God’s Spirit is the gift to help you turn toward God’s path of life and hope, and stay in it.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday of Advent, year A
Texts: Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We hiked a lot in state and national parks last summer.
There were wonders around every twist of the path. But every path is well marked and maintained, so it rarely feels like exploring. Even where there are forks in the path, there are usually signs.
But a couple times there were uncertain places, which was fun and also a bit concerning. The trail seemingly petered out in a meadow. The forest looked like it had dozens of possible paths. A couple times I walked for about ten minutes and realized I had to backtrack.
We weren’t going to really get lost in a state park, and there was little danger to taking a wrong turn even if we did. Still, if someone at those turning points could’ve kindly pointed the way, that would have been a blessing.
Imagine that your life is a journey.
Some days the path is well-marked, and all is well. Some days you don’t know where to turn, what attitude to choose, what action or inaction to take. And unlike the park systems, if you take a bad turn in life, it could end up as a real problem.
That little activity might, because of your genetic makeup, end up being an addiction in ten years. That minor rift in a relationship could widen over time until you’re so far apart you can’t see a path back. That small unkindness to someone could develop into patterns of cruelty. That slight resistance to being changed could become full-blown, harmful rigidity.
Wouldn’t it be good to have someone who could give you counsel, share wisdom about the path ahead? Who could accurately predict the outcome of what seems like a small decision, one that over time you might regret? Wouldn’t it be a blessing if someone said, “Turn around – you’re going the wrong way”?
That’s John the Baptist.
He shows up once again in Advent crying “repent, for God’s reign is near.” “Turn around, God is coming to you and you’re going the wrong way.” At our best, we feel challenged by John, perhaps shamed, worried, but we want to turn our lives. At our worst, we’re annoyed at his strident, threatening tone that gets on our nerves.
But John is your great gift. He’s the one you need on your life journey. He’s the one saying, “Go to the right at the next tree – it’s a better road.” Saying, “repair that breach in your relationship before you’re so far away you can’t even see them.” Saying, “if that becomes a pattern, a habit, you’ll deeply regret it. And people will be hurt.”
John’s as blunt as a rock, socially challenged, and unaware of the niceties of language. But he’s your life-saver. He will always tell you the truth you need to welcome God with you.
So there is always hope in his message.
John’s words sound like permanent judgment. They’re not.
He calls these leaders children of snakes, because he’s convinced of their hypocrisy. He believes they’ve come to to condemn him, or criticize him, not to listen and perhaps be turned toward God. They’re walking a path that leads to death and separation from God’s love, John believes.
But there is hope for them, and for all who hear John. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says to them. Even if you’re a hypocrite, there’s hope: just turn around. Go on the path of God. And that will show in your behavior, your words, your living, your loving. Your fruit. There is hope for all: fruit for healing is found in turning to God’s way.
The path of turning bears the fruit of God’s justice and mercy.
Of love of God and love of neighbor. The fruit of giving away excess so all have God’s abundance. Of putting neighbors’ needs above your own. The fruit of non-violence, as Isaiah proclaimed last week, changing our weapons – physical, emotional, or verbal – into life-nurturing tools.
When God reigns in Christ, Isaiah says today, the fruit is that the wolf will take a nap with the lamb, alongside the leopard and baby goat. The basic nature of God’s creatures will be transformed. Predators will be changed to eat differently. The bear will eat grass next to the cow. The lion will belly up to the manger with the ox and snack on straw.
As unimaginable as such scenarios are, the prophet says that’s how it will be for people as well. That’s the fruit. No one will hurt or destroy in God’s reign, Isaiah says, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God. Everyone will be turned onto the path of love and peace and mercy and grace, and be changed.
Such transformation, such repentance will be hard. And that’s John’s other blessing.
John says he’s not enough. His call to repentance, and baptizing people in the water as a sign they’re turning their lives around, isn’t enough. But there is One coming who will baptize them with the Spirit and with fire. What we really need.
You’ll need God’s Spirit to find the right path, have the courage to take it, and the strength to keep on it. And fire to keep you warm and passionate for the new way. And that’s exactly what God-with-us, Jesus, gives you.
Which is why the Church did the absolutely audacious thing that it did.
The Church born of the Spirit and fire at Pentecost claimed the blessings Isaiah promised to the Messiah.
We said the Spirit of God that was upon the shoot from Jesse’s tree who came to bring healing to all, belongs to all baptized into the name of God, in water, the Spirit, and fire.
I have laid hands on more heads than I can count and prayed Isaiah’s words, “Pour out your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” I have said in that prayer, “as with Jesus, so with this child. So with these confirmands. So with these people of God in this place.” Every young person in this room at their baptism, every confirmand, every one of you, have had this prayer prayed over you as if you were the Messiah, God’s Christ, because you are.
And that Spirit will turn you and guide you on God’s path as God’s Christ.
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding.
Wisdom to discern what’s at stake in your decisions and actions, to see paths of hope and healing and take them. And understanding, to see the point of view of another, to feel their pain and suffering, to grasp your place in the world as one of many beloved, not over anyone.
The Spirit of counsel and might.
Counsel so we can advise each other at crossroads, saying, “turn this way,” to each other and to the greater world. And the Spirit’s power, never power over, but rather empowerment, lifting your heart in courage to endure the challenges on God’s path.
The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Knowledge to grow and discover and learn, alongside all God’s children, tempered with the fear of God that tells you just because you know how to do something doesn’t mean you should.
John shows there’s a path to life and healing in God’s reign.
And a path to death and destruction away from it. And he says, “Turn toward God’s path, always.”
And he promises the Spirit of God is coming – has come – to empower and guide your turning, your choices, your actions, your life. To give you all the courage you need not only to choose the right path whenever it opens up, but to walk it and stay the course. And even to help the rest of us find our way, for your healing and the healing of the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen