Saturday, December 3, 2016

Year A, Advent 2, Matthew 3:1-12, “Truthtelling”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
When you look in the mirror, who do you see?
·         Most often, when we look in the mirror, we see what we want to see.  We see a person that we have created, a false self.  We look into the mirror and we see the person that we would like to imagine that we are. 
·         And then there are times when we look into the mirror, and see that person who we wish that we were not.  We see ourselves as we truly are, not as we wish we might be.  And the truth that we see in the mirror is an uncomfortable truth.  So uncomfortable that we are tempted to simply turn our eyes away, deny the truth, and go on imagining ourselves to be something different.
·         Fortunately, for us, God sends into our lives truthtellers.  Truthtellers are the true prophets.  They are the ones who stand with us in front of the mirror, who expose all of our denials for what they are, and who open our eyes to see the painful reality that we face as we look into that mirror.
·         And our first reaction is to hate these people who speak the truth to us.  Because we don’t want to hear it.  We’d rather believe the lies we’ve created about ourselves, or at least a doctored up vision of reality, than to see ourselves as we truly are.
·         Truthtellers are necessary though, because apart from them, and the truth that they help us to see, there is no hope for us or our lives. 

John was one such truthteller.
He came announcing that the Kingdom of God has come near, and calling the people to repentance, to face the truth about themselves.
I used to get irritated that the lessons which we read during Advent are about John the Baptist.  Isn’t this a time to focus on the birth of Christ.  The Good News. 
Why John?
Why not Elizabeth?
Or the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary?
Or any number of texts that might capture the joy and delight of this season of the year?
Afterall, isn’t that what this time of year is about?  We decorate our homes.  We buy the presents.  We bake the special treats.  We go caroling.  We look forward to the visits with family and friends.  It’s a time of ‘peace on earth, and good will to all’. 
And then we come to church and hear John calling the people a “brood of vipers”.
It just doesn’t seem to fit with the Spirit of the Season.
I am not alone in that sentiment.
It used to be that the liturgical color that we used for Advent was the same as for Lent.  Purple.  It symbolized that this season of the Church Year was a time of repentance.
More recently, we changed the color.  Now the color for Advent is blue, which symbolizes “hope”, a much more positive theme.
And yet such a shift in emphasis overlooks a simple fact:
·         There is no reason to hope for a savior, if we do not recognize our need for a savior.
·         There is no reason to rejoice in the forgiveness that is ours in Christ Jesus, if we do not recognize that we need to be forgiven.
·         In short, apart from the message of John, the message of Jesus makes no sense.

I first realized this when I had to sit face to face with my “John”, the truthteller that God had sent into my life.
I’ve told you before of my struggles with alcohol.  And if that isn’t enough, you see me take the grape juice, not the wine, each Sunday.
I apologize for revisiting this theme once again, but it was, and will always remain one of the most important things in my life.
It was a time when I had to look into the mirror, and see the truth.  And see the truth in a way that I never wanted to see the truth. 
It began in a rage.  I had come under criticism from some people in my congregation, and a life time of anger boiled over into a full blown rage.  Trying desperately to calm the wild animal that I had become, I turned to my bottle of Scotch. 
And I drank.  And it didn’t work.  So I drank some more.
Still it didn’t work, the rage continued.
So I took my anti-anxiety meds, which multiplied the effect of the alcohol, and that is the last I remember with any clarity.
The next morning, I reached for my glasses and discovered they were a mangled mess.
I went to the bathroom, and looked into the mirror, and saw scabs and bruises on my face. 
My wife greeted me, and told me that some of our friends wanted to come over and talk to me.  The bishop, and my doctor, would also become part of the conversation.  And later that day they would get me admitted to the hospital.
It was there I met my “John”.
She was the psychiatrist assigned to me.
And she sat across the table from me, and point blank told me that I was an alcoholic.  It was a truth I didn’t want to admit.  But I had seen myself in the mirror that morning. 
My first response was to attempt to clarify that.  I stated that I realized that I was abusing alcohol, but that I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. 
And then, I looked at her and realized that on the table before her were my charts.  And in those charts was a toxicology report.  And that she knew the truth. 
She went on to explain that I’d almost died.
And that I would die, if I didn’t get help.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

We have to meet our John, if we are ever to meet Jesus.
We have to recognize our need for forgiveness,
if forgiveness is ever going to mean anything to us.
Apart from that, it’s all just theory.  It’s theology apart from reality.
All talk of a Savior, without our recognition of our need for a savior, is meaningless dribble.

Who is your “John”? 
Who is it who has taken you to the mirror, and helped you to see the person that you really are?
And who is it that pointed the way to Jesus?
As a nation, every four years we elect a president.
It’s an interesting exercise.
I heard it said once that we elect that person who best represents what we want to believe about ourselves.  We don’t elect presidents who will tell us the truth about ourselves, because, quite frankly, we seldom want to hear the real truth. 
And for this reason, no president can save us.
No president can save us, because you cannot win an election telling people the truth that they don’t want to hear.
John didn’t win an election.
No prophet has been elected.
Even Jesus, with his message about the Kingdom of God, would lose an election.
This is because we categorically do not want to look into the mirror and see the truth, even if it comes from Jesus.

As a Church we are faced with decline.  Membership in congregations is dwindling.  We are getting older and older.  Many young people simply don’t see the relevance of the Church in their lives. 
Oh, there are a few congregations that seem to be thriving, but very few.  And even in those congregations what is actually happening is not that the church is growing, but rather that more and more people are gathering in fewer and fewer places, creating an illusion of growth, when there is none.
And so we pray to Jesus, to save us.
Give us a future, and a hope.
But seldom do we pray for a prophet like John to come to us and tell us the truth about who we are and what we’ve become. 
We want to be saved, as long as it doesn’t involve being changed. 
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

There is a truth that people in recovery have discovered that applies to us all.
Until we have suffered enough, we will not accept the truth and be willing to change.  But when the suffering has become so severe, that we cannot continue down the path we are walking, then, and only then, will we accept the help that is out there.
The question for us as Christians, is this:
Has the pathway down which we are walking become painful enough that we are willing to repent, that is change, the direction of our lives?
Have we suffered enough, the consequence of our own sins that we are will to accept Jesus as our Savior and the forgiveness that he offers?
It’s actually an ongoing battle.
A question we must ask ourselves, day by day.
Like an alcoholic, we are always at risk—one slip and we can revert to our old ways.
We remain forever dependent on God, who is faithful and just, to forgive us and cleanse us. 
And it is the promise that God will forgive us, and will cleanse us that allows us to face the truth about ourselves.  That is, that we actually need forgiving, and cleansing from all unrighteousness. 
But facing this truth carries with it one big promise, namely, that the truth will set you free.


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