- SERMON PREACHED BY
THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
ON THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
9 DECEMBER 2007
- "Bear fruit worthy of repentance."
- On Ash Wednesday (less than two months away,
by the way) we will be confronted once again with our stark humanity
--- our failures, our foibles, our shortcomings, in no uncertain
terms. Among the laundry list of sins are our self-indulgent
appetites and ways; our exploitation of other people, our intemperate
love of worldly goods and comforts, our dishonesty in daily life
and work --- the list goes on. I bring this up because I think
a careful reading of today's Gospel gives us a head start on
Lent and confronts us with our shortcomings through the person
of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is offensive --- his habits,
the way he looked and probably smelled, cause us to recoil.
His lifestyle and message, however, provide a challenge to us.
He asks us to question our preoccupation with comfort and material
prosperity, and he forces us to think about what really matters.
John the Baptist has obviously given up the values we hold dear
in order to fulfill his mission.
- Let us suppose we met John the Baptist at
a Christmas party --- which takes place, of course, in Advent.
To the standard cocktail-party query, "Where are you from?"
he would answer "The Wilderness." "Oh,"
we would say, hopefully, and sounding like the voice-over on
a promotional video, "that must be that new nature preserve-type
retirement community ten miles out of town, with stocked fishing
ponds, acres of woods to walk through, and unspoilt babbling
brooks wending their way through the golf course." "No,"
the Baptist would respond, "just the non-garden variety
type wilderness (if you get my drift)." He goes on to explain
that there are no communities, as such, retirement or otherwise,
in the wilderness, just the odd recluse, or hermit, or prophet,
like himself. Sometimes prophets would gather there, in small
bands, where the Roman authorities wouldn't be breathing down
their necks, he would add, --- but for the most part, it's just
desolate, bleak territory.
- This answer is unsettling to us, because
since the wilderness is virtually uninhabited, it renders impossible
the natural follow-up question to "Where are you from?"
the seemingly innocuous "Do you know So-and-so?" I
say "seemingly innocuous," because the question is
designed to see if we and the cocktail party stranger have any
friends in common, to ascertain if we move in similar social
circles. So, since we can't ask that question, we, with some
reticence, allow our attention to focus on the visitor's attire.
"That is an interesting outfit," we manage to say.
"What is it made of?" "Camel's hair," comes
the reply." Then we say to ourself, "I don't think
so. It looks nothing like the blazer for six hundred and fifty
dollars in the Brooks Brothers catalog." Then we realize
that this is untreated, off-the-back (not off-the rack) camel's
- Undaunted, we decide that since this conversation
is going nowhere, we do what every respectable cocktail-party-goer
does under such circumstances. We beat a hasty retreat to the
buffet table, mumbling (we hope inaudibly) to our new acquaintance
that he might wish to join us. We pick up our too-small plate
as we try to decide whether we can balance on it a jumbo shrimp
(there's an oxymoron!), a smoked salmon on toast, a miniature
crab cake and an asparagus tip wrapped in prosciutto,
when, through the corner of the eye we notice the out-of-the-wilderness-camel-hair-wearing
guest has eschewed all the proffered hors d'oeuvre, and has instead
reached into his pocket and extracted a Tupperware container
with a rather unappetizing and gooey mixture. We are not sure,
but it looks like there are tiny wings protruding through the
concoction! We lose our appetite.
- Yes, God has done it again! God has this
uncanny and unsettling knack for choosing from among the dregs
of humanity candidates for the most significant roles in the
drama of redemption. People we would have nothing to do with,
people to whom we would not give the time of day, people to whom
we would not assign even a walk-on part, occupy center stage
in God's theatre. Today the job description is "Forerunner
and Herald of Jesus Christ the King of Kings; must be able to
prepare the way of the Lord and make paths straight." We
would cast in this role a regal personage with a respectable
address and at least passable culinary tastes. But God chooses
someone quite different. John the Baptist comes from the same
wilderness to which Jesus would soon go. He wears clothes associated
with the poor and not the rich. And he eats locusts and wild
honey, something only the poor would let pass through their lips,
and even then a side dish --- but it is for the Baptist his entire
- I think the lifestyle of John the Baptist
challenges us in different ways. First of all, he tells us
that following Jesus requires sacrifice. What have we given
up recently for the sake of the Kingdom? We are trying to wrap
up our Annual Appeal. We might well look at our pledge and ask
if it represents, by any stretch of the imagination, a sacrificial
gift, or is an amount that frankly, we won't miss? If our annual
pledge is about the same amount we'd spend for a night out ---
say drinks, dinner and a show --- perhaps a fiscal adjustment
is in order.
- John the Baptist also reminds us that
following Jesus requires repentance
---a word which perhaps does not fall easily from our lips.
In fact, we may well have devised several evasive techniques
that make repentance unnecessary. We can, for example, try the
Flip Wilson approach to sin, "The devil made me do it."
Or we can use the "mote-and-beam" approach, in which
we decry our neighbors' shortcomings while minimizing our own.
In this way, neighbors can be described as gluttonous, while
we only overindulge occasionally; neighbors can be described
as adulterous while we enjoy a relationship between consenting
adults. Or we can blame society, like the character in "West
Side Story," who sang
My mother wore a moustache, my father wore a dress!
Goodness, gracious! That's why I'm a mess.
- But repentance is at the heart of our religion.
In the sacrament of Baptism, at the very beginning of our Christian
pilgrimage, we are asked if we will turn to Jesus Christ and
accept him as our Savior. In Cranmer's majestic and incomparable
words of the General Confession, we say: We have erred and strayed
from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the
devices and desires of our own hearts. We have done those things
which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those
things which we ought to have done. And precisely because we
find repentance difficult, somebody took out the words that used
to follow, "And there is no health in us." And we
needn't ask what happened to that all-too-descriptive phrase,
- But the hardest challenge with which John
the Baptist confronts us is to stop being religious! He tells the religious elite of his day that being
religious is no guarantee that you will be right with God. He
wasn't accusing them of piety and faithfulness, but religiosity
--- going through the motions, believing that just belonging
to the temple and appearing on the prescribed holy days will
ensure salvation. Nor will lineage save them, he warns. This
is why he says to them that it will do no good to say "We
have Abraham as our father."
- Indeed, to drive his point home, John the
Baptist comes out with the most scathing criticism imaginable.
He calls them a "brood of vipers." Well, after all
these years, I finally learned, from a rather insightful commentary,
what that really means, and I share you with it, with the caveat
that it conjures up a distinctly unpleasant image. In first
century Palestine people believed that vipers hatched inside
their mothers' wombs, then gnawed their way out to freedom, killing
their mothers in the process. And since parent murder was deemed
the most heinous of sins, such an insult could not possibly be
- In short, the unpleasant, unkempt and unsophisticated
John the Baptist calls us to make a radical commitment, a commitment
of sacrifice, repentance and faithfulness. And he invites us,
too, on a complex and unpredictable journey. The disciples didn't
know where they were going when they dropped everything and followed
Jesus. John the Baptist didn't know that he would become the
Harbinger of Jesus, or, for that matter, didn't know he would
end up with his head on a platter! Mary didn't know that God
would choose her to be the "Bearer of the Eternal Word."
The Rector and Vestry of Calvary Church didn't know that they
would be called to uphold the canons and fight for the integrity
of the Episcopal Church. Each of us is called by God to particular
tasks, and we must be open to the possibility that our road of
service may take us in a different direction than we had had
in mind. As someone once said, "If you want to make God
laugh, make plans."
- So perhaps John the Baptist, though a little
eccentric, wasn't so crazy after all. His less than genteel barging
into our pre-Christmas lives become not so much an intrusion
as an opportunity, with the hope that Christmas might become
not a sentimental and perfunctory holiday but a sacred and perfected
holy day when we unabashedly sing, "Let every heart prepare
- Let us pray:
Hark, the voice of one that crieth, in the desert far and
Calling us to new repentance, since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way;
Let the valleys rise to meet him
And the hills bow down to greet him. [Hymn 67, The