St Thomas’, Glen Carbon—Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-1, Romans 15:4-13
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an immensely popular children’s story by C.S. Lewis. Many of you, I’m sure, are very familiar with it. The action takes place in a land called Narnia. Narnia is ruled by the cunning and vindictive White Witch, who rides around in a sleigh, terrorizing her subjects. As long as anyone can remember, it has always been winter in Narnia —“always winter, but never Christmas,” to be precise. But yet, there is a collective memory among the residents of Narnia, a memory of a time when Narnia was a happy place, alive and green and growing, a time when it was ruled by a wise and kind lion named Aslan. Aslan has not been seen or heard from for a long, long time, but there are rumors. Rumors that Aslan is going to return, very soon, to melt the snow, banish the witch, and restore tranquility and happiness to Narnia. The trees and the animals of the forest whisper to one another, “Psst! Aslan is on the move”.
Aslan is on the move.
The season of Advent brings similar news to those sons of Adam and daughters of Eve such as ourselves who are not fortunate enough to live in the enchanted land of Narnia. You and I live in a transitional moment—a moment to God, at any rate, though it’s taking several centuries from the perspective of human time. Winter is on the verge of melting into spring—as ridiculous as it may sound for someone who lives in the upper Midwest to say that in early December! Night is on the brink of turning to dawn. The grand drama of creation and redemption is about to enter the final act. Pssst! God is on the move!
God is on the move.
The blunt message of an unruly and obnoxious John the Baptist rings in our ears: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Time as we know it is going to come to an end. Relationships and institutions that we have invested our lives in are gong to exist no more. There is going to be a new universal order. Advent, it appears, is about some pretty remarkable stuff! But I wonder whether very many of us take it with the seriousness it deserves. We are caught in the trap of ordinariness, enmeshed in the routine of life-as-usual, functionally blind and deaf to what God is doing, either within that ordinary life, or beyond it. Some years ago there was a PBS mini-series dramatizing the life of Winston Churchill. I remember being particularly impressed, not so much by Churchill’s leadership of Great Britain during the dark days of World War II, which is what he is best known for, but by his role as an opposition Member-of-Parliament during the 1930’s. The Prime Minister at that time, Neville Chamberlain, had a grand vision for improving economic and social conditions in the British Isles. Chamberlain wanted to strengthen public education, provide jobs for the unemployed, improve working conditions, and bring his country out of the Great Depression, which, along with the rest of the industrialized world, it was in the midst of. These were good things. Life-as-usual is a good thing. But Churchill saw that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi empire were positioning themselves to cross the channel and overrun England. And what good would all of Chamberlain’s social programs be if the German flag flew over Buckingham Palace and the halls of Parliament? Winston Churchill was the impolite voice of John the Baptist, saying, “Repent! Change your priorities! The end of life-as-usual is at hand!”
John the Baptist’s call to repentance is as timely for us today as it was for his original audience on the banks of the Jordan River. But we are probably more resistant to his message, more difficult to arouse and move, than they were. We are probably more obstinate than the government of Neville Chamberlain in the face of Winston Churchill’s call to pay attention to what was going on in Germany. We persist in our besetting sins of placing undue value on wealth, health, status, and productivity, not to mention indulging in violence, injustice, sexual immorality, and dishonesty, either directly and personally, or through membership in a society that encourages these sins. And as members of a Christian community that is part of a web of Christian communities known as the Diocese of Springfield and the Episcopal Church, we remain largely trapped in habits of thought and action that are not particularly evil but are quite unrealistic, deaf and blind to the changes that are taking place in the culture around us, and what those changes mean to the way we speak and act as the Church.
Psst! God is on the move!
Well, if God is on the move, then most of us are apparently in no condition to welcome that news with, “Great! It’s about time.” Rather, our response is more likely to be, “Now? I’m not ready yet!” In two-and-a-half weeks, some of us, having not finished our shopping or cookie-baking, might be saying, “Christmas is here? I’m not ready yet!” We may not realize what a true word we speak. Our hearts will not be in any condition to receive the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
A life insurance company used to run a series of cartoon ads. Each one pictured an individual happily going about life-as-usual: relaxing, swimming, playing golf, eating dinner…whatever. What he or she could not see, was that life-as-usual was about to come to an abrupt conclusion, courtesy of a falling grand piano, an erupting volcano, a tidal wave, a shark, or some such product of a cartoonist’s imagination. The one-line caption was always the same: “My insurance company? Why, New England Life, of course.” I guess the point of these cartoons was that their subjects were insured against the impending disaster, but it’s equally obvious that they were not in any other sense prepared for what was about to happen. Neither are we, if we’re not in an attitude of repentance. We’re not going to be very excited to hear that Aslan is loose, that spring is coming, as long as we live in an ice house on which the White Witch holds a mortgage! But repentance is the only condition in which to joyfully receive what God is bringing about.
So what’s going to become of us? We need to repent, but we’re just a little bit too stubborn or complacent or wrapped up in our lives to do a very good job of it.
The consistent witness of scripture is that God loves us too much to simply abandon us in our sins. But it’s also fairly clear in the Bible that he didn’t make us as puppets, that he could control just by pulling strings. God is not going to coerce us into his kingdom. So he’s going to have to be a little bit resourceful if he’s going to get us to respond. One of the clichés that comes to us from animal training is that of the “carrot and the stick”. The idea is that animals—including people—can be motivated either or both by the fear of pain or the enticement of pleasure. Today’s liturgy is a sign that, in his desire for us to repent so he can save us, God is not beyond using the “carrot and stick” approach. The “stick,” in this case, is John the Baptist. One writer has called John the “patron saint of Christian nightmares.” “You brood of vipers! (You snakes!) Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming?! Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire! The one who’s coming after me has his pitchfork in his hand, ready to gather his grain into his barn, but the chaff . . . (which might be you) . . . He will burn in an unquenchable fire!”
If there was ever an excuse for an Episcopalian to preach “fire and brimstone,” this is it! During Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I saw on TV a very large, crudely-built sign that someone had constructed on the southeast Florida coast just after the winds had subsided: “Ok, God, you’ve got our attention. Now what?” Sometimes God just needs to get our attention, and a stick is an effective way of doing it.
The “carrot”—the pleasurable enticement—today is the prophet Isaiah. I don’t know about you, but I find this vision of the “Peaceable Kingdom”—a vision that has been the inspiration for a good many artists over the centuries—to be one of the most exciting and alluring passages in all of scripture. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together…and a little child shall lead them.” Imagine all these carnivorous animals suddenly becoming vegetarians! And the most incredible part of all: babies and young children can play on top of snake holes, and even stick their hands down in them, and not be bitten! This is not anything you’re ever going to see on a National Geographic special, or hear about from your high school biology teacher! Now I’m not a vegetarian. I enjoy my position on the food chain! Nonetheless, I’m tremendously attracted by the vision of paradise regained, of Eden restored. This passage gives me goose bumps, and it might even give me the motivation I need today for the repenting that I need to do today.
And repentance is not feeling sorry, an emotion of regret. Repentance is a constant movement of turning—turning away from sin and toward God. And the movement of repentance is one in which our actions and our words are consistent with one another. The liturgies of Advent say a great deal about “preparing the way,” of making ready “a highway for our God.” We “prepare the way” within our own hearts and lives to remember our Lord’s first coming when Christmas arrives, and we prepare the way within our own hearts and lives to welcome him when he returns to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to inaugurate the Peaceable Kingdom, when the lion lies down with the lamb.
The carrot or the stick. Whatever it takes, God wants our attention. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.