Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent - Dec 4 2016

The Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, A
December 4, 2016
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19’ Romans 15:4-14; Matthew 3:1-12

To be weak in faith, Paul’s expression, most likely means to be a believer in the Gospel, but to not have worked out all the implications of that belief as yet.

If you remember the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus, and then vowed to repay and restore any whom he had cheated, then you have heard how one man grew strong in faith, as he realized the implications of his belief and took steps to change his life because of this realization.

This was what Jesus was about … and I’ll get to that in just a bit.

Why do I bring up Paul’s understanding about being weak in the faith?  Because the passage in the letter to the Romans that we read this morning starts in chapter 14, with an admonishment to the church in Rome to “welcome those who are weak in faith,” – and not simply for the purpose of disputing with them, judging them, or correcting them.  What we read this morning is his summation of a longer teaching on the proper way to be community.

Now in the letter to Rome, Paul talks about the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  Rome had only recently lifted a complete ban on Jews being in Rome at all, because of the uprisings against Rome by Jews in many places.  That ban being lifted, Jewish Christians were among those who came to Rome – including, for example, Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila.  Some of the Jewish Christians may have been still relying on the directions in the Jewish scriptures on what foods they could eat and with whom, and so on.  We know this happened, because Peter had to learn that it didn’t matter – a description of that is found in the Book of Acts. 

Paul wanted the Gentile Christians to respect their Jewish brethren in their food restrictions, because they hadn’t fully worked out the implications of their faith – and he wanted the Jewish Christians to understand that they could eat with the Gentiles and not be censured for that.

He never says that the Jewish Christians were ‘weak in the faith” or that the gentile Christians were ‘strong in the faith’ – perhaps on the food issue it was one way, but on the hospitality and not judging issues it was the other – we don’t know.

Either way, the word is “welcome.” 

Christ welcomed Jews and Gentiles; he welcomed the weak in faith, and he welcomed those who were strong in faith. 

Paul explains how this happened and why – Christ became a servant of the circumcised to confirm the promises to their ancestors, and so that the uncircumcised would glorify God on account of his mercy.

And what was God’s mercy that the Gentiles would wonder at?  That the promises to the Jewish patriarchs was extended to them – that God would be, and always was, a God for all humanity. 

Christ fulfilled the Scriptures – which at this time were what we call the Old Testament only – and in fulfilling them, opened the way to heaven for all who turn to him.

Weak or strong in the faith, all are welcomed and cared for.

Today we also read John the Baptist’s message, and it is a hard message to hear.  It contains a mix of anger and solace, of condemnation and of hope.

John uses several images: of bearing fruit, of stones becoming the descendants of Abraham, of axes cutting down trees, of raging fire destroying all in its path, of water, of baptism, of Holy Spirit and Fire, of winnowing the grain and separating out the chaff…

He calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees who come for baptism, and he tells them to bear fruit worthy of repentance – apparently John’s baptism isn’t going to cut it for them; they will have to do better.  They can’t count on the fact that they are descended from Abraham; they must “bear good fruit.”  It is the one coming after John whose baptism with Spirit and fire will winnow them out. 

Paul might call them “weak in faith” – for they have not realized the implications of the faith they profess, they have not lived lives reflecting the gifts and grace of God; they have not welcomed others, cared for others, respected others.  It’s all been about them, and their rules and their rituals, and how others don’t measure up.  They got to decide who was worthy to enter the Temple and approach the throne of the holy one.  They got to decide who was clean and who was unclean.  They got to enforce the rules of sacrifice and ritual.  They thought they were important.

John was not kind to them.  Like the prophets of old, he called them out for their hypocrisy and self-centered self-justification.

He called them to repent, to turn back, to let go of their own authority and follow the true path – loving God, serving neighbor, seeking justice, and all in humility before the Lord their Creator.

He said the one coming after him would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.”

The Spirit would fill them with the living breath of God, and the fire would burn off those things that lead to death.

John doesn’t compromise with evil. 

So as we await the coming of the Messiah as a new-born child, and as we await the coming of the Messiah as the king of heaven, we must ask ourselves – where in our lives do we need God’s spirit; and where do we need the winnowing fire?

Are we more like the Pharisees and Sadducees than we might like to admit? 

Or are we ready to become strong in the faith, accepting the implications of a Gospel of love and caring and humility, letting go of self-centered living and taking on the Spirit of God?  Which will it be?

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