Matthew 3:1-12 (3b, 9, 11)
3b Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
I, and many of my colleagues in pulpits across the nation today have a lot of nerve to be speaking from this text. It’s one of those passages that reminds a lot of people why they don’t like clergy folk in the first place; judgmental know-it-alls. Well we might be. Nevertheless, we press on. Our sermon titles will be different, but what the text suggests is pretty much the same: the texture, depth, and tenor of our Christianity as a movement of people: that’s what matters. The point of Christianity, our Christian lives, is to open up to God - God’s joy, God’s peace, God’s purposes. For us and all people. And the point of churches like ours is to help us understand that learning, praying, and acting is how we open up to God. And I am persuaded that this irritating text points exactly to that: that church is a learning and praying and acting body.
But first, to talk about a “real religion” suggests that there is a “fake religion”, or a “pretend religion, and, that there is a pure, untainted religion out in the world somewhere. The trouble with the idea of a “real religion” lies in who’s doing the judging, what’s their criteria, and, why in the world does this matter anyway. There are millions of Christians around the world, coming from cultures older than our own, practicing Christianity in a variety of ways; in ways that may seem strange to us. And to top it off, within all these communities there are millions and millions of Christian experiences. So, who’s to say which experience is authentic, more real, the correct one, the one that Jesus taught? John the Baptist says so.
John the Baptist, that larger than life gospel figure stomps into our lives this Advent season as loudly and obnoxiously as he does every Advent season. This larger than life man tells us, “Repent! Repent!” He pisses off the Temple priests and lawyers and scribes in Judea by claiming that being linked to God via Abraham was not enough to be considered a righteous person and gain entrance into God's heaven. John said that deeds, works of righteousness, being in right relationship with others in matters of justice as well as piety was what God really desired. He gets himself killed by the Romans, maybe with the help of the Temple elites, by baptizing people who came to hear him preach of a “new way” to be in harmony with God; the coming of Messiah. This went contrary to, and undercut, the position and voice of the Temple. People were listening to him instead of them.
The way that the gospel writer Matthew remembers it, John the Baptizer does not mince words drawing a distinction between true followers of God and the pretend ones. John refers to them as stones and then the true children; the repentant and the un-repentant; the wheat and the chaff; the living and the dead. Talk about a man who is no shrinking violet. He said it as he saw it. For John the matter is settled: you are either ready and worthy of the kingdom of heaven or you are not. You will either get in or you will not. The only way to be sure is if your profession and your behavior match up. He says: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Bear fruit worthy of your own baptism. Remember your baptismal vows. Baptism is essential to the Christian life. It is our touchstone, the seal of our initiation into the family of the God of Jesus Christ. But, it is only the beginning. Our faith needs to be worked out in the joy and the laughter of life as well as and particularly in the rough and tumble of everyday life. John lifts up the imagery of a tree, a branch that produces a blossom. That’s the quintessential way we know that the tree is alive - it bears fruit. And the same is true for us. We need to bear fruit. I ask myself, what kind of fruit am I bearing. How am I growing from one season to the next? How am I moving from one season to the next? And I ask you what kind of fruit are you bearing? Is there anything about us that suggests that we are alive and producing not only the fruit of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - but also the fruit that specifically looks and tastes and smells like mercy, grace, welcome, support, healing, advocacy, and justice? Are we producing that? I think we are. Sometimes we can’t see it but others remind us.
I do not, cannot, and won’t ever presume to set in judgment on anyone’s faith and religious life. It’s all I can do to keep myself facing forward and on track with the Spirit of God. But, as far as I can tell, for this moment we have together, the gospel writers recalled Jesus’ ministry as real religion because it was not sectioned off from his everyday life an the everyday lives of those around him. It has to be the same for us. Real religion for Jesus and for us has to be about two things. First, it has to deepen and mature. It can’t stop at the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer. It has to go beyond church membership. It has to reach for substantive learning and being. It surpasses a craving for happiness that prizes our self-preservation at the expense of others. It has to be more than craving for happiness.
The second thing that real religion must be about is pushing against the narrative of scarcity: not enough security, not enough purity, and not enough resources. Real religion rejects the mantra that we are being invaded and we must close ourselves off from the world. Instead real relition welcomes the stranger, the refugee, the disenfranchised. Real religion rejects the doctrine of polluting bodies; that difference in language, religion, skin color, nationality, sexuality, and gender and politics are threat to "our" existence. Real religion realizes that God and the life of the world are infinitely more complicated than the narrow boxes and ideologies we have been conditioned to believe are fixed and unchangeable. Real religion pushes back from that. Real religion works to dismantle policies that impoverish the many for the enrichment of a few. Who around us needs to be gathered up in our arms and led to know that there is more to life?
Real religion is about transformation, not self-preservation. As generations of Christians before us who saw the world of their day as being on the brink of disaster and ripe for God to step in and intervene, we most certainly could do the same. We could hide our heads in the collective cultural sands of our time, even do just enough for the Kin-Dom of God just to make ourselves feel good that we've done something. We could be a church within two denominations focused on our own needs and desires. Or, we could go for broke. Go for the real. Cultivate the soil in which we stand and open ourselves up to God and God’s purposes so that God will produce in us fruit worthy of our calling as one’s who have been water washed and Spirit-born.
In this Advent season, this post-election season, particularly as times are stressful - many of us would like to point to a time when life was not so complicated, full of voices and perspectives that differ from and challenge our beliefs. As frustrating and tempting as it may be to find comfort and security in an earlier time, regardless of the search, there is always the need to be clear about the thing one is seeking to preserve. Searching for that which is worth or worthy of preserving…is the point of faith and religion. As much as we are waiting on Jesus, to return to earth, to return to us again everyday of our lives - sharpening our vision, inspiring our imagination, enlightening our understanding of the scriptures, maturing our prayer life, strengthening our resolve - the God of Jesus of Nazareth is waiting on us to be available, to be shaped, to be filled, to be used - to live into a “real religion” that is as audacious and infectious as John the Baptizer’s. We are being called to open up to God and what God is doing. Are you willing? How are you preparing?