The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near

 

Meditation on Matthew 3:1–12

For Second Sunday in Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 8, 2019

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 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 to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but 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 fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Melvyn

I had a little bit of difficulty working on my message yesterday. I think you should know the obstacles I face when I am preparing to share with you the Word of the Lord. You see, my cat, Melvyn, was really annoyed with me. I wrote this just after he glared at me from behind my computer, yowled, and took a bite out of the cover of my Bible commentary!

You might be surprised that his visual impairment didn’t keep him from trying to close the lid of my laptop. Then, he unplugged it with his paw, and gave it a shove. It came off my lap desk, and almost dropped to the floor. Then, after I repositioned it and restored the plug, he climbed into my lap, and lay down on top of my open Bible, making it very hard to read or type.

He had been trying to get my attention all day. Because the day before—on Friday—even when I was home, I was distracted, working at my computer or on the phone. Beginning Saturday morning, around 6:30, he had to make up for lost attention time. He jumped on our bed, walked across my body and onto the nightstand beside me, where there are ALL sorts of things he likes to knock off. My glasses. My watch. My phone. Books. Pens. A lamp. A cup of tea. If knocking things on the floor fails to gain my response, he thumps my glass water bottle with his head or pokes the lampshade with his nose. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Yesterday, what got my attention, finally, was when he stood on top of me, got up real close to my face, purred ferociously, and started licking my eyelids and cheek.

What it comes down to is this. Melvyn isn’t happy with my lifestyle. It doesn’t suit him. He wants me to change. He’s never going to stop trying to get my attention, and demanding an audience. He’s never going to stop pestering me when he has something important for me to do. Like feed him breakfast or give him a snack.

***

John the Baptist demands our attention, today, on this Second Sunday of Advent, and every day, if our heart is open to his message of change—in ourselves, our lives, the Church of Jesus Christ, the world.

We’ve heard this passage every Advent, so many times, it’s tempting to kind of skim it or snooze through it. Camel hair. Locusts. Honey. Vipers, unquenchable fire and all that. Why, he’s like the opening act and not the group that you paid good money for tickets to see. We want to hear about the baby born in Bethlehem and sing “Joy to the World.” Open our presents, eat Christmas dinner, hang out with family and friends. Maybe watch a football game. O-H! I-O!

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In these weeks and days before Christmas, we don’t feel much like entering into a real or imagined wilderness space, where we are called to examine our hearts, the fruit of our lives, and confess our sins. Who here feels like confessing sins?

We only half listen when John cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But the word for “repent” is the Greek metanoia.  This doesn’t just mean turn away from your sin or turn back to God. It literally means take on a new mind set! Make a U-turn! Change course. John is telling his world and ours that participating in the kingdom of God is going to require more than just showing up at the Jordan. It is about being prepared to let go of what we used to be, and become someone new. Paul says to the Galatians in 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But John says, himself, that he isn’t the important one. Not me, he says. The one coming after me. Now that’s the one to pay attention to! “I am not worthy to carry his sandals!” he says. “I baptize you with water for repentance. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and FIRE.”

John-the-Baptist-in-river

Yet, John’s cries are heard by the people of his time, as if he is a rockstar! When John baptizes, everyone in the region along the Jordan River, the big city folks of Jerusalem, and all of Judea are coming out to the wilderness. And they didn’t even have cell phones, a Jordan River Website with live streaming camera feed, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to let them know where and when! And the interesting thing is, to me, that he hasn’t come to reform a religious institution. He doesn’t show up in a synagogue or the temple, wearing Sabbath-best clothes. He’s outside! Far from the Holy City. Dirty and disheveled. Blunt and bold. Wearing a hairy mantle like the prophet Elijah, lifted up to a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire in the sky.

John’s wilderness isn’t a bad place, not like the wilderness experience of the Israelites who had escaped slavery in Egypt only to be lost and wandering for 40 years. John’s wilderness is a safe space for people to leave their everyday problems, worries, fears, dangers, and distractions, and prepare their hearts to meet the Lord. But some who come to see John and be baptized, such as the wealthy, religious elites, come for an appearance of piety, and because they can’t risk ignoring him. He demands their attention, because he is a threat to their lifestyle– their wealth and power. John is drawing people away from the synagogues and institutionalized religion! And he’s telling the harsh truth about them, revealing who they really are. “You brood of vipers!” he shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

vipers

***

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we, too, like the people of Judea, Jerusalem, and the area around the Jordan, should listen to John with open hearts, so that the Word may accomplish its work in us and equip us for service. This is the violent, unjust world to which Christ will come, first as the infant, then again as our King. So, we wait and hope in Him. Our faith leads to transformed lives—to our bearing good fruit, as John commands us. But what we anticipate, what we live for in Advent, as one New Testament scholar says, is “the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the Kingdom, when right will be vindicated as right and wrong clearly identified as wrong.” Don’t we all long for that to happen?

According to John the Baptist, the day of judgment is not far off. The Lord, he says in the third chapter of Matthew, has already placed an ax against the tree, ready to cut down any that don’t bear good fruit. The winnowing fork is already in his hand.  Similar to a pitchfork, the winnowing fork is used to lift harvested wheat up into the air. The wind blows away the lighter chaff or husk surrounding the seed and other debris, while the edible grain falls to the threshing floor. The Lord will clear his threshing floor, John says, gather the wheat—those who reveal their repentance by their good works—into the granary, the Kingdom of God. The chaff will be burned with an unquenchable fire, the power of God.

But we have no fear. Our Judge is our Redeemer. Our merciful, loving Savior has claimed us in our baptisms. We belong to Him, just as Quinn and Laila will be claimed by him in their baptisms today. We are united by the Spirit as Christ’s Body for the world. Every day, the Spirit leads us and helps us bear good fruit.

Friends, I pray that the Spirit will stir you to boldly proclaim the gospel in word and deeds, like John! May the Lord grant you courage to always tell the truth and work for peace and justice.

May you be attentive to the voice of the one who cried out to all Judea and Jerusalem and speaks to us, still. Let go of your problems, worries, and anxieties. Resist the frantic busyness and materialism that the world says is good, especially this time of year.

Come with me, John says, to the wilderness. Come, just as you are. You don’t need to bring anything but you. It’s a place of safety and refuge. Honesty, trust and transformation. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.”

 

Holy One, thank you for the words of the prophets, especially for John. He spoke the truth boldly, lived simply, and served you faithfully, even dying for you. Lead us, Lord, into the wilderness, where ever that place may be for each of us. Draw us into that space of safety and refuge, where we can leave all our problems, fears, and anxieties behind and learn to place our trust in you. Help us to be attentive to your voice. Give us repentant hearts that will lead to the transformation of ourselves, our lives, our church and world. Lead us to do the works that you want us to do, works in your name that will bear good fruit. Grant us patience and courage as we wait and hope for your Son’s return and the transformative justice of your Kingdom. In His name we pray. Amen.

He Is Coming Soon!

Meditation on Matthew 24:36-44

First Sunday of Advent

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Dec. 1, 2019

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36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

***

 

It was Taco Teepee Tuesday, and I didn’t even know it.  Mr. Gill and Mrs. Yost had invited me to spend time with their second graders at Coshocton Elementary on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, since school would be closed on Friday, my usual day to read to the students and listen as they read to me. I said yes, though it meant changing my schedule and working at the church office on Monday, my usual day off. I was looking forward to sharing a message with Mrs. Yost’s class about the first Thanksgiving, like I did for the children’s message in church, making sure to emphasize, in the midst of our delicious Thanksgiving feasts, the importance of remembering to give God thanks for all his gifts to us.

Mr. Gill had just started making taco teepees with his class—and I had just finished my time with Mrs. Yost’s class, when the fire alarm went off! From the startled expression on Mrs. Yost’s face, I was pretty sure she wasn’t expecting a fire drill.

But she knew what to do—and so did her kids. She grabbed her class list and down the stairs we went, out the back door, and down more steps to a sidewalk, then, turning left, we walked all the way to the tennis courts, where the entire second grade was gathering. They moved quickly, with only a little talking, giggling, and shhh-ing—knowing their destination. They had practiced a number of times this school year and in kindergarten and first. Their teachers had taught them what to do—and how they shouldn’t be afraid, but that they should also take it seriously and be watching and listening for new instructions. Because you never know if it is a real emergency or just a drill!

Waiting with the children at the tennis courts, I had a moment to thank God, again, for making it possible for me to be there with them, when I had never planned on coming on Tuesdays, let alone THE Taco Teepee Tuesday.

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It was another opportunity to serve those whom Jesus had said, gathering the children to himself, as the disciples tried to shoo them away—to “such as these” the Kingdom of God belongs.

 

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As we waited for the all-clear signal, I thought to myself, what if instead of a fire alarm, it was the sound of a trumpet and Jesus had come back at that very moment—when we were with the children, talking about, of all things, prayer. That would have been a good time for Jesus to return! We were ready!

“Come, Lord Jesus,” I whispered as we walked back to our classrooms, remembering Christ’s promise in Revelation 22:20. “Surely, I am coming soon!”

 

***

 

On this first Sunday in Advent, we are reminded that we are living in the in-between times—getting ready to tell the beautiful story, once again, of our Savior’s birth and preparing our hearts for Christ’s return.

In our gospel reading in Matthew, why does Jesus emphasize our need to get ready and be alert? Because it is easy to let the things of this world distract and consume us—like they did in the time of Noah, when people were eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—just living their lives, but living apart from God. They didn’t have a foundation of faith or a relationship with the Lord.

It’s not a coincidence that we read this Scripture on the first Sunday of Advent, in a season when we are SO busy. We just make it through Thanksgiving, and then it’s Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Our homes must be decorated, cookies must be baked, and the Christmas cards are waiting to be written. Is anyone else’s December calendar already full of activities and the month has barely begun? With all the good things you have planned, make sure you don’t forget your first love—the Lord—and that preparing our hearts to meet Him isn’t the same as getting ready for Christmas.

Another reason Jesus urges us to prepare our hearts for his return is to give us hope. We can become easily discouraged if we forget that this isn’t all there is!

We know Christ is coming. We just don’t know when. Jesus says not even the angels or the Son of Man himself know when he will return. Only God knows. Anyone who tries to tell you differently, Jesus says, is trying to lead you astray.  The image of his coming like a thief in the night here in Matthew is taken up by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thess. 5:2: “ For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” And in Revelation 16:15, when Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake…”

But we can be ready for him, as I felt so keenly this past Tuesday, when I was sure that where I was, was where I needed to be, and what I was doing was what the Lord wanted. Isn’t that a wonderful feeling when that happens? I felt a longing in my heart to see the One who will “come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” as Jesus says in Matthew 24:30-31. “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

Are you wondering what will happen to us when Jesus comes back? Scripture says that we will be transformed. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:51-52, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” John says in 1 John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

And what of the images of two being in the field—one taken, the other left? And two women grinding meal together; again, one will be taken, another left? How should we respond to these? Should we be afraid that we might be left? No, once you have said yes to the Spirit’s invitation and accepted Christ as your Savior, the Lord isn’t going to change his mind about you. Ephesians 1:4 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Paul in Romans 10:13 says, “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Rather than fear or insecurity, the image of one being taken and another left should stir us to compassion for those who don’t know Jesus. It reminds us that we have an important job—and that’s allowing God to use us and speak through us, sharing the good news of Jesus and his love.

Being prepared for Christ’s return means having a firm foundation, having studied, worshiped, prayed and practiced our faith so well that we respond to the Lord as the children did to the fire drill—with confidence and without fear, being sure of our destination, always listening for the Spirit’s direction, looking for opportunities to serve, care for others and give of ourselves. We won’t know how many lives we have touched; how many people we have helped draw nearer to Him. But we HAVE touched lives. We ARE making a difference.

It is my prayer that when the Lord comes back, he will find us faithful—doing only the things he wants us to do and not wasting a single moment harboring hurt or holding onto the past, not when there are good works in Christ’s name to do.

For every time we give and care for someone in need, we are preparing our hearts to meet the Lord.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

***

As I was leaving the elementary school last week, one of the ladies in the office asked, “Hey, do you have a minute?” I had an appointment to get to, but I stopped to listen, sensing it was important.

She wanted me to know about a gift from the women of our church, more than a year ago, of about $250. She used the money recently to buy sweat pants of all sizes—47 pairs—for children who fall down, tear their pants, or get dirty or wet at the bus stop, on the playground, or in school. The new pants are given to the children; they never ask for them back.

The lady who told me this story had tears in her eyes. “Will you tell the women that I said thank you?” she said.

I said that I would—and that I would encourage our church to help again whenever the children have needs.

For when we give and care for others, we are preparing our hearts for the Lord’s return. When he comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, may he find us faithful.

Friends, He is coming soon!

 

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for the promise of our everlasting life with you and for your return for your beloved Church. Thank you for the plans you have for us, the works you have already ordained for us to do in your name, giving to others, caring for people in need, sharing the good news of your grace and love. Help us to keep you at the center of all our activities and celebrations this month. Lead us in your will so that we don’t try to do too much. Prepare our hearts, Lord, for your return. Stir us to remain ever watchful and ever faithful, not wasting time on things that don’t bring joy or build up your Church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon! In your name we pray. Amen.