Sermon: Do We Live as Though We Live in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: December 4, 2016, Second Sunday of Advent Year A, Communion
3.1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Many of you are not aware of it but your preacher has a B.S. Degree in Communication from Georgia Southern College. Now some of you may think most preachers have a B.S. In Communication but mine is bona fide. One of the requirements for graduation for that degree was to pass a typing test of 35 words a minute which one had some two years to take before graduating; it was something I pushed off until the last three weeks of my senior year.
The deal was this: The student would go to the Department of Communication’s office and ask the secretary, Mrs. Ivey, for the test. Mrs. Ivey had been in her position for nigh thirty-five years and those tired eyes of hers looked at me and said, “Mr. Wrisley, here is a sheet of paper with several paragraphs on it. Sit down over there at that typewriter,” pointing to an old IBM Selectric, “and start typing. I will tell you when to begin and when to stop.”
It sounded easy enough. I sat down, quickly read the paragraph and the ancient secretary said, “Begin.” I started hammering away on that old IBM but I kept making mistakes. I would hit the return button and the machine would white-out my mistakes and I would keep on typing, repeating the process over several times before Mrs. Ivey said, “Stop.” It was the longest minute of my life. I handed her my sheet and she just shook her head. This process went on for several tries and after thirty minutes of having her precious time interrupted by some procrastinating senior during a very frenetic time of year for her, she finally let out a long sigh and looked at me over her glasses. “Mr. Wrisley, let’s try this one last time. I’m going to tell you to begin and then I am going to leave to use the bathroom. You can give me your test when I come back. Begin.” Well, some seven minutes later I gave her my perfectly scored typing test. She took it, signed it and smiled saying, “Congratulations, you get to graduate.” All the math, science, rhetoric, English and history classes I labored over for the last four years meant absolutely nothing if I could not pass that one silly typing test. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Ivey, I would not have had a chance. She purposely went to the bathroom that fateful day to give me a reset button on my test and my ability to walk at graduation.
Today, I reflect on her and that experience and I realize her actions towards me back in 1982 were a lovely expression of grace. She gave me all the time I needed to make sure I had thirty-five correct words.
Reset buttons. More of us are familiar with the concept of rebooting than resetting. Whether it’s your computer or smart phone that freezes up, you learn the first thing you do is try to reboot the system which wipes everything clean and you start fresh.
John the Baptist is our Mrs. Ivey in the biblical Story today. John does not hit the reset button himself; rather, John is simply telling folks that now is the time to do it. Have you ever seen a Windows PC get the blue screen of death where everything locks up and the computer starts running hot? John is announcing to the people that their way of living and treating God and one another was akin to the blue screen of death. It’s time to hit the reboot button in order to keep from burning out your spiritual hard drive.
John quotes Isaiah 40.3 when he tells the people to get ready and prepare the way for the Lord. We forget that this was Good News to the people of John’s day as it describes a time when the prophet Isaiah said God is near at hand and was about to bring people back from exile in Babylon. We are to make straight the highways because we want to come home as soon as possible. The common person heard John quote Isaiah and thought, “Wow! A new day is about to break!” Not everyone was so thrilled to hear it.
Verses 7 through 10 show how there were some in the crowds who were not too keen on John’s news. The established religious leaders of the day – those elders, deacons, preachers and the like – kind of liked the way things were. Everyone knew the rules and the rules kept everyone in their place. The rich people hung out with the rich and the poor people scrambled to eek out a living amongst themselves the best they could. Everyone had to shut up and tolerate the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Pharisees and Sadducees represent the religious status quo; in other words, they were quite happy with the same old same old way of doing things. Why wouldn’t they? They had the cultural and spiritual power and authority over their fellow Jews. Now this prophet who appears on society’s margins is saying things are about to change. Those in control are not too thrilled for a new day to emerge because it is going to cost them something; specifically, it was going to cost them their spiritual death grip around the throats of their fellow Jews. Verse 7 has a fun word play we miss in our Bibles. It can be read, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out for baptism” or it can also be read as, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out against baptism.” They didn’t want the people to repent, i.e. to reboot their spiritual and cultural life because elders, deacons, preachers and Church Boards of the day didn’t want change. They didn’t want some guy in the wilderness with a vegan diet rocking their boat. The deal is, though, they completely missed the point. John did not want to simply rock the boat; his call for repentance was a call to burn them and then rebuild!
Sadly, we hear John’s words today and hear them as bad news. We hear these words and we make a rushed conclusion that we are to repent or else we will suffer the consequences of the veiled threat about being tossed into the fire as described in verses 10 and 12. The repentance being called for here is not to “turn or burn” like many Christians try to convey today; rather, they are to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Beloved, this is Good News indeed! We reboot our lives because the very realm and rule of God is among us. As pastor Kayla McClurg of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC says, “God sends a messenger crying out. “Rethink what you think! Turn around and walk in a different way.”
During this time of Advent preparation, John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we think we know and understand God. John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we understand what it means to hold power over others. John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and use the Creation God has blessed us with. John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and respond to those who are homeless or poor among us. John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we are preparing for Christ’s birth; in other words, are our preparations an orgy of self-fulfillment with food and stuff or is it our living simply, humbly, justly, and lovingly as we await the baby to come home to his bassinet? We live in a world whereby folks are more apt to tell children, “Don’t be naughty or Santa will not come” versus, “Let’s see how we as a family can imitate what it means to live as though Jesus lived in our house and the Kingdom of God was at hand.”
Brothers and sisters, this morning we are invited to the Table of our Lord. It is a good time to reflect on how you in your life, how you and your family, how me and mine, need to reboot, rethink what it is like to live in the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not out of fear that we do this; we do it because we cannot wait to bring the baby home! And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2016 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.