Uniform Lesson for December 27, 2020
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 3:1-12
Just as we were getting used to reading Jesus’ call through the lens of Matthew’s genealogy, along comes John the Baptist and cuts the root of this tree from beneath us. While a call can be bolstered by heredity, a true call, according to John the Baptist, must be confirmed by the production of fruit: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Apparently, God can just as easily raise up “children of Abraham” from gravel as from genealogies, especially if our family trees are resistant to welcoming the new movement afoot in Jesus. A fire is on the way, and all our dead wood is bound for burning.
Matthew 3:1-3 — A new kind of righteousness
For one last time, let’s return to the “band of sisters” we rediscovered in Matthew’s genealogy. As Amy-Jill Levine reminded us, they “all display a higher righteousness than the men with whom they are associated.” How so? “They take action” (in “The Access Bible”).
There may have been times in Israel’s story when a person or a community could passively mark their time as members of God’s covenant community. But at certain hinge moments – a threat to procreation (Tamar); a shift in allegiance (Rahab); a matter of survival (Ruth); a succession in kings (Bathsheba); and a turning of the ages (Mary) – action is required. We must repent regarding former patterns of decency and order (Joseph) and be willing to leave familiar surroundings and set out on a journey (the wise men), or we may miss out on the main flow of God’s story. We can try to resist such turnings in God’s story of salvation, but neither human power nor outright violence can stop it (Herod). “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” All aboard!
It’s all too easy to slam the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom Jesus labels a “brood of vipers.” But not only are they (like Joseph) zealously trying to be righteous, they come out to the Jordan and recognize some need for change in their lives. The problem is that they, like we, too often fail to recognize the radical nature of the call to which John, and then Jesus, invites us. Unlike many of the men in Matthew’s genealogy, you can’t simply mark time as parents, patriarchs and priests. “My heart shall sing of the day you [God] bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn” (Hymn #100 in “Glory to God”). It’s past the time for words. Only actions count now.
Matthew 3:4-6 — True repentance
Too often, we reduce repentance to a spoken confession of sin. As long as we are sorry, really sorry, for our sins, God is bound to forgive. This is not the biblical picture of repentance. Both faith and repentance in Scripture are more matters of loyalty and allegiance than feelings of sorrow or guilt. Just as the wise men, Herod and Joseph took actions in response to the birth of this child named Jesus, so we are called to act based on the baptism to which we and our children have been called. Listen to the profession of faith now required for those whom God calls to the waters of Christian baptism: “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” I do. “Who is your Lord and Savior?” Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?” I will, with God’s help. (Book of Common Worship). True repentance is a matter of words and actions. “Bear fruit [actions] worthy of repentance.”
Matthew 3:7-12 — Living stones
Of course, just as God can raise up “children of Abraham” from the gravel, so God can turn around and redirect the actions of the gravelliest of human hearts. Maybe what sticks most with me this time around with Advent and Christmas is God’s patience with reluctant followers, like Joseph. As we observed, Mary seems to be on board with God’s turning with Jesus with little or no protest. Joseph repeatedly takes prodding: dreams, Scripture, commands. Maybe then there’s hope for such reluctant followers as we in the mainline church. Yes, we are sometimes too slow to respond to the movements of others braver and more righteous than we — like the women in Matthew’s genealogy, like the wise men, like John. But Jesus, the Living Stone, can make “living stones” out of people like you and me (1 Peter 2:5) — though it may take a little fire!
For discussion: What does true repentance look like to you?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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