Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon: When God Stirs

Matthew 3:1-12
When God Stirs
James Sledge                                                                                       December 4, 2016

I wonder if I would have gone out to see John the Baptist, or would I have missed him entirely? It’s not like you could bump into him by accident. He wasn’t any place I ever lived, not the city, the suburbs, or even out in the rural countryside. He was in the wilderness.
When I hear wilderness I sometimes think of pristine forests. In American thought, wilderness often describes lands untouched by human hands. The US has designated wilderness areas, set aside to protect them from human encroachment. But the wilderness in our gospel reading is a different sort.
The word “wild” forms the basis for our word “wilderness,” but not so the word in our gospel. It speaks of deserted, desolate places. It describes deserts and the barren wilderness where Israel and Moses wandered for forty years, surviving only because God provided manna for food.
John the Baptist is not some back to nature guy, living in a remote area where we might want to go hiking. He is grizzled prophet, living on the margins of society, where life is precarious,. Why would anyone go out there to see him?
Israel had an interesting relationship with wilderness. It was a hostile, inhospitable and dangerous place, yet it was also the place where God had given the Law and had been with Israel most concretely. And so when Israel was worried or hoped for God to intervene, they sometimes turned toward the wilderness, where their ancestors had once experienced God more directly than seemed possible for them.
I don’t know that we Americans have anything comparable, anyplace where we turn our gaze, longing for some sign that God may be stirring. This time of year we do turn our gaze toward Christmas, but I’m not sure it’s because we hope for signs of God about to do something. If anything, Christmas becomes a balm, a distraction, a respite, one we don’t expect to last much beyond the new year.
John the Baptist is something of an intrusion into our Christmas preparations. He breaks into the warmth and nostalgia to insists that God is stirring, and that we must change if we are to be part of it. Sure, John. Whatever.
I doubt I would have gone to see John. We may live in worrisome, difficult times, but I’m not much expecting God to intervene. I’m even less inclined to think I need to repent, to change because of my part in how things are. No, I probably would have stayed in Jerusalem.

I’m not sure why the Pharisees and Sadducees don’t stay home as well. In Matthew’s gospel they are portrayed as cartoon bad guys who are opponents of Jesus. They are religious insiders, and the Sadducees are wealthy, well connected, and powerful. What are they doing out on the desolate margins with all those confessing their sins and repenting?
I think they’re just checking up on things. Our reading said they were coming for baptism, but other translations say they were simply coming to where he was baptizing. And John lets them have it. “What are you doing here. You’d better change. And don’t think your religious pedigree or church standing matters. God’s new thing doesn’t need you, and if you aren’t going to change and act in ways that help, you’ll get left behind.”
In the biblical story, insiders often have a hard time recognizing that God is stirring and end up on the wrong side of what God is up to. That’s why being a prophet is a dangerous calling. And like others before him, John the Baptist will be killed by insiders.
The Christmas story that we celebrate, that John so unceremoniously interrupts, also happens on the margins, unnoticed by insiders. Jesus’ ministry happens largely on the margins, attended by a rag-tag band of outsider disciples. But I’m a religious insider, raised in the Mainline, Presbyterian Church, trained in seminary to handle the nuances of Scripture, able to exegete and theologize, not so different from the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
God may move on the margins, but many of us prefer the inside, influence and power. In the recent election, many evangelicals supported a candidate who never even pretended to follow Jesus because they saw it as a way to status and power. Not that I or any Mainline Christians should feel superior. We’ve been bemoaning our loss of power and status for years. A lot of Presbyterian congregations are still pining for the 1950s, those good ole days when we were on the inside, at the very centers of power and influence.
That status, and the compromises it required, eventually sapped the vibrancy from Mainline denominations, perhaps our integrity and souls as well. And now the evangelical movement may well have sold its soul in an effort to gain cultural and political power. Between us, we’ve done a lot of damage to the gospel, to the hope that God is stirring and calling us to be part of it.
Today, as we move into December and start to focus on Christmas, John rudely interrupts, impolitely reminding us that God’s stirring bypasses the halls of power and is rarely recognized by those on the inside. And being part of what God is doing has nothing to do with affiliation or status. But it does require repentance. It does require change.
Do you sense God stirring? Do we as a congregation sense God moving? If not, are we looking in the right places, or are we caught up in old ways and patterns that must change?
If we believe the Christmas story, if it is in some way true, then our Christmas celebration cannot be just about joy and warmth and goodwill. It must also celebrate that God is stirring, is acting in surprising ways and in unexpected places. If Christmas is really true, it must also turn our gaze toward the margins so that we can glimpse God’s stirring and join in. And if John the Baptist, with his rude and crude intrusion into our festive Christmas goings on, helps us to see, then his uncouth and offensive message may be some of the most truly good news we hear this season.

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