"When Our Roots Needs Shaking"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 9, 2001

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12 

     Most of us find it upsetting when people confront us about our behavior. No one enjoys being told that they need to do something differently with their lives.  People do not like being told they are wrong.  Yet sometimes love comes in a form we do not recognize. This morning we are going to be looking at such confrontation as part of our preparation during Advent.   Now and then we need somebody or some event to shake us to our core so that we are given a reality check on where our decisions are taking us.   

     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 assets. 

     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 to offer. 

     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 international trade. 

     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 goes out."

     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 colleagues.  

     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.


     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 darkness. 

     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 . . .