Of Camel’s Hair and Solar Panels: A Sermon Based on Matthew 3:1-12 Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia December 8, 2019 – The Second Sunday of Advent
I’m not sure what’s going on, but my neighborhood is a little behind this year in getting it’s Christmas on. I’m just not seeing as many lights and decorations decking my neighbors’ halls and doors as I’ve noticed by this time in more recent years. There are the obvious exceptions, including the folks down the street that have added to their usual collection of holiday yard displays an inflatable band of elves and reindeer singing country versions of Christmas songs. But generally speaking, our dark, wooded, non-street-lighted part of town seems a little darker than usual. Maybe everybody is just really busy, burning their seasonal candles at both ends. Or maybe we’re subconsciously leaning into the somber zeitgeist of these times. I mean, one house still has a skeleton-faced ghost hanging from a tree. For now most of the lights you see after the sun goes down are coming from those Amazon delivery vans desperately trying to keep up with our insatiable appetites for instant gratification.
If that sounds a little grumpy and judgmental, forgive me; maybe I’m inadvertently channeling another grumpy and judgmental voice that we hear barking at us this time of year. I can’t imagine John the Baptizer being big on festive light displays – or even hanging a sprig of holly above the entrance to his cave. According to the gospel writers, John himself was a kind of human bonfire, drawing people from all over Judea out into the wilderness, out into the clean, sharp air and away from the stifling heaviness of a world where it was getting harder and harder to breath or even to remember that they were God’s people and not just flunkies of the temple elite.
Once they were there, John did shine a rather harsh, unrelenting light straight into people’s hearts – challenging them to look hard into their own shadows and whatever was separating them from God and their neighbors and their true selves. In no uncertain terms, John declared that a new world was coming. In fact it was just around the corner, and with waves of grace and love and justice God was going to wipe out the ugliness and dehumanizing systems of the old world and brutal empire they had known. Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand! was how he put it. If the people wanted to be a part of that, then now was the time to get on board and reorient their lives to this newness. He was there to help clean them up and get them ready for the ride. They needed to own up to their sin – that is, the ways they had given in and capitulated to the pressure to save what was left of their lives rather than giving up their lives in love to God and those with whom they shared God’s good earth. And they needed to own up to their blessedness and beauty – the reality that they had not been born to serve the interests of the empire but to live into their calling to be co-creators with God of a joy-filled community of justice rooted in peace, a world where all live with dignity and respect and no more fear and violence.
Although it’s hard to name, there was obviously something compelling about John that went beyond mere curiosity. I mean, I’m sure some people made the trip just to see what the crazy cave-man might do next. But if we believe the gospels, he crackled with a kind of electric authenticity that grabbed peoples’ imaginations and awakened their conscience with the bracing power of cold river water. And his message reached far and wide, catching the ear not only of the poor and powerless but of soldiers and religious leaders and even King Herod himself (see, for example, Mark 6).
It seems to me that one of the core reasons John was so compelling was that his life conformed to his message. His message was as clear as the desert air: the world was about to change because the messiah was coming. Beyond that, he didn’t have any details. What he did have was conviction; he acted like he believed what he was saying. He practiced his own preaching, that was clear, too. In the Hebrew tradition, the prophet Elijah was expected to show up just ahead of God’s chosen one. And if God’s chosen one was the Word made flesh, then John was the incarnation of this prophetic promise. He was retro before there was retro, dressing just like Elijah had 800 years earlier and wearing the exact same outfit of a camel’s hair habit and leather belt. Beyond that, he embodied Isaiah’s description of the voice crying out in the wilderness to make the road straight for the Lord. And if the coming peaceable kingdom was just over the rise, then why bother stocking up on extra groceries? Or worrying too much about retirement options and investment strategies? Why not trust in God to provide his daily needs? Why not make a meal out of locusts and wild honey as an appetizer for the kingdom banquet? This bonfire of a preacher wasn’t just blowing smoke. More than his message itself, John’s most powerful witness was the way he lived.
Some of you will remember the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s slogan from the sixties: “the medium is the message.” By that, he seemed to mean that what someone says is only as convincing as how the person says it. Running with this idea, a theologian once urged all of us who are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus that we dare not speak of God’s suffering, self-sacrificial love in proud, over-confident tones. It would be a contradiction in terms, sort of like what if might have felt like if Mother Teresa had a spokesperson who was so good at what he did that he traveled around the world on a first-class ticket and stayed in five star hotels, even as he told the story of her ministry with the dying in Calcutta (from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “In Weakness and Much Trembling.”)
All of which leads me to wonder about the visible, public witness of the church. Not just our message but the medium through which we dare to speak it. What do we look like to those who might be walking by, looking for hope? To those who might be suffocating in this current atmosphere of hyper-tribalism and cynical analysis? We might talk a good game about loving neighbor and loving the earth and needing to change our ways if we’re going to have anything left to love – but do we look like we really believe it? Do we live lives that only make sense because God exists and grace is available? Do we embody the urgency of a new world coming into view? Or do we live and look just a little too content with the way things are, as if none of it is going to affect us, at least not now?
I grew up hearing my parents offer their own version of “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.” Again and again they would say it’s not a good thing to wear your faith on your sleeve. And I get that; I get what I think they were trying to say: Live your faith with humility and don’t make a show of your good deeds of love. God will know your motives as well as what you actually do and don’t do, and that’s all that matters.
But in our gospel text we also hear John asking, Is your life “green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire” (Matt.3:10 in The Message). That sounds like those of us who have been given a fresh start by baptism and God’s grace shouldn’t be show-offs, but at the same time we should expect to show some signs of God at work in us and through us. Maybe we don’t wear our faith on our sleeves but if people bother to look they might see our sleeves rolled up as we open our festively decked out doors to the stressed out in need of quiet, to those who’s worry has their stomach in knots as well as those who’s stomachs are growling like John because they are hungry. I hope people will see a community where anyone can come with their rough edges showing and their addictions and broken relationships and lack of answers – in the same way that the crowds of the imperfect and sinful flocked to John’s river church. I hope people will not only hear us announcing with the Baptizer’s urgency that the world’s climate is changing, but that we are responding in the most faithful and creative ways we know how. I hope that instead of camel’s hair they will see our church wearing solar panels.
For the record, I like pretty lights shining out from houses as I walk my dogs and try to navigate these confusing times. But the gospel reminds me that what makes God light up is not gatherings of the nicey-nice and the well put together. What God really adores and needs is for the church to dress itself in the visible clothing of unconditional love and welcome, to become a bonfire of hope and peace for everyone wandering in the wilderness of now. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Emmanuel! Amen.