Hope, Faith and Love - Pastor John Roberts
It really is a wilderness, even today – that wilderness of Judea.
Picture something like hills bearing lots of rock and just a little vegetation;
here and there a small tree or bush, a weed or a flower.
The rocky wilderness slops gently and gradually toward the East and the Jordan River –
not a grand and majestic river; just a consistent and winding river flowing from the mountains of the Golan Heights
to the Dead Sea.
Gathered there in the Judean wilderness are Jews from one side of the river and non-Jews from the other side;
and among them, Pharisees and Sadducees from Jerusalem.
They are gathered there to listen to the latest prophet, John, whose message always ends with baptism.
Matthew identifies John as the one Isaiah said would prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
But John’s own message was of repentance.
That’s what these baptisms were all about.
Jews had to join with non-Jews in this baptism of repentance.
Don’t depend on your ancestry, your status as children of Abraham, he told the pious.
God is able to make children out of the stones of this wilderness.
Jew and non-Jew alike had to make the effort to change their lives; turn away from sin and selfishness; reach out to
the poor and needy; live for the sake of the kingdom of heaven which is very near.
So near that John can say with confidence that there is one coming soon who will baptize not as a ritual to show repentance;
but a baptism with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism was to show that you had made an effort to change.
The Messiah’s baptism would show how God would change you.
When the Kingdom of Heaven comes, the direction of action changes the world!
3,000 years had gone by since God told Abraham that his descendants would change the world.
“I will bless you and you will be a blessing,” God told Abraham.
It was not always easy to believe that about the people who, over generations would be called Hebrews, Israelites or Jews.
There were certainly good times: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s line expanded to be hundreds of thousands
by the time they were liberated from Egypt.
David and Solomon built a great empire.
But soon there was division, the annihilation of half that empire and the exile of the other half.
And even the short period of self-rule under the Macabees (of Hannukah fame) was just a memory
to those who were listening to John in that Judean wilderness.
The promise of a Messiah had always been just that; a promise, and nothing more.
Yes, the rabbis still taught the stories of the Messiah but they were fanciful tales of shoots growing from stumps
and branches growing from roots.
Fantasy tales of wolves living with lambs and leopards lying down with kids;
calves and lions being led around by a little child; kings riding into towns on donkeys; children playing over snakepits.
These were only tales, stories, myths, fantasies which could never be fulfilled.
But now John was telling the people to believe again. Not just to hope, but to believe!
The one coming after me; coming soon will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
In Isaiah’s words, “The spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…….He will not judge by what he sees or hears,
he will judge the poor and the meek with righteousness, equity and faithfulness.
And he will separate the chaff of society who will be burned away by the breath of his lips.
In other words, everything will change. Hope!, therefore, because your hope will soon be turned to belief.
It is a hard thing to hope. We all have life experiences that bear that out.
It is hard to believe that new growth can start from the stump of a tree cut down to its roots.
Pastor Barbara Lundblad of New York City writes:
“Manhattan is a mighty rock. Such rock does not give in easily.
(Recently) I watched as huge jackhammers crashed down on the rock making barely a dent,
until cracks finally appeared on the surface.
This same rock runs through the park near our church – rocks that make a mockery of jackhammers.
Yet, I have seen something else along the path: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight.
A tender shoot no bigger than my finger had broken through the rock without a jackhammer.
There are, I know, scientific explanations why such a thing is possible,
yet each time I saw it, that stubborn shoot appeared to me a miracle.”
It was a hard thing for those Jewish people gathered with John in the wilderness to hope for a Messiah
who would change life as the prophets had foretold.
It was a hard thing for the Jewish people who had lived through Kristallnacht and Concentration Camps to believe
that life could change.
It was a hard thing for Nelson Mandela to hope for a free, democratic, equal and non-racial South Africa for 27 years
while he was in prison.
But when hope turns to faith, life does change.
Not only were the concentration camps of WWII liberated but, in the meantime, righteous Christians, like little shoots of growth, kept some Jews safe in their own homes; risking their own freedom.
Nelson Mandela was not only freed from prison, the black people of South Africa sang their protest songs and
like little shoots of growth, those songs spread around the world.
And the world responded to the cruelties of Aparthied by shaming the ruling government of South Africa.
Miracles were born from those tragic worlds.
Jews who had lived in concentration camps began a new Jewish state in modern Israel. And a new South Africa was born.
What amazes me most about that new country was that the black majority of South Africa chose
not to take revenge upon those who had kept them under foot but chose to forgive and reconcile instead.
The Truth and Reconciliation process became a light to lighten the whole world.
Did you know that South Africa was the first nation in the world whose constitution gives equal rights to LGBTQ people?
There is still reason not to hope.
Nations still murder their own as in Syria.
Nations still occupy majority populations as in Palestine.
And the rich few in our own country still take away hope from the poor majority.
But Advent teaches us that we must HOPE! And that hope must lead us to believe that
the leading of a little child can make what seems like fantasy into a new world.
How can this be? How can this happen.
St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 13, “Now abide these three: faith, hope and love.
And the greatest of these is love.” What is love but God alone.
It is God who makes the difference in all of our lives.
We can have hope; we can believe because the God of love changes life.
The God of love makes little shoots of life grow out of stumps we long considered dead.
little shoots that grow enough to roll away stones from rockhewn graves.
Little shoots of new life that comfort us when we sorrow; turn us around when we are tempted to only look at the past;
nudge us forward when it seems just too hard.
Once more the words of Barbara Lundblad:
“O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
your people from despair and apathy;
forge justice for the poor and meek,
grant safety for the young ones and the weak.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear;
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.