Fulfillment is obviously one of the key themes for our readings this week. Isaiah picks up on the fact that God will not punish Israel forever. At some point in the future, when the fields have been destroyed and destroyed again, God will call His people home. A shoot will appear out of the stump of Jesse, and the Spirit of the Lord will rest on the One who is to rule. Psalm 72 speaks also to the rule of God’s anointed. In one sense, it is no doubt about David and Solomon or some other father/son combination, but it also speaks ultimately to the King that God has in mind for His people. But I think our reading from John ought both to truly humble us and to inspire us.
Matthew tells us that in those days, John appeared in the wilderness baptizing all who came to him for repentance. John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, descended of the priestly line of both his mother and his father, steps to the fore. And with the voice and authority of God, he calls Israel to repentance. That call is significant. For a few centuries, God has been silent. Israel, which was used to God speaking and acting, realizes that God has been silent since the days of Micah. And John appears with His voice and His call, and it responds! Out of the comforts of their cities do they come.
Such is their response that even the Pharisees and Sadducees are forced to come and see. And John, given God’s eyes, and ears, and heart knows what they are doing. They are there to be seen and not to repent. As Jesus will later criticize them, they want Israel to think they are doing what God commands, but they are unwilling to humble themselves or serve God’s people. And so John warns them of their impending doom. John recognizes the limits of what he is doing; better still, he recognizes the power of the One who comes after. The One who follows and baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire will gather the wheat and burn the chaff. And so he warns them. Ancestry means nothing. Associations mean nothing. What we do means nothing. All we can do is repent. The rest is up to Him!
Why should this both humble and inspire us? Think of Jesus’ discussion of John the Baptist later in Matthew’s Gospel, which we will read next week. In chapter 11, Jesus will declare that of those born of a woman, no one is greater than John. To John fell the honor and privilege of announcing that the Messiah was here! Of the OT prophets, John had the greatest and most important message: God’s plan of salvation was reaching its fulfillment! And yet, all John could do was baptize people for repentance. All John could do was allow people, publicly and symbolically, to apologize to God and to those around them for their sins. There was a limit to what He could do.
Ah, but to God’s Son, the Messiah, no such limit existed. The Messiah would be able to bestow the Holy Spirit and the fire for God on those whom He would baptize. And that bestowal, that honor, made all the difference in the world! The baptism offered by the One who followed John would be able to empower God’s people. The baptism offered by the Christ, the Messiah, would place God’s peoples’ hearts on fire for Him.
How does this play out in our lives? Think of our sacrament of baptism for just a brief moment. Each time we gather around a family or an individual, we remind ourselves of the truth of Jesus’ statement. Yes, we ask God to forgive us our sins, and, through the water, we die to self. But our sacrament does not end there. Yes, there is a conscious choice to turn from evil, but it is supplication which leads to an understanding of God’s grace in our life. We pray to God to deliver us, to open our hearts, to fill us, to keep us, to teach us, to send us, and to bring us. We, the ones baptized, do not do these things. God acts in our lives and accomplishes these things in our lives. His Spirit, His grace, inspires and empowers us to serve, to work, for His glory! And without His action, without His anointing of us, we would be impotent and lost.
Think of our Truck Stop ministry. In worldly terms, what hope do you and I have when taking on a multibillion dollar industry? How can ordinary people like you and like me expect to make a difference in a problem that plagues society not just in our country, but in the world? Simply put, if it were up to us, we could do nothing. Yet, you and I have laid claim to our first born double inheritance; you and I have claimed the pledge which God has made to each one of us both at our baptism and which He has reaffirmed every time we celebrate the Eucharist, and we have gone forth to remind both the slaves and the slavers, the victims and the victimizers, the observers and the participants, of the glory with which each one of us and each one of them was created. We have gone forth, in power, full of His Spirit, Power, and Truth to remind others just how much He loved them, the price for which He paid to ransom them, and the hope to which He calls them. Without that gift of His Spirit and fire, we could do nothing. Ah, but with that gift, with that adoption, we become kings and queens by right of our new birth empowered to accomplish all things for His glory!
Think of some of the ministry to which your call enables me to do on your behalf. As most of you know, some parishioners have been dealing with the suicide of a loved one in their neighborhood. By extention, I, too, have been called into that dynamic. And we have all wondered how God redeems situations even as hopeless as that. And yet, I stand here this day before each of you thanking you for the privilege of carrying the hope, the promise, and the love of God into the world. For one family, there is still much mourning, grief, anger, and the like to experience. But for another, there was hope.
As God would have it, I was stopped by a someone in “orbit” of our church and ministry. He had recently been diagnosed with a disease. Truthfully, his prognosis was not bad, even though the disease was. When I asked if he wanted prayers, he stopped me by saying that this was not what he wanted to talk about. He went on to describe the attempted suicides by his wife, upon discovery of his health problems. Certainly, he wanted us to pray for her and the newly diagnosed mental illness? Well, sure, but that was not what was really bothering him. “What is really bothering you,” I asked, half afraid to have him answer. “My kids,” he said. “I think they have figured out something is wrong. Worse, I don’t know if I have been a good father to them. You see, I never had much time for church. They played sports, I liked to sleep in, and there always seemed to be time for God later. Later is here, and I made no time for God. From where are they supposed to draw hope? I want them to have the same hope which inspires your people. I want them to have the same joy which allows your people to face the %$^* of life and laugh it off, knowing that the stink and feel won’t last forever. Can you help me be a better dad? Or is it too late for me and for them?” Brother and sisters, the hope that others see in us, the joy that the see in us, does not come from within us. It does not come from us simply saying “we’re sorry.” It comes from Him, the one who baptized us with fire and the Spirit and made us His own!
One last example, and then I will call it a week. Last month, I stood at the Community Meal, wondering what we should make for them for December. So I asked them. “What could we make for you to make the Christmas Season something for you to remember?” The answer gathered steam from around the room as they each remembered or dreamed. “Father, I’m not sure if it was you or another church that did it, but would roast beef and all the trimmings be possible again?” “Again?” asked another voice. "A couple years ago, I think it was them, showed up with roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, carrots, fluff, rolls, pies, the works! And they fed us. And when the workers tried to chase us off after 30 minutes, Father said ‘no.’ When they tried to rush us a bit, he made them quit. This was a meal to be enjoyed and savored.”
You can imagine the conversations that took place then. Those that were there reminded themselves of what they had eaten. I am certain that we did not cook everything they remembered us cooking, but the memory was strong. Those who were new to the meal site kept asking for descriptions. “Really? They made that for you?” I told those boldest in the back left corner that I would see what I could do. They apologized for asking, but they had a good reason: It had been a tough year. We might be worried about keeping our jobs or our homes, but our worry trickles down. When we feel poor, we give less. Given the angst around us, we can well imagine some of the “meals” given them this year. All were quick to say they were grateful for everything that everybody had bothered to give, but sometimes “you know, we just need a little bit of hope. And your feast, well, it reminds us of what’s on these walls.”
Brothers and sisters, it is a heavy responsibility to follow God. But imagine for just a moment in your own lives, away from here, the difference you are able to make in the lives of others, simply because God has graciously adopted you and bestowed you with power. You might look on biblical history with awe. Perhaps you think that Abraham or Sarah are that much more important or valuable than you. Perhaps you think that you will never measure up to a David or Esther. Perhaps you think that Moses or Ruth lived lives of privilege to which you will never measure up. Yet Jesus reminds each one of us that the very least among us, the very least of those who have been baptized and raised to new life in Him are greater even than John the Baptist, the greatest of all the prophets! Better still, He has empowered you to accomplish wondrous things in His Name, to His honor and glory! And He has asked you to be His messenger of hope and of peace, in the dark world around us. How will you respond to His call? How will you use His gift to glorify Him and bring hope to those around you?