"The Path To Peace"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/6/1998
Psalm 72:1-7; Matthew 3:1-12
Fear is a great motivator. We get our brake shoes checked when we hear strange noises each time we apply pressure to the peddle. Women stop smoking and drinking alcohol for fear that such products might affect the health of their unborn child. Parents keep cookies and sticky buns out of reach of their children for fear that there is a linkage between sugar consumption and hyperactivity.
There is no question that fear is an excellent motivator. Yet, think how you would feel as a parent if your children acted with respect toward you because they were afraid of you? Suppose they bought you gifts for fear you might be disappointed if they did not. Suppose their thoughtfulness came from a profound fear of your rejection of them if they did not straighten up their room, iron their clothing and help with the cleaning of the house.
In each of these cases this "love" is not love at all. Rather it is a defensive posture intended to prevent the wrath of their parents. Any parents who are interested in developing this kind of behavior in their children are more interested in form than in substance, in pretense than in authenticity, and in good acting skills rather than in character development. Yet for many people their "love of God" is rooted and based in such a fear. And too often through its history, the Church has used that fear for its own purposes.
With this as a background, let us now look at what John was proclaiming with his words of prophecy near the Jordan River. In essence, he was preaching the same message that is on that bumper sticker. Scholars surmise that John had withdrawn from society and had become angry with life in general. Since anger never leads the heart correctly, John issued severe warnings to sinners while predicting the coming of doom for those who refused to repent of their sins. As we mentioned earlier, fear is a marvelous motivator.
Quite predictably people came, confessed their sins and were baptized. They were terrified by John's message. Some undoubtedly said among themselves, "Suppose he is right! We are doomed if we don't repent. If we can't think of any sin we have committed, we have to make something up. In fact, let's get baptized just to be on the safe side."
Fear can motivate us to do just about anything. Most of us can easily be frightened. Today we see gyrations in the stock market because of fear. People panic. They do not know where to invest their money so that it will grow while remaining safe.
Some of us remember the toilet paper scare years ago. Stores were emptied of that product because of circulating rumors that it was in very short supply. Again people panicked. They bought as much toilet paper as they could and hoarded it. It is easy to repent when we are panicked.
When John saw Pharisees and Sadducees among his listeners, he called them snakes and asked them, ". . . who told you that you could escape the punishment God is about to send?" In his frustration with them John proclaimed, "The axe is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire." The God of anger and vengeance was the only image John chose to reveal during his preaching.
Any review of John's preaching will show that only two issues were accurate. They were his pronouncement that "the Kingdom of Heaven is near" and John's disclosure that one will come after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The rest of his words came from his anger and his lack of understanding about the nature of God.
How do we know this? First, John's version of the Kingdom of God never came in the form he predicted. Jesus brought just the opposite. The Sermon on the Mount teaches what we can become once our lives remain focused on extending our loving energy. Secondly, during his ministry Jesus said, "John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived, but the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Matt. 11:11) John knew human life was spiritually unaware and he used fear in his attempt to awaken listeners. Jesus used love.
Advent for us is the telescoping of hundreds of years into four weeks. The Jews waited for centuries for "the light" to enter their world. When the light came they were unable to recognize it. They did not know what to look for or expect. Even John missed recognizing the mission of his cousin, Jesus.
The ministries of John and Jesus existed side by side. John had his disciples and Jesus had his. Once John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?" (Matt. 11:3) John simply did not know the kind of Messiah God would send. We cannot see or understand what God is doing if we do not understand God's nature. If fear is the only pair of glasses we use to see, everything will frighten us.
We cannot experience the Kingdom of God by merely confessing our sins and surrendering everything to God out of fear of what will happen to us if we do not. We arrive in the Kingdom the minute we decide to define ourselves the way God created us -- loving human beings. Finding the Kingdom is that simple. This is what Jesus called his disciples to be. Finding the path to enjoying a peaceful spirit is also that simple. It simply takes a change in the way we think about ourselves and the God who created us.
Fear and peace cannot exist together. During Advent we celebrate God's coming among us. Unlike John's predictions, God did not come to destroy us but to lead us into a deeper understanding of who we are. No teacher would ever seek to destroy the lives of the students who are unable to grasp and use the curriculum.
Advent is the perfect time to practice our peacefulness while in the midst of shopping, decorating, and celebrating. It is the perfect time to experience what Jesus came to give us. We can do this because now we know. Hindsight has taught us why Jesus came. All we have to do is love ourselves enough to live it. When we do, we will have discovered the path to peace. Amen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you God for these moments of quiet reflection. How often we fall prey to traditions, rituals and habits. In our rush to meet self-imposed deadlines, to coordinate our open houses, and to insure all is well with our holiday celebrations, how far removed we can become from an isolated stable and a newborn child. We need our moments of fellowship. We love to decorate our homes and entertain our friends. We also need that which nourishes and renews our spirits. Help us to sense your Holy Spirit being a part of all that we do. Help us find peace as we remember the moment you sent your son into our midst. Who would we be today if he had not come? During a time we could not see, you sent a guide who healed us as we followed. Thank you for your faithfulness. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Breathe stillness into our minds and hearts, O God, as we open ourselves to you this day. As we reflect on what it means to prepare ourselves for your coming, we think in terms of the material things we have left to do. Yet what good are our gifts without the spirit of thoughtfulness? What good is sharing without the spirit of generosity? What good is fellowship and friendship if it is seasonally stimulated? What good is our receiving if our gifts are attached to anticipated expectations?
Inspire us, O God, to rise above the creature comforts that kindle our imaginations and excite our desires. Help us to remember that the first Christmas featured such tools for living as trust, understanding, acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness. Such gifts go on giving and enhancing the quality of our lives long after the memory of most gifts has faded.
This morning as we celebrate your son's last meal with his disciples, may we remember all that he said was possible for us when we follow him. There have been many people who have possessed wealth and fame and many people who have had power and prestige, but only a few who have helped us remove fear, resentment and hate from our lives. As we follow your son, may you inspire us to be one of those people who help liberate others from the prisons they have built. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .