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Message Supplement for 4 December 2016–“Peaceful Transformation”

Today is the second Sunday in Advent, and with it comes a message that combines the lectionary selections from Isaiah (11:1-10), Romans (15:4-13) and Matthew (3:1-12).
The Isaiah passages capture an expectation for the coming of God’s righteous teacher, whom generations of Christians have interpreted as referring to Jesus or John the Baptist. It is far from conclusive that these later historical figures were on Isaiah’s mind, but that isn’t the point. Whoever is this messiah-like figure, Isaiah narrates how the leader will usher a magnificent age of blessed spiritual peace. That we should purpose with Isaiah to achieve a more peaceful world is a worthy pursuit (just to emphasize one of Isaiah’s themes). We needn’t get stuck in the mud arguing about literal biblical prophecy because the legitimate challenge is to partner with God toward the better life that he envisioned. Isaiah’s peace is like much of our Christian faith: easy to preach but difficult to reach.
In the book of Romans, Paul the author instructs his readers to live peacefully with one another. Getting along with other Christians has never been easy. It’s common to refer back to some ancient, golden age when Christians supposedly lived by Jesus’ love. This is only a fantasy because if it happened at all it didn’t last. Spiritual maturity is a journey and the process of renewal is a tough, ongoing lifestyle. We must seek peace with one another despite how terribly difficult it is to balance our own work while also nurturing other peoples’ spiritual goals. As always, Christians are diverse, and peering under the surface reveals nasty, persistent divisions. We must persist and stay positive to overcome unpleasant realities. Differences notwithstanding, God’s people can rejoice and proclaim our glorious spiritual redemption.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ second cousin, is pivotal in our reading from Matthew. John’s version of repentance via baptism was his preferred way of demonstrating spiritual cleansing. John did not invent baptism but he emphasized its transforming power. The church has continued baptism and there is spiritual significance attached to the symbolism of this popular water ritual. The original response of the people to John’s baptism is just as astonishing as John’s peculiar appearance and rural location. Word spread quickly about the novelty of what John was doing. Varied classes of people came from all over Judea to receive a reassuring dunk in the Jordan River.
Baptism can help people connect with God but John disturbed the waters. He warned that baptism is an initial step in spiritual renewal and that it’s only helpful if those receiving baptism know what they’re doing. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jewish sects who would later give Jesus trouble (Matthew 3:7b). Perhaps those religious bureaucrats sought social status and grassroots, populist favor. This is why John cautioned those being baptized to avoid getting caught in religious fashion or superficial solutions. John reminded us to examine our motivations and to realize what we’re getting in to. John’s emphasis on understanding baptism is why many non-mainline Christians oppose infant baptism. Babies can’t possibly know what’s being done to them and the people watching may place too much emphasis on the ritual.
John warned those being baptized to not embrace tradition as a solution to spiritual problems. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’. . .” (Matthew 3:9a). John’s statement reveals how people rely too much on privilege and heritage and not enough on personal spirituality. The temptation has been for churches and Christians to be seduced by their roots, by traditions and cherished views. Consider how John’s cautions may apply to those who rely on ethnic pedigree to excuse themselves from true spiritual renewal. Let’s not fall into the same trap as John’s ancient audience by assuming that we can inherit salvation from our religious ancestors. Also, baptism is neither mandatory nor magical; it’s an expression of each person’s inner transformation.
God’s message echoes through the ages. We share the Gospel of love and truth as we encourage renewal through partnering with God and championing peace. Let us therefore proclaim Jesus’ love into the hearts and minds of every living creature. We can then witness God’s power through the renewal and energizing of our spirit. –Reverend Larry Hoxey