Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.
Jesus is coming!
That’s what Christians believe. We say it a lot, especially in this season of Advent. The phrase has a dual-meaning for us. First of all, we use it as we prepare our hearts and minds for the upcoming celebration of Christmas. We remind ourselves annually that, in the mystery of the Incarnation, God crossed the divide between heaven and earth to meet us here, where we live. We couldn’t get ourselves to heaven, so heaven came to us.
But there is a second layer to our celebration of Advent. We’re not just looking back to remember when Jesus came to earth the first time; we’re also looking forward to his Second Coming and preparing ourselves for it. Christians believe that God’s story is not yet over. We believe that history is not a random series of events, but the gradual unfolding of God’s plan for the world over time. History is going somewhere, and we believe the day will come when the divine plan is accomplished and all that is wrong will be set right in the world. Until then, we are invited to play a small part in that unfolding story as Christ’s church on earth.
We remind ourselves that Jesus is coming so that we don’t forget or lose heart in the struggle to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The drudgery of everyday life, combined with the tyranny of the urgent, can easily distract us from the primary purpose of our lives. The still-unfolding story of God’s creation and redemption of the universe in Christ is what gives our lives meaning. We say, “Jesus is coming” in order to remind ourselves of that. As we sing in the hymn For All the Saints: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant, far-off song and hearts are brave again and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
But we also sometimes use that phrase in ways that are less than helpful. For many Christians, “Jesus is coming” has become an escapist slogan. We sometimes use it as an excuse to not get involved in the very real problems of the world around us. We say, “Jesus is coming… so we don’t need to worry about preserving our natural resources, fighting poverty, or working for social justice.”
There is a popular idea that has taken hold in some Christian circles. It’s called the Rapture. Many claim that it is a biblically-based doctrine, even though it did not exist at all before the 1830s (when it was invented out of thin air by two preachers named John Darby and Charles Scofield). Those who hold to this idea believe that the world is soon headed for a seven year period of great suffering called the Tribulation. During this time, an evil world leader called the Antichrist will achieve global dominance through a reign of terror. At the end of these seven years, Jesus will return to judge the world and history will reach its conclusion. But before all this happens, according to Darby and Scofield, all true believers in Christ will be mysteriously “caught up in the air” (i.e. Raptured) and taken out of the world to be with Christ, so that they won’t have to endure such pain and suffering.
What it means then, for those who accept this idea, is this: So long as you are in God’s club, you don’t have to worry about all that difficult stuff in life. Our club membership grants us a “get out of jail free” card. By this, we know that we are in God’s good graces and can expect to be excused from the many trials and tribulations that afflict the world from time to time.
It is this same kind of attitude that St John the Baptist is addressing in today’s gospel reading. His prophetic ministry was taking off, John himself had become quite the popular preacher, and people were coming out in droves to hear the sermons and get their spiritual “membership card” stamped by participating in the ritual cleansing of baptism. But John very quickly realizes what’s going on and, in typical prophetic fashion, addresses the issue head-on.
“You children of snakes!” He says, “Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.”
John is talking here about those who take pride in their cultural and religious heritage. They thought to themselves, “We’re members of God’s club! Our dues are paid and our card is stamped, therefore we shouldn’t have to worry about what comes next.”
In John’s place and time, it was Jewish ancestry that counted for membership in God’s club. Here and now, we have different criteria for membership, but the process is the same. We like to think of ourselves as “the good guys” by virtue of our ethnicity, nationality, or political affiliation.
We even do this when it comes to the way we practice our religion. We rely on church affiliation, regular attendance, or the size of our offering check as indicators of our membership in “God’s club.” If John the Baptist were with us today, he might say something like: “Don’t even think about saying to yourselves, we are Presbyterians. I tell you that God is able to raise up Presbyterians from these stones.”
What John is trying to do here, both in his day and ours, is draw our attention to what it is that spirituality is all about. He’s trying to help us distinguish between the grain of wheat, which is the kernel of our faith, and the husk that surrounds it.
John says, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
Wheat, just like ears of corn, grows inside of a husk that carries and protects it. The husk is part of the wheat, the wheat wouldn’t survive without it, but there comes a time when the husk must be discarded in order for the wheat to fulfill its destiny and become what it was meant to be.
In the same way, the elements of our religion (e.g. churches, denominations, buildings, rituals, the Bible, and the Sacraments) are like husks of wheat. They are necessary to protect the seed, which is our faith, but they are only a means to an end. God, according to John the Baptist, is not interested in our husks, but in the fruit that grows from the seed inside the husk. He says to the people in the crowd, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.”
A changed life is the fruit that grows from the seed of faith. The evidence of authentic faith is not religious observance, church attendance, tithe checks, or Christian bumper stickers. The evidence of faith is when your neighbors in the world look at you and say, “There’s something different about you.” St Paul called this “the fruit of the Spirit” in his letter to the Galatians. He described this “fruit” as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
When the husk of our religion has done its job well, the seed of faith will grow up to produce this kind of fruit in our lives. When we see that fruit, in our lives or in anyone else’s, we can trust that it comes from an authentic faith (no matter what its previous husk may have looked like).
The really interesting thing about fruit is that each kind is unique to the tree that produced it. Oranges don’t grow on apple trees or grapevines. Fruit grows naturally out of each tree’s unique identity. In the same way, the fruit of the Spirit growing in your life will inevitably look different from the fruit of the Spirit growing in the life of your neighbor. I think this is why John the Baptist, in today’s reading, gave different instructions to different groups of people.
The crowds asked [John], “What then should we do?”
He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”
Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”
He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”
The fruit for which John was calling is diverse. It comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I think that’s why Paul kept his description of this fruit very broad and general. God wants us to have the freedom to explore the unique ways that the fruit of the Spirit might take form in our lives.
When it comes to the way we talk about religion today, I think we spend way too much time arguing over the husks (the religious externals), instead of nurturing the growth of spiritual fruit (the seed of faith). I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts.”
I think our friend St John the Baptist would agree with that. In this Advent season, as we await the coming of Jesus, may we become the kind of Christians who know how to discard the husk of religion when it is time, and nurture the growth of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives and in our world.