Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matthew 3.1-12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Repent! That is the key message we hear from John the Baptizer. That would certainly make him popular at a church potluck or an upscale cocktail party, wouldn’t it? I’ve sometimes thought it would be really awkward to have Jesus at Thanksgiving dinner with all of our celebratory excess, but he doesn’t hold a candle to his cousin, John.
Many of the paintings and frescoes I’ve seen of John portray him as something of a wild man, looking disheveled and unkempt. One of the very early frescoes labels him in Latin: Ioannis Precursor, literally the forerunner of Jesus. The funny thing for me is that I find those images appealing, because they are often so human in their portrayal. John looks like he bears the sadness of the human condition on his face. His expression seems to acknowledge that humanity is in need of a radical turn-around, and the best way he knows how to do that is to be provocative and to offer a baptism for the repentance of sins, and it is a cleansing ritual not unknown in Judaism.
In last week’s sermon, I claimed that John was just the precursor and that Jesus was the one really doing a new thing, not by baptizing with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit. The idea is that Jesus’ baptism will be transforming us, refining us, not just cleansing us…that it will instill in us a new sense of God’s presence, what Dom Crossan calls a different kind of heart transplant – not of the pumping organ in your chest, but a radical transplant of the spirit within you…that your old spirit is done and gone and that Christ’s spirit is implanted into you.
And it would take something incredibly radical to disrupt the food chain Isaiah describes: Let’s face it, if you ever watched Wild Kingdom or Sir David Attenborough on TV, you know that the natural order means that wolves are meant to eat lambs, and that leopards are meant to eat goats, and that lions are meant to eat calves. It is nature, red it tooth and claw. All of us understand that the natural order is less likely to change than human behavior. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we have the ability to choose our responses and our behaviors. But that is a tall order.
So, what about disrupting our assumptions? Don’t most of us assume that self-interest is normal and ethical? Don’t we assume that the “invisible hand of the market” is and should control our economy? Don’t we assume that “the poor will always be with us?” and that even though we tried to end homelessness in Fort Collins by 2020, it was something of a pipe dream? (I was told as much by an older Presbyterian clergyperson back when I was on the Leadership Team of Homeward 2020.) Every year for the past 15 years, I have seen our teens sleep out to raise funds and awareness to prevent homelessness, and I’ve slept out with them three or four years…and I’m still waiting for one of my colleagues to do the same! What if one of the young people who participates gets the idea that maybe things don’t have to be the way they are? What if one of them threw everything they’ve got into dreaming up a new way to work on the root causes of homelessness and came up with a solution? With all due respect to the focus on STEM in our educational system, our ethical and social structures need more emphasis, because science and technology are clearly out-pacing economics, social relations, theology, politics, arts, and literature, and as a people, we’re suffering from it.
What if parents like me did less to encourage our kids to play competitive sports and get the highest grades and spent more time inculcating the kind of values our faith espouses? What if we stopped trying so hard to make them “successful” and focused on compassion instead? What kind of world might be created if we allow ourselves to be baptized with fire and with the Holy Spirit?
Nobody is going to force you to change, to repent, to engage in deep inner transformation. And the reason is simple: nobody can do that for you. Transformation is an “inside job.” And it’s right in the middle of Plymouth’s mission statement of worshiping God and making the kingdom visible by inviting people into our faith, transforming ourselves deeply, and then sending us out into the world. All of us need to work on becoming better citizens of God’s realm, and that will require some realignment of our priorities and it will require some sacrifice of the things relatively affluent Americans love most: recreation, time, privilege, and money. A few weeks ago, I saw a meme on Facebook that said, “Sometimes being a good Christian means being a bad Roman.”
And what we stand to gain is what Americans talk least about — you know…the Mr. Rogers values — loving relationships with others, being spiritually and emotionally grounded, relying on neighbors, having a sense of security that does not depend on a stock portfolio, gated communities, or carrying a firearm. And most of all, it means being connected to the presence of God.
Being baptized with water? That’s easy. Not so much with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Imagine if you heard this prophecy:
“The business magnate will support the homeless man.
The Democrat shall embrace the Republican as a sister or brother.
The gun manufacturer will build tools with the smithy.
The Russian oligarch and the Andean farmer will work as one.
The refugee and the white supremacist will be at home with one another. And a little child shall lead them.”
What would you add to that list of unlikely, but desirable, events? What enemies do you wish would become lovers? What circumstances would you love to transform? God knows there is so much to be done…and there is a place to start.
In 1780, John Adams (who considered studying for the Congregational ministry at Harvard before he opted for law) wrote to his wife Abigail from Paris: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary and Porcelaine.” That is what Adams envisioned as transformation and progress, and he risked his life for it.
Though you and I know that we cannot change the world overnight, with God’s help we have a place to start: with prayer. The first step is to open ourselves up the transformative power of God…to pray, to talk about, to work for a world that Jesus would recognize as God’s realm. And doing so, we must avoid falling into the traps of despair or hopelessness or lacking trust in God’s presence in the world. We have to keep the faith…just as the Hebrew people did when they were in captive exile in Babylon.
You and I have the amazing privilege of getting to pray for and to work for the kind of nation and the kind of world that God would be proud of, and it starts in here. It is a nation, it is a world, that is full of pain, but those may be the birth pangs of coming into a new way of being. You and I are called to be the agents of transformation in ourselves and in God’s world, so in this Advent season of active waiting, let us keep the faith.
There is a voice in the wilderness calling, so keep awake, listen deeply, and pray fervently, because the kingdom of God is at hand.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.