unconventional clothes. He ate a funny diet. It’s likely his personal hygiene was not up to our standards. He looked rough and talked rough — and probably didn’t smell so good. I doubt he was skilled in social graces or manners. He was an outsider and didn’t fit into polite company well.

▪ Second, John was narrow-minded. No matter what subject you brought up, he wanted to talk about one thing: repentance.

▪ Third, John didn’t mind his own business. Not only did he want to talk about repentance, he wanted you to repent! John wasn’t afraid to look you in the eye and tell you what was what. He wasn’t shy about challenging others about their lifestyles, their priorities, their spending habits, their entertainment choices, their religious practices. He was not concerned about winning friends. He believed God had called him to tell the plain truth bluntly and forcefully, and then tell people to get their act together.

▪ Fourth, John didn’t put much stock in religious trappings. The Pharisees were the most conservative and respected religious people in Israel in those days — and John called them snakes! If he came to visit us today, he would not likely be impressed with a beautiful church building, a full slate of good programs, or a group of people who were devoted to their church. He would start asking uncomfortable questions that go beyond the externals and focus on whether a person’s heart and life is right.

▪ Fifth, John put people on the spot publicly. John’s ministry was not a quiet, private business. He called people to profess their repentance right out in the open, in public view. When he called you to turn your life around, he insisted that you had to do that in front of everyone. He said, if you’re serious, come down here to the river, take off your clothes, and I’ll baptize you and wash you clean like a newborn baby. Your mom and dad will know. Your friends and coworkers will know. Everyone will know. John didn’t care about embarrassing people. He believed so strongly in what he was doing that he thought that taking a public stand was worth any discomfort a person might feel.

So, what do you do with people like that? Strong personalities who separate themselves from the way you and other normal people live, who are narrow and negative and severe; who don’t mind their own business but freely speak their opinions and judgments to you and even about you? How do you deal with people who don’t simply accept the way you are but who constantly challenge you to change? Who put you on the spot and embarrass you in front of your family and friends?

This was John the Baptist: and I will be honest with you, he makes me uncomfortable. All his talk about sin and repentance, all his warnings about a God of judgment and the wrath to come, his refusal to accept any excuses from anyone, his rough appearance and uncouth ways, his direct way of confronting people, and his demand that even the most respectable people humble themselves and go down to the river and be baptized — all these things get under my skin and make me want to avoid him.

There is, of course, one positive characteristic that I love about John: he had a strong hope in the Messiah and when the time came he consistently pointed people away from himself to Jesus. When, as John’s Gospel records, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease,” I think that’s just about as good an approach to life as I can imagine.

But what about all this other stuff? Why did he have to break onto the scene like a bull in a china shop, upsetting everything, the way he did?

I think there is a clear theological answer to that: John was God’s LAST prophet to Israel under the covenant with Moses. John was the final peal of thunder from Mt. Sinai. John was the last in a long line of strange men and women who followed God’s unique calling to put themselves outside of mainstream Jewish religion in order that they might get the nation’s attention and call the people of Israel back to God. They called Israel back to the covenant they had entered into under Moses when they received the Ten Commandments and all of God’s laws.

When we lived in the east, and would travel through New York, they had signs that warned you about going the wrong way down a ramp on the highway. At the intersection where the ramp met the road, it would say, “Do Not Enter.” But then, a little farther down the ramp would be another sign — “Wrong Way!” Finally, a bit farther on was a sign with big letters, saying, “Go Back!” After that, you’d be driving down the highway in the wrong direction, in the face of oncoming traffic.

John was the man who was standing at the end of the line, the last warning, holding up a sign saying, “Stop! Turn around! GO BACK!!!” He warned Israel that they couldn’t go any farther in the direction they were going without getting themselves into serious danger of death and destruction.

Now, if that’s your job, you can’t be subtle about it. You have to get people’s attention. You have to speak directly and confrontationally. You can’t beat around the bush. This is not the time for winning personality contests. You have to speak the truth plainly, simply, and without waffling. There is no time to debate, no time to sit around and analyze what’s happening. People are about to plunge to their destruction, and you have to warn them. You have to point them to another way that will lead to life and not death. This was a grave emergency for the people of Israel, the danger was imminent, and God called John to warn Israel about it with a sense of urgency. And that is exactly what John the Baptist was all about.

• • •

And that, my friends, is one thing that Advent is all about.

Advent is the time when God is shouting at us, “Stop!” It is the season in which he points us to the consequences of ignoring him and living selfishly. It is God’s urgent appeal that we will pause, consider our ways, and turn in fresh faith to put our hope in his promises.

We have turned Advent into something else. We’ve made it simply about preparing for Christmas. That certainly is part of it, but it’s not the whole message of this season. Traditionally, Advent has been a penitential season, like Lent. It’s a time for self-examination. It’s a time to confess our sins. It’s a time to humble ourselves and be honest with ourselves and recognize that, in many ways, we’re a mess and our families are a mess, and our churches are a mess, and the nations are a mess, and our world is a mess.

Advent is a time to recognize that unless God saves us we will not be saved.

That is why it has been traditional practice for people to fast during Advent, just as they do during Lent. In worship, many churches don’t sing the “Gloria” during Advent. Advent liturgies and hymns tend to be somber and stark, like the November/December landscape here in the northern hemisphere. The colors of Advent are dark blue and deep purple like the days that are growing darker as we move into winter. Our scripture readings are from the prophets and in the Gospels we meet people like John the Baptist, who hold up God’s Law like a mirror to our lives, tell us where we are falling short, and urge us to turn our lives around.

I remember watching a football game on TV when I was eight years old. It was between the Minnesota Vikings and the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had the ball down near their own goal line and their quarterback threw a pass that was complete at about the 30-yard line. When the Vikings defensive back tackled the receiver, he stripped the ball from his arms, causing a fumble. Vikings linebacker Jim Marshall swooped in and picked up the ball and started running toward the goal line.

But there was one huge problem: he was running the wrong way! His teammates chased him down the field, yelling at him. His other teammates on the sidelines did the same. But Marshall was so exuberant about retrieving the fumble and having a clear field in front of him that he just kept running and running and running. He ran for 66 yards, and as he went into the end zone he flung the ball up into the air and out of bounds. It was only as he began to go toward his bench that a teammate finally caught up with him and gave him the bad news: he had gone the wrong way and scored points for the other team.

What a terrible feeling Jim Marshall must have had at that moment! He was out there, playing the game, doing his job and thinking he was doing it well. He was so caught up in the moment that he couldn’t hear the voices all around him screaming at him that he was going the wrong way. He just kept running and running and running until it was too late.

Don’t keep running and running and running during Advent, this season before Christmas. It is entirely possible you might be running in the wrong direction. Stop for a moment and look at where you are on the field. Listen closely. Is God trying to say something to you? Is he trying to point you in another direction?

Maybe we can learn something from this crazy guy named John the Baptist after all.

May God give us grace to hear his Word repentance this Advent season so that our hearts may turn toward Jesus and welcome his coming. Amen.


  1. Christiane says

    i needed this post, as am one of those who jumps into Advent with both feet as a time of ‘preparation’ ……
    A week to clean.
    A week to shop.
    A week to bake.
    A week to cook.

    time out for spiritual renewal: clean, sure, but then take time to light the candles and sit down with a cup of coffee
    Shop? okay, but meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen for a while for lunch together and talk of old times
    Bake? Yep. Tons. but fix up some plates of the baking and take them out around the neighborhood …… something simple and yet it is ‘more’ being magnified by the Season itself
    Cook? Fill the house with good things to eat, sure, but fill up some bags for the food pantry ….. a little more, a little bit better, something special, something you would like to receive if YOU were the one in need

    time out to sit by the fire, wrapped in blankets, holding the puppy and drinking cocoa, yes, but also
    time out to sit with fragile Great Aunt Leola who has found herself a kinder reality and speaks of those of our family who visited her that morning, though you know they have been long dead

    ten for sorrow, ten for joy

  2. I spend a significant time year round contemplating what a mess I am, what a mess the Church is, what a mess the world is. I don’t feel a need for a special season to do the same thing. At the the Lutheran church where I’m a member, Advent and Christmas have become pretty mixed-up: there are Christmas trees already up in sanctuary and narthex, at the request of one of the Worship and Music committee members the lead pastor has included one Christmas hymn/carol to be sung each Sunday of Advent, and we have already had a Christmas music program this past Saturday evening in the church fellowship hall. I’m okay with all of that: life is all mixed-up, that’s the way it is, no effort of mine could change it, and I’m not inclined to make the effort anyway. The truth is, to borrow a sentiment from a popular secular Christmas song, I probably “need a little Christmas” at all times, to temper the contemplation of messiness that I’m inclined to year-round. As a choir member I’m more than happy to start rehearsing Christmas music in September (my wife, the choir director, likes to start preparing early)!

    • Forgot to mention: Next Sunday we are having Lessons and Carols in lieu of the usual worship service. I’m looking forward to it.

    • I spend a significant time year round contemplating what a mess I am, what a mess the Church is, what a mess the world is. I don’t feel a need for a special season to do the same thing.

      You and I (and many of us here at IM) are the exceptions to the rule. Most of our fellow American Christians DO need these reminders… if they are willing to tolerate them, that is. 🙁

      • Christiane says

        those ‘happy, happy, happy, joy, joy, joy’ Christians can never ‘get’ Christmas without an Advent Season to put it into perspective . . . . . . . on the other hand, we who somberly sing our Advent hymns in minor key also desperately have need of our Gaudete Sunday for relief and perspective . . . . . . .

        the one gives meaning to the other and celebrates the wholeness of the darkness lessened by the increasing Light

      • It may be that they need them, though I’m not sure I know what other people need. But I do know that I’m not willing to be part of the Advent Auxiliary Police, harping on how much others are missing by sidestepping Advent. I’ll leave that to others who are more politic, and more motivated than I am about the issue. If they put a Christmas tree up early, I’ll admire it; if they wish me Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays or whatever) in late November, I’ll respond in kind; if they want to sing Christmas carols and hymns, count me in. Somebody else will have to give them what they need; it’s above my pay grade.

  3. Ronald Avra says

    Good sermon, thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. …much needed… Thanks CM!

  5. Christiane says

    Her last match is lit
    The freezing child feels its warmth
    Her angels come near

  6. William H. Martin Jr says

    Thanks, greatly appreciated.

    One of the things I have always admired is when someone is bluntly honest with me. I need that and respect it. I’m sure I would have needed someone fiercely honest Like John and that would bring out honesty from me. I really don’t think anything else could. Uncomfortable as it would seem it would challenge me to be as honest. every
    time I have encountered that I have never hesitated. I would have needed John at that time.

    I love the way he pointed some of the apostles to Jesus. Maybe a strange man but unselfish. How do we get out of self. Try, try,try but eventually I lose. Hope I find it this side.

    First day back to work… Beat me up. Second floor with 16 showers. Steps with 70 pound boxes. Glad I got to read this in the morning and now again. Much thanks

    • I agree, William. Congratulations on surviving your first day back.

    • Christiane says

      Glad you are able to return to work . . . . . although a little more healing time out would have been a blessing . . . . those stairs and those seventy-pound boxes? try one of those teacher trollies (a basket with wheels) . . . . you can put the box into the basket and roll the whole trolley upstairs one stair at a time

      I remember a few years where I had six preps for six different classes to do each day and I carried tons of books and paperwork home and back to school on a daily basis . . . . I started out with two LARGE LL Bean bags to carry all the stuff and ended up with a trolley that worked much better for me . . . . . get something substantial and it will serve you well

      praying for your healing

      • William H. Martin Jr says

        Huffing and puffing I was. Really cant mess up those wooden stairs as it is hotel rooms being renovated at an old playhouse property that actually dates back to 1790. Kind of neat.

    • Glad you made it through your first day of work, w. Keep hanging in there.

      I have to admit that I don’t like being confronted with blunt honesty: it hurts, and I get defensive in ways I can’t even keep up with. I’m sure I would’ve avoided John if I’d been his contemporary; if I couldn’t avoid him, like Herod and Herodias, then I even might have wanted him dead.

  7. early sunset
    cold air like fingers
    of an estranged friend

  8. A hearty Amen!

  9. a candle flickers
    in the dark sanctuary
    memory of light

  10. I tend to think of Jesus as God’s last prophet to Israel under the Mosaic covenant.

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