Advent III Sermon

Third Sunday in Advent
Bear Fruit That Befits Repentance
Verse 10 of St. Matthew 11:2-10
December 17, 2006

In the news recently we have heard reports of people getting lost in the woods and up in the high mountains. Just a week ago the search for a man lost in the wilderness and separated from his family finally ended when he was found dead though earlier his wife and children had been located and found alive. And this present week teams of hand picked expert mountaineers, joined by helicopter crews, have been climbing up or circling about the peak of Mt. Hood, Oregon, in hope of locating three climbers who have been missing since last Thursday. The last clue to their whereabouts was a signal returned on Tuesday from the cell phone one of the men who lay injured. As of last night, of the three none have been found or rescued.

About 20 people a year have to be rescued from Mt. Hood in an average year. The climb can turn treacherous in any season, but conditions in winter are especially dangerous. World wide, of course, the average number of people who get lost up in snow summits and out in the wilderness is very much higher. And sadly, a number of those lost are frequently are found dead, either from the freezing weather, or from being fatally mauled by wild animals.

The wilderness is a dangerous and treacherous place to be. So why do people go there? There are of course many compelling reasons. The challenge, the risk, the thrill, the view! Any one of which makes it no less dangerous and treacherous an undertaking.

People add to the likelihood of getting into trouble and getting lost up there and out there if they engage in the effort without making proper and adequate preparation. But even the best “prepared” can get injured, disoriented, stranded, lost or snowed in. Any can become victims of nature and some of them end up dead before being finally found.

Mountain heights and wilderness areas are downright treacherous and dangerous places to be. And if the heights or the density don’t get you, other things just might. Jesus went out into the wilderness after his baptism by John, and ran straight into the devil! If the wilderness wouldn’t get Jesus, the height of the pinnacle of the Temple just might!

Jesus’ cousin, John (the Baptizer) spent a huge amount of time in the wilderness, living out there among the wild beasts. And John went out there long before our Lord ventured forth to spend some time there. John lived there far more than forty days. He spent most of his adult life there. With no bedroll, blanket or tent to protect him from the elements, it must have been very cold on many nights, clothed as he was with only a camel’s skin. And rations were simple: whatever he could forage. Fortunately, locusts were ever plentiful and, if he didn’t mind the stings, he could raid beehives for the wild honey. And surely he must have spent part of his time trying to avoid becoming a meal himself for the beasts that abounded.

John was no big game hunter, explorer, adventurer or thrill-seeker. None of those were his interests or his reasons for being out there. He was there, you might say, primarily as a surveyor and an engineer. He was there to “make the paths straight” and “the rough places plain.” For in the prophetic words of the Isaiah: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth…”

John Baptist was God’s surveyor and engineer! And he was God’s Voice to the people. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” As God’s Voice, John was a firebrand! Because of him, “all flesh shall see the Salvation of our God,” just as foretold. As God’s Voice and Messenger, he preached there in the wilderness what would most aptly be described as a “fire and brimstone” style of sermon. Evidence attests that he didn’t begin all of his sermons with the salutation, “Dearly beloved.” To the Pharisees and Sadducees who came not just to hear him, but planned to be baptized by him as well, John said, “You brood of vipers [that is, you poisonous snakes, malicious, spiteful or treacherous persons]! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

And hear a bit more of that particularly scathing sermon. He goes on to admonish them: “Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In that same sermon John tells what another part of his mission has been: to baptize the people with water for repentance. His baptism is to be indicative that the people have repented of their sins past and present and are turning to God, looking forward to the One who is coming soon. And that is why he foretells, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie: he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into barns, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The general message from the Voice was one of preparation for the coming of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

A decade or so later, another firebrand would appear on the scene, Saint Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy [KJV ‘faithful’].”

In his own unique way, John Baptist may be regarded as a “servant of Christ.” For he most assuredly spent the entirety of his life, before laying down his life, in service to the coming of Christ, and even baptized the Christ after he had come! And John too was a steward of the mysteries of God. For his divine mission would herald the coming of the Salvation of man: the Coming of Messiah, the Incarnation, the life and ministry, the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Were not these the ultimate Mysteries of God? Was not John Baptist therefore one of the chief stewards of those Mysteries? “Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” Indeed, John had been faithful in all manner of presentation and in all matters of faith.

And the Lord himself said so, to certain of those in the crowd this morning. John had prophesied that Messiah would give sight to the blind, wholeness to the lame, cleansing to the lepers, hearing to the deaf and even raise up the dead. Jesus says to them that inquired on John’s behalf, “go and tell John those things which ye have heard and seen.” Let the evidence speak for itself. In other words, the things which they heard from the lips of John have come true. John has been faithful, and his word totally trustworthy for the promised Messiah has come. And concerning John himself, as John’s disciples depart to return with an answer to John, Jesus said of John to the others present, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? …To see a man in soft raiment?” Certainly not! “Why then did you go out? To see a prophet?”

Prophets are called to be faithful to their mission, though some have proved to be false. John is a true prophet, for he has been found to have been faithful to his divine mission. But he is even more than a prophet. “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold I send my MESSENGER before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.'” St. Paul too would become a messenger of God: a messenger of Christ to the Gentiles. But here may be one area where Paul and John the Baptist differ from each other.

Paul says: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” In matters of keeping the Law, Paul has been absolutely faithful, flawless. But that does not thereby justify him, for the law cannot justify. Only Christ can justify him! And he, Paul, will leave the final judgment of himself up to Christ. Then Paul cautions, “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts…”

And it could be said, that is the point upon which Paul and John Baptist may approach judgement differently. John Baptist most certainly did pronounce judgment upon others. As the anointed Voice, he was most vocal in calling a spade a spade! He was uncompromising in calling the Pharisees and the Saducees “snakes.” He was uncompromising in calling the people “sinners” who needed to repent of their sins. And he was uncompromising in publicly pronouncing judgment and denouncing the marriage of Herod to Herodius, his brother Phillip’s wife, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have her” – an action which finally cost John his head on a platter!

John was no frail reed blowing in the wind, no person of luxury unwilling to rock the boat. John was not shy to pronounce judgment: upon the times (as corrupt), upon the people (as sinners and unprepared), upon the religious leaders (as being vipers) and upon Herod (as being an adulterer). But his was the pronouncement of God: for his was the anointed Voice of God! Sent to make straight the paths and to level the field, in order to prepare the Way.

Judgment and repentance were needed and necessary to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. So if it required putting a machete to the over-growth, or an axe to the root of the trees, John did what was required and expected of him to cut and clear pathways for the Lord.

Is it just possible in this Advent season that John needs to return to his noble task? For there is much in each of us that needs to be cut away and cleared away, there are crooked areas that need to be straightened out, prideful heights that need to be made low and hollow depths that require filling in. Some serious judgment and repentance needs to begin with us, to prepare us for the Coming of Christ at his promised Return and for the commemorating of his first Coming at Christmas.

In the words of the First Exhortation: “Judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and steadfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men.”

What better time than during Advent to get at the long-needed clearing and straightening? Might I suggest an ideal way, especially for those who have not made a private confession for many years, and even for those who have never made one to a priest before. Do it before Advent has ended.

Let us judge ourselves; lest we be judged of the Lord! Let us take the opportunity to “get right” with the Lord and so “bear fruit that befits repentance.”