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Sermon of Reverend Susan Nagle
Pastor Nagle

The Trap of Obligation

Advent II - Sunday, December 04, 2016
Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.” 4Now John wore clothing of camel”s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even now the axe 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. 12His 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.”

John the Baptist is discouraged.  He had a very specific assignment of preparing the people by preaching repentance.  I could never forget that the very first sermon I preached when a church was voting to call me as their pastor, and I had as the Gospel text John the Baptist’s words:  You brood of vipers; who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. 

Not a particularly gentle man, John.
Here’s what he meant by that.  He preached the scold, urging the people to repent and return to the Lord to prepare for the one who was to come with judgment and blessing.  They came out to him in droves.  You would think that they’d hold back and say, Who wants to be judged?  But that’s not the only part of the human psyche. 

The other part is that we are often more motivated by our obligations than by our interests.  What does that mean?  We respond more to the things we have to do than to the things we want to do.  What does that mean?  We need someone to tell us what to do. 

When I can’t get myself motivated by the things that I know would be a blessing to me, phone calls, visits, contacts,
then I keep myself going with scheduled events.  I don’t want to decide about every hour.  I create someone, even myself, to tell myself what to do. 

Wouldn’t it be easier if I were to tell you what God expects of you, how God desires you to balance your daily work with your commitment to Christ’s holy church? 

I think that there are a lot of times in our lives when we are really motivated, a fire is lit under us, when someone like John the Baptist tells us what to do.  A memory flashed into my head while I was thinking about this. 

I was in 7th grade; I was deeply upset because I had gotten a bad grade on a Vocabulary test.  I was supposed to go to a meeting of the school paper after school, but I didn’t want to stay.  So I said I had to call my mom and check.  I went to the phone, and asked, may I stay after school for the newspaper meeting.  She said, Sure.  I said, Tell me I can’t.  Why?  She asked?  Because I’m upset and I want to come home.  OK, she said, Come home.

why was it easier for me to say that I had to go, than that I wanted to go? 
Because it lowers our accountability to be obligated by someone telling you what to do. 

So they came out to John in droves, beloved cousin of Jesus, messenger who is to prepare Jesus way.  And John said to them, Why did you come out?  what did you expect to find?  What warned you to flee from wrath?  What motivated you?

And yet, yes, you are right, he told them.  You must repent.  The ax is already laid to the root of the tree.  Injustice will topple like a tree under the judgment of God. 
Some loved it, this message of accountability.  Some loved it only when it didn’t get too close. 

Matthew 14 will tell us more about John and the results of his preaching:
Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”  Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.  But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask.  Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.  The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.”

Do you see?  The word of repentance is very popular until it gets too personal. 

It should be said about John the Baptist  that Jesus was deeply hurt by John’s rejection and his death.  Matthew 4 - Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea. 
Matthew 11 - Now when Jesus heard that John had been killed, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. 

That’s the backdrop for next week’s Gospel, that Jesus praises John and calls him the return of Elijah.  He asks what they thought they’d see when they went out to hear John?  This week’s story of John is about what John said about Jesus; next week we hear what Jesus said about John. 

It’s Stewardship time and it’s year-end budget time, and how easy it would be to adopt a system where obligation is the theme.  Does that work? You bet it does.  There are lots of Christian churches, where people flock in droves because someone is scolding them and telling them of their obligations. Isn’t that the whole thing about the prophets in Judaism. 
You’ve done wrong; God’s gonna get you.

Well it works, but it’s not our message.  Sorry, finance committee.
Our message is that this new revelation of God (John points him out and it’s Jesus)

answers all of our deepest needs and longings, and obligation is not enough.

It’s now about the response to God who has reached out and loved you.
If you are loved by someone who loves YOU, then you would answer: What can I do for you, or for the others you love.  So that’s what God is about to do in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem; tear down the old system of obligation and establish a new relationship called LOVE. Amen.