Dec. 17, 2017 Third Sunday of Advent Matthew 3: 1-12
Prayer: Dear Lord, we wait patiently during this Advent season for your arrival. At the same time we look backward to a time when you were already here. Advent is the season when we are conscious of the tension, of the waiting for a new thing. Amen.
Authentically John, Authentically Us
On one of my first Advents at Triune, Alfred Johnson was our associate pastor and facilities manager. We didn’t have any money, but this church was filled with old furniture and cast-offs and treasures from the 1950s.
And Alfred unearthed a string of Christmas lights. They were those big, old-fashioned, colored light bulbs we all used before the tiny white lights got popular.
Well, Alfred and the men hung those red and blue and green lights along the chair rail around the sanctuary.
When they brought me in to see it, I said, “This looks just like a honky tonk bar.”
And it did. On Christmas Eve, we turned out the overhead lights and had soft candles at the windows – and biker bar lights everywhere else. I laughed every time I walked in. But I loved it because it was so authentically Triune. So authentically us.
I talk a lot to guests and visitors about authenticity. About transparency.
I’m a big believer in being upfront about who we are and what we do and what we don’t do. That way if people don’t like it, they simply leave. They don’t hang around and make my life miserable.
The definition of authenticity is “being true to our personality, spirit, or character.” And so to be authentically Triune, I think, is to be radically welcoming with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s all.
Not a lot of doctrinal correctness. Not a lot of committee work. Not a lot of stewardship focus.
But a lot of table fellowship. A lot of prayer. A lot of music. A lot of listening and looking and intentional inviting of the poor and marginalized.
Being authentically Triune is nothing more, really, than trying our best to follow Jesus’ behavior in the gospels. Eating with anybody. Serving everybody. Being served by anybody and everybody.
But in simply doing that, Jesus – and John the Baptist before him – met resistance. They always met resistance. There were always people hanging around making their lives miserable.
But authentic? That was the very definition of John the Baptist. And his story is important enough that we tell it on two Sundays of Advent.
We tell of the one chosen to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 3: 1-12.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This 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.”’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
‘ 9Do 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. 10Even now the axe 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.
11 ‘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.
12His 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.’
Unlike Mark’s passage last week, Matthew lets us hear some of John’s message. And he had a single message: Repent. Repent. Repent.
Literally, Change … your mind. Turn from sin to God. Stop doing whatever you are doing… and do the opposite.
In the old Seinfeld series, George Costanza determined that his entire life was the opposite of what he wanted it to be. So he decided that whatever he was inclined to do, he’d do the opposite.
So when he saw a good-looking woman in the diner, he walked up and said, “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.”
He repented from his life as a shlub.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” said John.
And he and everyone else would know if people did so because they would see the fruits of that repentance.
This theme of fruit-bearing is huge in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of it in the gospel of John: God “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15: 1-2)
He spoke of it in the gospel of Matthew: “Beware the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Mt. 7: 15-16)
Paul spoke of it in his letter to the Colossians: “Lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work.” (Col. 1: 10)
While it is true that we cannot know what is in another’s heart, it is also true that authentic Christians will eventually show themselves. They will show themselves by their fruit.
John the Baptist saw through the religious leaders of his day, calling them vipers. If their repentance was true, he said, it would be apparent in their fruits.
If our repentance is true, it will be apparent in our fruits.
This fruit-bearing theme is woven into our Christmas tree. At some point during every Advent season, I stop and talk about our Triune traditions and our tree. Today’s the day.
This tree was designed specifically for Triune, authentically for Triune. Our friend Daphne Brown designed it for us seven years ago. She called it a Romans 8:28 tree.
Here’s what Paul wrote to the Romans in 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
You see, all the lovely gift boxes on the tree started out as discarded cigar boxes. They were thrown away by a cigar store. Useless boxes, no longer wanted by the store owner.
But of course, cigar boxes carry a very strong smell – of cigars. So inside each box is an inexpensive dryer sheet to absorb the smell.
The boxes then got a wrapping of fabric remnants – purchased for ten cents a pound. You can get a lot of fabric in a pound.
And then on top of the fabric are pieces of broken and discarded jewelry – broken watches, necklaces that couldn’t be repaired, earrings that have lost a mate.
That was Daphne’s theme. That was Paul’s theme. That was God’s theme.
Empty, discarded vessels. Fabric pieces sold cheap because they weren’t big enough to make something. Broken, discarded jewelry.
And just look what those things became!
The idea, Daphne said, is that “God takes us with all our stinking habits, poor choices, painful experiences and brokenness, and promises to … make something good and beautiful and purposeful.”
“.… (A)ll things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Another thing authentically Triune is that Daphne never worshiped here more than a handful of times. Her father had been a member of this church as a boy, and returned to us in his late 60s or 70s. I officiated at his wife’s funeral. I performed the ceremony when he remarried. And then he and his new wife eventually left us and went to a church where they were involved in Bible study.
And that is very often how things work here. Someone comes in and leaves an incredible gift. My hope is that they depart with an incredible gift as well.
Our tree also contains the baby Jesus. On his right is a garnet scarf, symbolizing the blood he would shed for us 33 years later. On his left is a green scarf, symbolizing everlasting life.
Two crosses flank him, representing the crosses on which two thieves were crucified alongside him. As they hung there, one sneered at him and one chose to follow him. All these centuries later, we are faced with that very same choice.
The tree also contains that vine I mentioned that grew out of John 15: Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15: 1-2)
False prophets in sheep’s clothing bear one kind of fruit, Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew. When we follow Jesus, we bear another kind.
When we follow him, people see it. They see it in our words, our actions, our practice, our “doing.”
Do this in remembrance of me, Jesus said during the last supper. Bear fruit in remembrance of me.
We use a lot of community service workers at Triune. These are folks who are in Drug Court or Pre-Trial Intervention. They have the opportunity to do community service instead of jail time. Because we are open on weekends, they can often work here without losing their jobs.
Some of them jump right in and are enthusiastic and fun to have around. Some hide and talk on their cell phones. We do not hesitate to send someone home for that.
In early December, we had a rather sullen young man doing 45 hours. Every time I saw him, he looked completely put out with being here.
But on his next to last day, Don assigned him to help Douglas McClain and Pat and Cheri and Linda and me put up this Christmas tree. It’s a pain to get it from the basement and set up securely and tied to the wall. But I kept telling him, Just wait ’til you see the final result.
We were laughing as Douglas wisely ignored the women’s advice to build a new stand and quietly fixed the old one.
Laughing as Pat wired that 30-pound baby Jesus into the tree.
As Cheri looked online for new bling for the top of the tree.
As Linda climbed the ladder to hang ornaments on branches we couldn’t reach.
As I wondered why we had manger scenes with 101 figures.
And we pulled this young man into the silliness and spirit of decorating. He warmed up a little, and became more cooperative and helpful.
So after the dueling mangers were set up, and the tree was lit and decorated, and the packages arranged below, I asked him, Was I right? What do you think?
And he said, “I think you all love each other.”
That’s what the vine in this tree is all about. When our vine is Jesus, we will bear fruit that can be seen in our treatment of others.
Our Romans 8: 28 tree is not just a pretty decoration for the holidays. It is an authentic way in which we worship.
Another thing that is authentically Triune is our communion bread. For many years, we used days-old store bread delivered by Loaves and Fishes. It could be tough. I remember cutting it one time with a box cutter from someone’s pocket.
But then one of our members, Nikki Day, began baking our bread. And it’s fresh and fragrant and Tandy can break it for us, just as Jesus did in the Scriptures.
Nikki’s homemade bread is now authentically our communion bread, and we will enjoy it at our evening Christmas Eve service.
Another thing that is authentic to Triune is the different kinds of music that we use – from old church anthems to Phil Collins to Nat King Cole.
We had a partner church visit one Sunday. Afterward, one of their members said, “You know we’ve been fighting about traditional or contemporary music for years. We have two separate services, and each is only half full. But you guys just throw it all into one service!”
Who knew that was odd?
This morning I want to do one more thing that is authentically us – read a poem by our art room founder, Karen Lucci. She wrote this one after sitting in our food pantry Wednesday after Wednesday, watching the people who came for food.
Her eye fell upon one of the many grandmothers struggling to raise her grandchildren.
O Gramma Gramma
God bless you
For takin’ in those grans
For givin’ up your quiet
And all that social security
O Gramma Gramma
How you cry at night
As you pray for
Your son incarcerated
Your daughter on drugs
Not even knowin’ where
O Gramma Gramma
Those precious babes
Asleep on the pullout
Asleep on the floor
Asleep on your bed
O Gramma Gramma
Your house needs paintin’
Front patch needs mowin’
Lunches need fixin’
Prayers need prayin’
And you bein’ so tired an’ all
O Gramma Gramma
You’ve come for the box
Bread and bananas
You’ve come for
Medication and eye glasses
You’ve come for
Pull-ups and small socks
O Sister Sister
Accept the rest
As you wait
Your turn on
Sit without the pull
The weight of
Take your own sweet time
Ain’t no hurry
Enjoy that second cup
Rest a bit longer
For, of course, we see this grandmother at our food pantry. And the son, formerly incarcerated. And the daughter on drugs. And the grans’ , grabbing a cookie or a cup of yogurt.
Authenticity, for us, calls it wrong to discard that family. It celebrates the taking of our lives, our mistakes, our brokenness, and re-creating them according to God’s purpose.
That is how we heed the message of John the Baptist: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
For we are all in need of repentance. During Advent, and all year long.