Down By the Riverside

This sermon was preached at the Wolcott Congregational Church on December 9th, 2019. The Scriptures were Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6.

I have a question for you, church.

When you think of a Holy Person, who do you think of? You know, one of those people that when you’re in their presence, you think, God is working through this person. 

What do they look like? How do they act?

Maybe you thought of someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, someone who suffered in solidarity with the poor. Maybe you thought about the Dalai Lama, who just seems to radiate calm in the midst of political turmoil and exile.

Maybe it’s someone closer to home, a beloved grandmother or grandfather, a true prayer warrior with an unshakable faith. I know for my part, that I do not to picture a thirty year old man roving around the wilderness, wearing shirts made of hair, eating insects, telling people to repent for the end is nigh.

Honestly, that’s the sort of person who if I saw them on the streets of Waterbury, I would probably cross the street to avoid. And my reaction to him says much more about my own spiritual deficiencies then it does about old John.

But that’s our John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is the one who shocks us so that we might be able to listen to Jesus, the one who shows us that peace isn’t a passive withdrawal from the world, but the end product of the transformative nature of God’s justice and righteousness.

John is an unlikely voice in the wilderness, a strange hero, like so many biblical heroes are. St. Augustine of Hippo, said this about John the Baptist, I paraphrase, “John the Baptist was the human voice who shouted that Jesus is the Word of God first to his fellows.”

Born to the elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah, his birth story has a lot of echoes of the old Prophets. The advanced age of John’s parents echo Sarah and Abraham, and by the angel, his destiny is compared to that of Elijah, one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.

He’s so filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth that he’s not allowed to drink wine or liquor. Wine, as I’ve mentioned before, was a mark of civilization and sophistication to Greeks, so we know that this man was going to be a bit…different. He’s not going to fit in with polite society, and he’s not one of the “civilized”

John’s distance from civilization and polite society is contrasted by the introduction to our Gospel reading today: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Notice, that it sets the scene by naming all of the rulers of the area in power ranking and prestige- The Roman Emperor, the Imperial Governor, King Herod, the local puppet ruler, and so on down, and then men who were the high priests of the temple, the leaders of the religious establishment. And yet the word God is not revealed through any of them.

Instead, God chooses a barbarian, someone outside of civilization who couldn’t drink wine, yet was filled with the Holy Spirit. I think it is telling that Jesus does not reveal his ministry first to people with political and religious power and authority.

John the Baptist, who eats insects and honey, tells the fancy folk that they need to repent, that they, as individuals and as a society, needed to get things right. What does this tell us about the nature of God?

What does it tell us about God that God does not have Jesus magically appear in the Temple in a blaze of glory and force immediate obedience through the existing church and state power structures?

What does it tell us that the person who God calls to pave the way for Jesus Christ is John, living outside of society, not captive to its power, not enraptured by its wealth?

I think it tells us a few things. I think it tells us that all the earthly power that people laud over each other means nothing to God. That God will work through those who don’t suspect it, out of the corners of the world and our communities we might never expect it.

I think it tells us that all of our sophistication, education, and wealth mean nothing to God next to God’s goodness and mercy. I think it tells us that if there’s going to be peace, it will not be imposed by the top down, it’s going to be something that rises up from the bottom.

And it probably won’t be easy.

Peace isn’t something that comes about because we choose to avoid conflict, but because we accept the power of God’s justice and righteousness. John’s mission of peace is, in hearkening back to the book of Isaiah, the flattening of the hills, the raising up of the valleys in order to build a road for God and the people to walk on together.

Here on the top of one of the largest hills in Connecticut, we might think about the enormity of such work. I don’t know if anyone here is involved with construction work involving earth moving but literally moving earth is a big and very, very disruptive job.

And if you haven’t, anyone who has heard of the trials and tribulations of the Big Dig in Boston, or heck, the endless construction project and jobs program that some people call I-84 knows what I’m talking about.

But the disruptive nature of the process is part of how we know it is working.

Our first reading is from the book of Malachi, who is a rare prophet that’s mostly anonymous. The name Malachi just means “Messenger” in Hebrew. In our passage, he talks about some of the work that the person who will prepare the way of the Lord will do.

As Christians, we believe that Malachi is referring to John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus Christ. And the work that Malachi describes John as doing is supposed to be like a refiner’s fire or a fuller’s soap.

These are two metaphors that don’t mean much today but when would have made a lot more sense back then. They refer to the processes of purification in making different goods; a refining fire would burn away impurities in gold and silver about to be molded into jewelry or ornamental objects.

Fuller’s soap is what we use to clean sheep’s wool to make it nice and white after it’s been sheared off of a sheep. As you might expect, wool while on a sheep can get a little bit dirty. But either way, these are processes that are difficult, hot, sweaty, and nasty work, especially in the ancient world.

But look at the results.

The Refiner’s fire can turn a metaphorical or physical misshapen rock into a prized possession through intense heat that burns away impurity, while the Fuller’s soap grinds out the dirt and dust of life so that God’s presence can enter us fully.

This is part of the work that Christians are called to, that we are able to do as a result of God’s grace that we receive through our faith. It’s work that was never thought of as an individual effort- in the last line of our Malachi reading, he refers to the whole nations of Judah and the city of Jerusalem as appearing collectively before God together.

It’s work that is going to involve all of us, working at our own pace, but constantly encouraging each other, holding each other accountable, and opening our hearts up to each other.

And it will be hard work. 

It’s like exercise with our bodies; we except that exercise is good for us, but in the middle of, its hard and sometimes it hurts a little bit. And we also know the difference between exercise that challenges us, and exercise that injures us.Aim for spiritual challenges that strengthen you, not that injure you, and be able to tell the difference.

I want you to think back to your holy person I asked you about at the beginning of this sermon. Did they have an easy life with no struggle? Or did they overcome challenges that helped to refine their souls? I’m willing to bet that most of them went through that refiner’s fire, underwent the scrubbing of the Fuller’s soap in some way.

So when we consider what the peace of God looks like this Advent and Christmas season, Embrace the challenge.  Embrace the hard work. Embrace the messiness and when things don’t go quite as planned, know that sometimes, they do end up going right.

And remember that it might not be calm or easy, but it will be good and holy.