Updated: Jan 31, 2021
We are now just 17 days from Christmas, the symbolic birthday of Christ. Today is the second Sunday of the Advent liturgical season. Last Sunday we saw a duality presented. Two would be on earth, but only one would go to Heaven. The other one would be left behind.
That represented a choice that was up to the individuals: wake up and save your soul, or dream your time away and let your ticket to Heaven be stolen.
Today we have more duality presented, on many levels. We read of the righteous and the wicked, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox, the child and the snake, the poor and the oppressor, the sun and the moon, the Gentiles and the Jews, the wilderness and Jerusalem, the Temple servants and the wild priest, the baptism with water and the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and the wheat and the chaff.
Each is representative of a choice that we all have to make. We choose to be one or the other … in a symbolic way.
The last Sunday in November, during the evening, my wife went to a local church here. She went to attend a special blessing service. My wife, being an Episcopal priest, then attended a church that is not of the Episcopalian denomination.
Lord knows, most Episcopalians have better things to do on Sunday evenings than go to a church.
When my wife got home, she said she saw some of the members of her church there. She saw members who had attended the morning service she celebrated.
My wife said those members apologized to her when they met in that other church, for being there, for listening to another preacher’s sermon.
My wife told them not to worry, because she found it refreshing to be at a Christian service that was not Episcopalian, simply because it had been a long time since she had last attended one. There was a difference that she witnessed, from a new perspective.
I imagine, if the minister who preached that night had known my wife was a priest for the competition, he might have pointed at her and cried out, like John the Baptist, “You viper!”
Fortunately, I advised my wife not to wear her collar, so she was only identified by those she knew.
There is nothing wrong with what my wife did. And there is nothing wrong with what the members of her church did, by going to other churches and listening to other sermons. It is good to hear people preach about the meaning of the Scriptures.
In the Gospel reading today, we see something similar took place at the Jordan River. The people who regularly attended their synagogues, and those who would listen to sermons at the Temple, where their rabbis were most probably Pharisees or Sadducees, those people also went to be baptized by John.
Of course, as Matthew told, some Pharisees and Sadducees showed up at the Jordan for John to baptize them too.
Do you think everyone going to see John the Baptist was playing it safe … just in case? What could it hurt to have your sins washed clean?
After all, Naaman washed off his leprosy … a symbolic sin … by bathing seven times in the same river. The water of the Jordan River had to be seen as having some healing properties.
But, then, if the Pharisees and Sadducees saw John the Baptist as a threat, like they would see Jesus, maybe they went to get baptized just so they could get some kind of evidence that John was breaking a law? Maybe they were trying to get the goods on him.
John certainly wasn’t too happy to see the Pharisees and Sadducees show up at his place of symbolic cleansing. “What are you doing here, you deadly snakes?” he asked.
Remember … the snake is a symbol of slick tricks. It uses wily intellect to destroy souls. So, John was calling them out as being tricky.
Still, John said he would symbolically wash them clean ….
He would wash them because those priests were not the pure lambs they made the people think they were. Sure, they knew the Law and they condemned those whom they deemed to be sinners, but they knew they were sinners too. By going to John, they could be exposed as being just like the common folk … full of sins. In that way, they were no closer to Heaven than the next guy.
This is another duality … the shepherd and the sheep.
Imagine last week’s lesson on duality, where the shepherd and the sheep were in the field together, and the shepherd (the awake and alert one) gets called away, leaving the sheep alone. What happens to the sheep then?
This is where the duality lesson comes into play. The shepherd prepares one of the sheep to become a shepherd of the flock … at least a leader of sheep … one who will stand up as a ram and defend the flock.
Without the shepherd, a decision must be made. Sink or swim? Eat or be eaten? We have to make the choice between death or salvation, being a sinner or a saint.
You can only be one at a time.
Most likely, people are sinners in need of a good scrubbing. Still, people wish we could be saints.
Therein lies another problem. We wish. We hope. That is good, but it does not remove the sin and make us saints.
For people with serious problems, like alcoholism or drug addiction, they find themselves deep in a trap they cannot easily get out of. They get so far in that they cannot even tell what is reality and what is illusion. The first step of recovery from those problems is admission that a problem exists. They cannot kick the habit without facing up to their addiction and admitting they do have a serious problem that must stop.
Imagine how going to the river to be dunked by John was an admission of a problem with sin, which the Jews felt they had. Simply by going to the synagogue wasn’t enough to make them stop. They felt dirty and sought out John.
They must have thought, “I just can’t stop sinning.”
For Christians, we amend that confession to say, “I just can’t make the full commitment to being a saint.”
Going is listen to more than one person preach, or going to be baptized by water after going to a temple and listening to someone tell you what sinners do, is then a confession of sins, an admission that a problem exists … but that is just the first step.
Imagine an alcoholic coming out of an AA meeting, having just stood up in front of the group, admitting a problem with drinking. Then, imagine after the meeting is over the same person going across town to a bar, getting drunk once again.
What was it Flip Wilson used to say? “The devil made me do it?”
That is the same thing as going to a church, getting on your knees and confessing you are a sinner; and then going out after church and committing sins all over again.
That is what we all do … to some degree. Because we come to church regularly, we probably sin much less than other heathens, those who never go to church and those who commit heinous crimes. Still, our sins keep us coming back.
We come back because we all seem to seek out leaders … shepherds … sponsors … someone other than ourselves … to help save us from sinning again. In that projecting kind of way, we like to listen to sermons.
Sometimes we feel like it helps to get a second opinion.
In the Isaiah reading today, we hear the prophecy of a coming Messiah, one who would have the spirit of the LORD rest on him. From that spirit would come Heaven, where none of the earthly duality exists.
In Heaven, there is no reason to fear lions, and tigers, and bears. Isaiah prophesied that this one to come would bring that peaceful coexistence to the earth.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read him referring to that reading in Isaiah. He said Jesus was the one prophesied. Paul also said, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The duality of Matthew’s verses comes down to hearing John tell the people around him that he was not the one. There would come one much greater, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John is prophesying the Advent of Christ.
The Advent of Christ must be internal, at which point it will project externally.
You have to choose between being baptized with water (a physical element) or spirit; of and being cleansed of your sins symbolically … up to that point in time of being cleaned, but not the times still to come … or completely.
To admit a problem means you must maintain a commitment to put that problem behind you. To do that, you have to choose to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, which accepts the power of hope that keeps one from ever sinning again.
Sinner … or Saint?
There was a Belgian surrealist artist name René Magritte. Perhaps you have seen some of his paintings. He pained one that is named Son of Man, which depicts a man wearing a top coat and bowler hat, with his face blocked from view by a green apple. Magritte painted several pictures where human faces were missing.
He enjoyed the surrealism of transparency and illusion. This can be summed up as the way René Magritte saw the reality of an earthly existence.
When we choose to be filled with the Holy Spirit and fire, we become like a René Magritte painting. The surreal becomes real. The spiritual overcomes the physical.
We are no longer the most important person in our lives. The ego has stepped aside. God tells us what to do, and we gladly accept that suggestion. We live to make God happy.
As we go through December and anticipate, with joy, a remembrance of Jesus being born again, remember that Jesus wants to baptize us with the Holy Spirit. That is the 12th step … the goal we seek.
First, we have to admit we have a problem and need that baptism. Then, by receiving the spirit of dedication and with the help of others who share our goal, we can commit to taking all the steps necessary to eliminate the problem of uncontrollable sin.
After we have voluntarily chosen to be filled with the Holy Spirit, letting Christ lead our actions, we can then sponsor others to be likewise filled. We can give to others, as has been given to us.
The spirit of giving is what this season is about. Advent is when the spirit of giving abounds, as we anticipate the coming of Christ. It is the spirit of Christ giving us hope.
The question now is, “What do you want for Christmas?”