November 27, 2016; First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-11; “What’s So Annoying About Hope”
This year’s Advent planning team wanted to focus on the coming light. We got brand new Advent candles—the first new ones we’ve bought since before I started as pastor ten years ago. Anne has made this beautiful Advent table cloth with a strip of light across the front and a light-themed banner for each week.
Light. That’s what we wanted. And if you’ve been around church much you may remember from years past that each candle, each light, represents something different: hope, peace, joy, and love. All good. All wonderful. But I think this first Sunday, this Sunday of hope—I think that is what we most had in mind when we decided to focus on light: Hope.
Sometimes I wonder why people come to church at all. Why did you decide to come here on the Sunday after Thanksgiving? I imagine hope has something to do with it.
I wonder also about these people—people from Jerusalem and ALL Judea and ALL the region along the Jordan—who come into the wilderness to a—by all accounts—dirty and smelly river to hear an apparently crazy man preach. Frankly, it’s easier to understand why you would be here this morning than why they would have been there.
I imagine hope had something to do with that, too. They hoped for the coming Messiah. The promised One who would execute judgment on their enemies and institute a reign of peace and justice. They remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
“This is the voice,” they thought. This crazy bug-eating man wearing camel’s hair in the wilderness—he is crying out and the Messiah is coming! That was their hope.
So I’ve been thinking about hope this week. The Judeans’ hope for a Messiah. The hope that we hold in this Advent season.
And one thing I have realized is that we often use the word “hope” when that’s not exactly what we mean. We say things like: I hope the weather will be nice for the parade. I hope there is a piece of pumpkin pie left by the time I make it to the dessert table. I hope Aunt Shirley will be there for Thanksgiving. . . . I hope you understand. . . . I hope it’s not malignant.
In the end, though, I don’t think any of these things are hopes. I think they are wishes—we wish for the weather to be nice. We wish for the pumpkin pie. We wish for the good test results.
Hope is—it has to be—bigger than our wishes. Maybe our wishes are grounded in our hope, but they can’t be our hope. Because how sad would it be to lose all hope as you stare at the crumbs in the pie pan. . . . And how sad to lose all hope when the test results are not good. When the political climate is frightening. When the news is terrifying.
Things are not as we wish. But the hope underlying the wishes—the hope is still there. The hope is there and sometimes we do crazy things to find it, to claim it, to be around other people who share it. Sometimes we wander in the wilderness looking for a wild man to dunk us in a stinky river. Or we show up at church on Sunday morning for no good reason.
Under and behind and in spite of all of our failed wishes, the light of hope shines. That’s the good news: the hope is there. But I would be remiss in my duties as a preacher if I didn’t also give you the bad news: the hope is annoying.
For one thing, the hope involves the wilderness. The Israelites lived it. Isaiah said it. John the Baptist embodied it. Even Jesus spent significant time there. The wilderness. A wilderness that we are somehow drawn to because of our hope.
There’s this thing I’ve heard of. It’s called “glamping.” Glamorous camping. For example, a site called “Pampered Wilderness” offers “beautifully decorated canvas cabins” with wine in the evening and gourmet coffee in the morning. And you will have access to a barbeque, mini fridge, and microwave. Honestly, as ridiculous as this sounds, it also sounds lovely.
But John the Baptist, of course, is not out glamping by the river Jordan. And he does not say to make a way in the pampered wilderness. Just the plain old wilderness. Where there are no marked trails; where there are no chilled bottles of wine or microwaves. Where there are thorn bushes and wild animals and temperatures that can range from scorching to freezing. The real wilderness.
I will admit that the closest I have been to a natural wilderness is probably hiking trails in the Colorado mountains with my uncles, who were always kind enough to point out: “That’s the last tree you’ll see for awhile, Joanna.”
I’ve never really been in the actual wilderness and I can only begin to imagine the work it would take to clear a path through it. But I think John and Isaiah’s words here are still relevant for those of us who have never, and will never, have to machete our way through the brush. We are called to prepare a way in the midst of whatever danger and mess and confusion we face in our lives.
I don’t know how your Thanksgiving was. Mine was fine. Nice. Lovely. In part it was lovely because my uncles and brother and cousin and friend sat around playing guitar and mandolin and we sang and I love that. In part it was lovely because my cousin Chris made a peanut butter pie AND a pumpkin cheesecake layer pie. And in large part it was lovely because we all avoided talking about politics.
Then, Friday night as I sat comfortably at home by myself, I saw a Facebook post from one of my dear high school friends: “Admonishments and arguments about the events of our country and our world are appropriate topics of conversation around the holiday table: I feel that if your privilege brings you to a table laden with food, a day off work, and your family able to travel and gather, then this privilege can be employed to discussion and conversation. Change starts at home, and with us, and especially with those of us so privileged.”
And I wondered if, during my lovely Thanksgiving festivities, I might have missed a chance to prepare a little bit of a way in the wilderness.
There are, of course, many ways to navigate the wilderness of our lives–to prepare the way and make straight the paths. It’s worth thinking about what that preparation might look like in your life. How to we work with God to create a space ready to receive what God, in Jesus, is offering to our world?
Is there a path in your own heart that needs to be prepared? A path in your family that needs to be more straight? Paths at work or in the community or farther reaching roads of peace and justice that need to be cleared and prepared? Preparing a path in the wilderness is no easy matter. And I’m afraid some of that preparation, at least for me, will involve hard conversations.
Which is annoying. It’s annoying that the wilderness is part of the hope and that preparing a way in the wilderness is such hard work.
It is also annoying that everyone and their dog—apparently–can get in on this hope thing.
Years ago I taught an introductory religion course called Christian Though at Ottawa University. And when the test question came around: “What is the significance of Jesus’ baptism?”, at least one student would inevitably answer, “That’s when Jesus became a Christian.” Even though you have never taken the class, you probably realize this is the wrong answer. Because there were no Christians yet when Jesus was walking the earth. Baptism meant something very different for first century Jews than it does for 21st century Christians.
In Jesus’ day—in John’s day—baptism was a ritual that signified someone who had not been born a Jew was accepting the Jewish faith. It was a ritual of conversion into Judaism. But John the Baptizer was baptizing all kinds of people—even people who were already Jewish. Especially people who were already Jewish.
His message was that no one is born with any special status before God. Those seeking the Messiah—seeking hope—must repent; all of them must repent, regardless of whether they were born Jew or Gentile. And this is not necessarily good news for those who thought they had a privileged status because of their birth.
Assumption of privilege is, of course, a spiritual problem that persists today. As an extreme example, I am sure many of you saw video, read news stories about the white nationalist convention held in Washington D.C. last week. It was terrifying to see a room full of people giving Nazi salutes and cheering for a “white state.” A room full of people who believe that the color of their skin means they should automatically have certain privileges. It was chilling.
The message of that convention goes against everything the Gospel teaches about the nature of God and God’s hope for our world. It goes against what we learn from this story: John baptizes everybody, because everybody needs to repent and nobody is outside the reach of God’s hope.
Pharisees and Sadducees, the “bad guys” of the Gospels, represent the epitome of this privileged thinking among first century Jews. They are condemned by John and by Jesus for their hypocrisy, for taking advantage of their privileged status in the community but failing to fully live out their calling as people of God.
The Pharisees and Sadducees. From what we know about them, we would assume they were not particularly happy about John’s little wilderness show. But they show up. And as I started studying this passage for my sermon, one question I carried around with me was: Why were the religious leaders there? Did they come to chastise John for not following proper baptismal protocol? Were they gathering information for an exposé of the crazy wilderness preacher? Why were they there?
Turns out, the passage gives us the answer to my question: They were coming for baptism.
Just as we would expect the Pharisees and Sadducees to be upset about John baptizing Jewish people, we see that John is clearly upset about these religious leaders wanting to get in on this repentance thing. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
Well, John has been warning people to flee from the coming wrath for awhile now. And they, apparently, listened. And now they want to be baptized, too.
It’s annoying. That this hope includes everybody. And not just the everybody we want to include. But actually every body.
In the first century, the people were hoping for a Messiah to save them from the despair of their lives—personal despair, political despair, spiritual despair. They wandered into the wilderness and found John the Baptist who led them to Jesus—the Messiah who fulfills the deepest hopes of the people even while he disappoints a lot of their wishes.
Jesus who is the light, the hope of our lives, of this Advent season that we are sharing together. This hope, however annoying it might be, is a hope that I need especially this year. A light that I need. A light shining in the darkness.