Monday, December 06, 2010

Sermon - Matthew 3:1-12 - Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 5th, 2010
“Sticks and Stones”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So the parental wisdom goes. Most of us have been called names at some point in our lives, and maybe it's not so easy to brush it off. Part of the reason we call people names is because it does hurt – and it often contains bitter truth. Whether they called you four-eyes or shorty or fatso, whether the names were a schoolyard taunt or a calculated adult insult.... in some ways, sticks and stones would hurt less than the names that we are called, and that we call each other.

It's not very nice, is it, to call someone a name? It's not very Christian-like, is it? Would someone tell that to John the Baptist? In our Gospel reading today, he calls those pharisees a “brood of vipers”. You're a bunch of slithering snakes! And he implies that they are withered old trees that are good for nothing except to be chopped down and burned. Yes, John makes no bones about calling them names. Not very nice. Not very politically correct. But very, very Christian.

Even Jesus was a name-caller. He called those same pharisees “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs”. He continually called them out in his parables and his teaching. He was just as fierce as John the Baptist in pointing the accusing finger. And if the names don't hurt enough, Jesus even fashioned a whip to clear out the temple from the “den of thieves” as he called them.

John, I think, gets a bad rap as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He was really, essentially, no different than Jesus in this way. Jesus, too, taught a harsh word of law. He called people the names they deserved. And the truth hurts.

And your pastors do the same. Maybe we're a little less brazen about it, but every Sunday when you come here, we call you names. We call you “sinner”. Of course, we call ourselves that, too. But that shouldn't blunt the force of the blow.

Perhaps we've grown so accustomed to that name, “sinner” that it doesn't hurt anymore. Perhaps it doesn't even phase us. Some people outside the church would bristle at such an accusation. “I am NOT a sinner! I'm a good person! I do what I'm supposed to do. God knows I mean well. Don't you judge me, you Christian.”
Well if you think like that too, all I can say is what John said. “Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

The truth hurts, and it should. We are sinners. We're no better than the brood of vipers, the white-washed tombs, the den of thieves. Are you a liar, a gossiper, a drunk, a cheater? A lazy, mean, pride-filled so-and-so? Pick the name that fits you, or have a few. It's not just “sinner” in general – it's the specific sins, too. You have yours, and I have mine.

And they hurt us more than sticks and stones. They kill us. They bring suffering and death. For all the excuses and justifications we bring, we can't escape the wages of our sin. We know our name – and it is mud. Sin has our number.

But then.... then there's that other name. The name that Jesus calls us. The name that is foreign to us, a new - adopted name. Not the name of our birth, but of our second birth. The name we receive when our sins our washed away. A Triune name that is upon us, and into which we are baptized. A name that matters more than the name of “sinner”. A name that makes our old name irrelevant.

The sticks and stones of sinful names hurt us, but life and salvation come in Jesus' name. Forgiveness comes in that new name – the new birth in him.

For he conquered our sin with two sticks – fashioned in the shape of a cross. And he vanquished death with a stone, rolled away from his tomb. And in his resurrection, we see our future – and in his reign from heaven he prepares a place for us. An inheritance – waiting with our name on it. A book of life, in which our names are written.

John prepares the way by calling sinners what they are – sinners. And by calling them to repent. And by washing their sins away. Jesus is the way who called sinners what they were, called them to repent, and won for them a new name.

Today, you are a sinner, and the pastor is calling you to confess your sins and repent. But he's also calling you to believe. Believe in the Christ who came to win you back from sin. Believe in the Christ who died and rose for you. Believe in the Christ who gives you a new name in Baptism.

Names can hurt you, especially when they are true. Sticks and stones can break your bones, and even kill you. But his gracious word of promise brings you forgiveness, life and salvation. Thank God for calling us by His name, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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