(Romans 13:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This 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.'” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But 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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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. Even now the ax 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. “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. His 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.”
Father Abraham had many “kids,” yes many kids had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you; so let’s all praise the Lord! So say the lyrics of a popular kids Bible song. Abraham has been called the “Father of many nations.” There is a biblical foundation for this understanding of our great forefather in faith, Abraham. John the Baptizer makes reference to it in our Gospel lesson for this morning from Matthew Chapter three. It traces Jewish history back to Abraham’s covenant relationship with God, as recounted in Chapter 15 of the Book of Genesis. You see, God called Abraham out of his country of Ur to a new homeland in Canaan. There, God promised Abraham much land, great riches and a multitude of nations. But as yet, Abraham had no heirs from his wife Sarai, and both of them were advanced in years. God promised Abraham legitimate offspring “of his own issue,” direct descendants from his wife Sarai. Abraham believed God’s promise, and the scriptures inform us that Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, one that seemed to be impossible, was “reckoned by God as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6, NRSV). This is the first time within the history of the Holy Scriptures that God considered the faith of a person to account as righteousness. Biblical scholars consider this to be a foreshadowing that God’s plan of salvation had begun with Abraham’s accepting God’s covenant promise that he would have a multitude of descendants as numerous as the stars by faith. Therefore, scholars also consider Abraham to be the “First Father of the Hebrews.”
If we now fast forward in time to our Gospel lesson, we find John the Baptizer at the River Jordan baptizing many who confess and repent of their sin. John is preparing the hearts and souls of his Jewish kinsfolk for the coming of their promised Messiah, Jesus. “I baptize you with water,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John also saw many Sadducees and Pharisees among the people coming forth for baptism, and he asked them who had warned them of the wrath that was to come. Then, John admonished them to “bear fruit worthy of true repentance.” “Do not presume to say to yourselves that you have Abraham as your ancestor,” John said to them. In other words, John warned the Pharisees and Sadducees that just being of the Jewish people who descended from Abraham is not a guarantee of righteousness; true faith and repentance, and not relying merely on biological lineage, is necessary. And there it is for us again, folks. John assures the people that righteousness comes from faith, and is not guaranteed by biological heritage. The future outcome of John’s message will be revealed when, as Paul quoted for us today from the Prophet Isaiah, Gentiles will also praise and glorify God, singing praises to God’s holy name with all his people. Jew and Gentile alike, all who come to believe in Christ Jesus, will become Abraham’s descendants, and the heirs to God’s kingdom.
The Jews of Jesus’ time were not the first, nor the only, people to presume a favored status with God. In the days of John Wesley, theological debate continued over the issue of whether there were elect people who were predetermined by God to receive salvation unto eternal life in God’s kingdom. Sixteenth Century theologian John Calvin developed a theological doctrine, known in the religious community as the Doctrine of Predestination, which holds that there are certain people whom God elects to be saved by God’s grace. This grace is both irresistible and fully unconditional for those God has chosen. The rest of the world, Calvin held, lives in a state of depravity, without the hope of eternal salvation.
As you might imagine, Calvinism caused more than a little consternation and debate. Many who were wealthy and powerful considered their earthly status to be an indication of their predestined elect status with God. Since they were already heaven-bound, they considered that life in this world was theirs to do with as they pleased. Therefore, many people lived self-serving and immoral lifestyles.
John Wesley was a careful study of the scriptures. He read verses like those we read today from Matthew Chapter 3 about John the Baptizer’s mission and ministry, and the text of one of my favorite lessons of Jesus from John 3:16-17. There Jesus informs Jewish Pharisee, Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Reading that God so loved the world, not just certain chosen people in the world, that God sent Jesus so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life, Wesley could not adopt a Calvinist theology. Instead, Wesley adopted the Theological Doctrine of Arminianism, a system of belief named for its 17th century Dutch founder, Jacobus Arminius. The Doctrine of Arminianism states that Christ Jesus died for all who come to believe in him, and who will accept and receive salvation as the free-gift of his loving grace. Therefore, our Methodist doctrinal foundation is one of believing that salvation comes to us by faith in the atoning work our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus, accomplished for us on the cross. For me, this is an important foundational component of our Methodist faith. As John the Baptizer warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day, salvation depends, not upon genealogy and heritage, but upon a faith that leads to repentance of sin; a faith that is evidenced by the good fruit it bears for the kingdom of God.
And so, here we are brothers and sisters in Christ, on this second Sunday of Advent. We are mostly Gentiles by birth, with perhaps a few of us claiming some biological lineage back to a Jewish ancestry. But, like our forefather in faith, John Wesley, who is credited as the founder of our Methodist Denomination, we also believe John the Baptizers words that God can raise from the very stones of the earth children to Abraham. We have been adopted by our faith into Abraham’s family. As in the days of John the Baptizer, may our faith and repentance from sin be evidenced by the good fruit we bear for God’s kingdom right here on earth. For our faith brings us the power and help of the blessed Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit at work in and through each of us results in acts love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Paul told the Galatian Church. The same is true for believers today. May we live by these same holy virtues, and in doing so prove that we are truly, and by our faith, the children of Abraham. Amen.