"When Judgment Provides Direction"

Meditation Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 6, 2009

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:3-9

     The Advent Candle of Love is our symbol for today.  Once again, however, our Scripture lesson features John the Baptist preaching fiery words of judgment to his listeners.  In fact, he engaged in name calling.  He exclaimed, “You snakes!  Who told you that you could escape the punishment God is about to send?”  There does not seem to be much love in John’s words. 

     In fact, John appears to be quite hopeful that many of his listeners will be condemned and punished by God for what John had discerned as wicked attitudes and arrogant behavior.  Day after day, however, the word of mouth spread about John’s preaching and the crowds grew larger and larger.  As the days passed, tax collectors and members of the military were asking John what they must do.  In a later passage beyond our lesson Luke writes, “People’s hopes began to rise, and they began to wonder whether John was the promised Messiah.” (Luke 3:15)

    What was happening to these people?  John was screaming for his listeners to repent, to change how they think.  In spite of the tone of his words, what people were hearing brought a new perspective to their lifestyles.   John was telling them that their attitudes reflected how self-absorbed they were.  He was reminding them that their tithes were not ten percent of the bounty they had received.  He told them that they worship God with their words when their actions reflect their pride-filled self-righteousness.           

     What most of us seldom grasp about the religious-minded of Jesus’ day is that most of them were not thinkers.  Most of them were only parroting what they had learned both by custom and in practice from their teachers.  Very little new thinking came from people who mindlessly followed their leaders. The clergy in John’s day never verbally challenged the people about their attitudes and ethics.  John’s words made people think.  He made them re-evaluate their values, their habits and their practices.  True friends are people who help us to see the folly of our ways in spite of how judgmental their attitudes toward us appear to be.           

     When I was at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, the organist was hidden from the congregation.  The organ console was in a pit behind the pulpit so that our organist and choir master, Rick Stockdale, was invisible.  Always during Advent, Rick planned a service devoted to Nine Lessons and Carols.  Prior to one of the carols Rick played four chords on the organ, providing each section of the choir with the correct pitch.  He raised his hand and made a motion for the choir to begin.  The choir didn’t start.  There wasn’t a peep from anyone.  Once again Rick got their attention and made his motion and again the choir did not start.  The members of the choir did not know how to communicate that Rick was making a mistake.           

     Rick showed confusion as though the choir was in a state of mutiny.  He thought that there had to be some hidden humor somewhere but Rick did not think this funny.  One of the tenors slowly turned his head slightly and whispered, “Rick, you are on the wrong carol.”  A light came on for Rick and he quickly made the adjustment.  He needed to hear that a course- correction was needed. 

     People would not have continued to listen to John preach if his words were unfair, offensive and not true.  People so resonated with what John was saying that many of them were willing to submit to baptism because John’s words made a light come on within them.  They knew they were living far beneath what they believed God expected of them. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, once wrote that “Before John the Baptizer the word of the Lord had not been heard in Israel for over 400 years.”   

    One of the elements of our love is when we help others to re-establish their boundaries.  Love often intrudes into our comfort zones and pushes our buttons.  Love can ask, “Is what you financially give for God’s work reflective of your love of God?” Of course it is! If we sow bountifully, we will reap bountifully.   Love can ask, “What are you doing to bring people into a closer relationship with God?  How many people have you invited to your church?”  These are moments during our lives where the judgments of others can provide direction.  They help us change how we think.           

     John was pushing everyone’s buttons when he preached.  He was holding a mirror in front of people and his thoughts of them would not permit him to be dishonest in what he saw happening in their lives.  Love does that, so our candle lighting is appropriate for our second Sunday of Advent. It is the candle of Love.  Love does not just point fingers at our shortcomings; this skill of spirit also extends a hand to support and lift others to stand on higher ground.           

     There was a story of a Chinese man who characterized his life-experience as falling into a deep dark pit.  He had made many mistakes with his life and the consequences were so great that there was no hope of escaping his depressive darkness. 

     He had a dream one night.  Confucius came and looked into the pit.  He said, 

I am Confucius, the father of your country.  Had you only obeyed my teachings and my rules, you would not be in your current circumstances. If you ever get out of the prison you have created by your decisions, remember to follow my teachings and this painful mental state you have created will never happen to you again. 

    He then witnessed another man looking down into the pit.  It was none other than Siddhartha Gautama, the great enlightened one known as the Buddha.  In his great compassion he said,

My poor child, your mind is clouded with many things.  You must shake off the daze in which you find yourself.  Your mind is fixed on the material world and the chaos which is often found there. You must awaken from your slumber and learn to see the greater reality of spirit that surrounds you.   

     After imparting his wisdom, Siddhartha left the man to assume responsibility for his own choices and their resulting consequences.

    Finally, a third man appeared.  This man did not speak.  He climbed down into the pit so he could be with the Chinese man.  He managed to work with him until he got the man out of the pit.  Then he secured clean clothes for him and gave him food. He spoke these words, “Before your time is spent in this world, do not stop helping others as I have helped you.”  The Chinese man said, “What is your name?”  The man said, “Who I am is not important.  What matters is what you do with the time you have left.  It is never too late to change how you think. Try giving yourself away without counting the cost.  Because you have asked, my name is Jesus.”

    There are lots of ways to love.  God sends the sunshine, rain and the snow on the just and unjust alike.  When Jesus came, he invited us to bury the memory of our shortcomings and to realize that we have a friend who will help us reclaim the time we have left so we can make a difference in the world. 


     Thank you, God, for these moments of reflection as we approach Christmas.  You know how easy it is for us to become absorbed in our traditions, rituals and customary holiday gatherings.   We rush to meet self-imposed deadlines.  We open the boxes of our stored decorations, transform our homes with the symbols of Christmas and exhaust ourselves looking for just the right gifts.  How removed these activities are from the isolated stable in Bethlehem.  In our busyness, we confess how easy it is to lose sight of the truth we celebrate.  Help us develop more reflective moments when we ponder what Christ’s spirit gave to our world. Thank you for knowing the times we used poor judgment and responded with knee-jerk reactions to other people, and yet you still love us just as we are. For your consistency in loving us through all the seasons of our lives, we will always be eternally grateful.  Amen.


     Our lives are always full of things to do and places to go and yet, O God, we do not always remember what you taught us when you gave us the gift of life and all the signposts along the way that help us to live that life creatively.  Sometimes we fail to remember that we may be the only Body of Christ the people of this world will ever see.     

     During these Advent days, help us to surround others with the gift of our spirit.  Enable our smiles to speak volumes about our peace in spite of the burdens we carry.  Enable our words to be those that encourage and support.  Inspire gratitude and gracious acceptance of life as we make Christ’s spirit visible within us.  Help us to rise above any pettiness we have embraced.  Help us to become a step-ladder for those who consider themselves victims of life-circumstances so that they, too, may learn what it is like to stand on higher ground. 

     Above all else, help us to remember that not everyone understands life and why painful changes occur as they do.  They may be hospitalized while others are shopping.  They may be suffering a loss while joyous carols are being heard on their radios.  They may fear that no one understands their loneliness as they watch families celebrate the joy of being with each other.  Help us always to be sensitive to those around us. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .