"When Our Roots Needs Shaking"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 9, 2001
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
There is a commercial on television that features several teens who appear rebellious and hostile. They say things like, "You were the most unfair parents anyone could ever have. You were always in my face. You were always invading my space. You always wanted to know where I was going, with whom, and why. You made me feel like a prisoner in my own home." Then the teens shift their attitude, smile, and say, "Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks for being there when I really needed you. Thanks for caring."
Not many of us can walk through life
without drifting into areas where we do not belong. This does not mean
that we are sin-ridden people, but it does lift up our ability to look
at something and imagine that it can save us from our boredom or from
our sense of emptiness. This invisible quality creeps onto our stage
the moment we forget that we are the only representatives God has on the
earth. When we give chase to pretend saviors, they become blinders that
block our vision.
After the economic bubble broke many
months ago, sending the stock markets down to levels they had not been
at for years, I was reading an article that described what happened to a
number of people who had participated in a new vocation that suddenly
materialized in our society. These people called themselves "Day
Traders." All day they would make their money by sitting in front of
computer terminals and trading stocks. Some quit their jobs to devote
full time to this. Some people leveraged their houses and savings in
order to buy stocks that were soaring to record heights.
One man in particular caught my
attention. He and his wife had three children and were highly involved
in their church and community. In fact, he taught an adult Sunday
school class. He watched his investments grow by leaps and bounds.
Then he got the idea to cash in his life insurance policies and use the
proceeds to buy even more stock. In no time he doubled his family's
He actually wanted to
quit his job and make his millions by trading so that his family could
spend the rest of their lives free from financial worries. The article
indicated that his wife intervened. No details were given about how she
confronted him, but he did not leave his position with Lockheed Martin
and his day-trading escapades ended abruptly.
As the stock markets began to tumble,
he sat helplessly as his assets dwindled to about what they were before
he started. In the article he confided, "Greed had nearly consumed me.
I actually teach about this stuff in my church, but I could not see it
growing inside of me. I was not aware of how far off the track I had
gotten. My wife shook some sense into me before I put at risk
everything we had saved."
When we engage in activities that
contradict the way God made us, and then use our thoughts to justify why
we are doing them, our spiritual identity becomes entangled with the
defining elements of the material world. Our lives become
confusing. We do not know what to think. Right and wrong change hands
very quickly because we want so badly what something or someone appears
We can pretend that having an torrid
affair will meet our need for intimacy. We can pretend that alcohol
will comfort us. We can pretend that wealth and power will give us what
we want most. We can pretend that our obedience to religious teachings
will place us in the Kingdom. But if during all our pretending we
never got to the point where we allowed our authentic self to show, we
will age never having left kindergarten.
Our lesson this morning opens with John
the Baptist preaching along the banks of the Jordan. He was verbally
shaking people by their roots. His words challenged them, "Turn away
from your sins!" In other words, "Stop doing what is so
self-destructive before it is too late."
Observe the setting here. John is like
a subway or street corner preacher. We have all seen such people. They
just set up shop outside of the Metro, for example, and start preaching.
Usually no one is listening. However with John our text says, "People
came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from
all over the country near the Jordan River."
Those coming to hear John were not just
average people. Many of them were among the elite, learned, and
privileged. Some were Pharisees who observed the Hebrew Law with
precision. There were Sadducees many of whom enjoyed financially
lucrative connections with Rome and were often involved with
What brought them to hear John? Why would people deliberately choose to join a crowd of listeners who were being scolded for the way they were living? This preacher wore clothing made of camel's hair and he ate grasshoppers and wild honey. John was certainly not refined. Why would anyone waste their time?
From the text of
Matthew's Gospel, we learn nothing about the motivation of his
listeners. However, the Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that the word
of the Lord had not been heard in Israel for 400 years until John the
baptizer began to preach along the banks of the Jordan.
A second reason for their coming might be John's ability to preach. His thundering voice spoke directly to people who understood the authority behind what he said. When words are used with surgical precision, they become like scalpels that open up the human spirit. Such verbal skills can cut through all our justifications as they hold a mirror in front of us.
Still, there may have
been a third reason why they came. John was telling them that another
was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Most of the Jews
knew of the ancient predictions that one day a Messiah would come. No
doubt this piqued the interest of a number of people. John said, "He has
his winnowing fork with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather
his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never
The crowd would miss John's point because few among his listeners were looking for someone who would teach about spirit. Just as a number of people do today, all eyes were looking for someone to save them, to give them something, or to make them feel whole again. Little did they know that such a person would never come.
John knew something that his audiences
did not. "The ax is ready to cut down the trees at their roots," he
said. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and
thrown in the fire." John was using a symbol that everyone would
understand. All agriculture, like it is today, was based on one thing
-- production. What does not produce gets uprooted and tossed away.
The same thing can be said about
people. When what is inside of us no longer sprouts and bears fruit,
who have we become? The answer is simple. We have become needy,
self-serving, and filled with longing. John says this is the "fire
that never goes out." No one can ever gratify the emotional
imagination of a needy person. Feelings of emptiness only attack
those of us who have forgotten that life means allowing what is within
us to bloom on the outside.
In this second Sunday of Advent, where
are we? Do we need a John the Baptist to shake us by our roots? What
is our current behavior advertising -- our neediness or our joy, our
desperation or our enthusiasm, our wanting to withdraw from others or
our desire to share with everyone? When we remain connected to God, we
understand who John was challenging his listeners to become.
Thursday night, Lois and I took a young
man to Grace's Fortune for dinner. Before he and his wife moved to
California, they were part of our church family on Capitol Hill. His
company has secured a large engineering software contract from the
Pentagon so he was in town to review the progress of some of his
We could have spent the evening
together hearing about his successes, but he was more excited about two
other things. His wife is expecting their first baby and he was so
happy to share that news with us. Secondly, he told us that they have
joined a little United Methodist Church. His wife has become the
treasurer and bookkeeper for this church, which currently has 50 people
attending the worship service.
He told us that his church sits right
across the street from the Berkeley campus of the University of
California. He said to us, "I feel called to be where I am. Our church
is the most exciting place. There is so much we are going to do. About
my job? Well, that's what I do to earn a living, but my real love is
this church." He has remained so connected to God that what is inside
of him cannot help but come out.
Last Saturday, Mark Reed sent me an
e-mail. His spirit was so full it was spilling over into his words. He
and his wife, Myoung, united with the same church in Colorado that Bob
and Teresa Highly joined shortly after they left St. Matthew's. Both
are military families who coincidentally found they had something in
common in their new member's class. Mark and Myoung used to be our
senior high advisors here.
Listen to Mark's words:
Our Smokey Hill United Methodist Church is halfway through the fund raising period for the new additions we plan to add to our facilities. There are tons of members, all kinds of activities, and 3 services every Sunday. We are outgrowing our current facilities.
It is so great to be a Methodist among Methodists. The gift of GOD'S LOVE that flows through the Methodist Church and the minds of its members transcend all the little worries in life that, once conquered, seem so minuscule.
Life is a grand and glorious thing when you have God's love on your
side. Sometimes it makes me emotional as I try to fathom it all!!!
But, I tell you what, it sure makes me appreciate everything I've been
blessed with in life, and it gives me the strength to try to share that
love with everyone. Before I become too mushy, I'll say goodbye for
now. Please give a special hello to Lois and Patti, and say hello to
everyone else who may remember us.
Advent gives us a special time of year when all the world takes on an incredible glow. To miss it because we have become too preoccupied with something else is to miss life. Sometimes we need someone to shake us down to our roots. John the Baptist was preaching, "Turn away from your sins!" Maybe one of the things we have to do in our preparation for Christ's coming is to change our mind about some area of our life. When we do, our entire world changes.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
There are moments in life, O God, when we feel
estranged from you and alone, when our hearts are heavy with painful
memories, and when we do not feel motivated by anything to better
prepare ourselves for the coming of your son into our world. We wear
masks that pretend at happiness. We are well-trained with our ability
to express ourselves with kind greetings and pleasantries, yet we long
for the ability to manage our life issues with peace.
We thank you that we are here today. Sometimes we
are touched by you in ways we could never have imagined. Sometimes the
persistence of a friend helps us rise above the thoughts that hold us
captive. Teach us how to let go of the cyclical thought patterns that
do not inspire us. Guide us to surrender habits and old rituals that
have outlived their usefulness. Help us see with a clarity of vision
that when you fill our lives with light, there is no room for
As the attitudes of the caterpillar evolve into those of the butterfly, help us discover that crawling and cocoons had their purpose. Take our hand, O God, and lead us to fly with trust and confidence that all will be well, as it was for Mary and Joseph, when we place our lives into your hands. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .