Matthew 3:1-12
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 4, 2022

The first 15 years of his life, Tim White’s son Ryan endured 30 surgeries.  At the age of 8, he had a very serious one.  The medical staff had given him the purple “Barney juice” with something like morphine in it, and was rolling him on his gurney down to the operating room.  As usual, Ryan’s parents were walking alongside of him right up to the room’s double doors, where they’d give him final hugs and words of encouragement.  This time, at the last moment, Ryan sat up, locked eyes with Tim and pleaded, “Dad, don’t let them take me!”

Tim’s heart clutched.  He would have done anything to keep Ryan from the surgery had he not desperately needed it.  As he let the orderlies take his tearful son into all that pain, Tim shook and wept with anguish.

In the family waiting room, as Tim prayed for Ryan, the thought came to him that God had gone through what he just had.  Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, had pleaded, “Father, if there is any way, let this cup pass from me,” making in effect the same request Ryan made when he cried out, “Dad, don’t let them take me!”  But God let the crucifiers take His Son, just as Tim let the surgeons take his.  Only Tim let it happen for his son’s good, while God let it happen for the good of every human being.

God’s heart-wrenching decision to let Jesus suffer cost God even more pain than Tim experienced, as terrible as that was.  God’s decision proves how greatly disturbed He was over our plight and how determined He was to go through horrific troubles to bring us peace:  peace with our Creator, with ourselves and with our neighbors who allow it.

The peace God gives is deep and enduring; but also, this side of heaven, disturbing, troubling and costly.  In fact, when we welcome the kingdom of heaven as it draws near and come under the reign of the Prince of peace, our difficulties have just begun.  But they’re the right kind of difficulties, and the most rewarding of all.

John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for the Prince of peace, had a life that was disturbing and troubling.  He grew up in a wilderness and practiced a rigid asceticism in which he wore only clothes made of camel hair and ate only insects and wild honey.  And, after making a host of enemies, he ended up imprisoned, and eventually beheaded.

John the Baptist had a message that was disturbing and troubling.  He challenged people, particularly the blithely presumptuous and the self-congratulatory.  He confronted them all with their need to repent of their betrayal of their best selves and of their God.

John the Baptist had a mission that was disturbing and troubling.  He told truth many hated to hear and warned them of judgment.  He sacrificed the fame and success he could have had in order to point beyond himself to Someone who “ranked ahead” of him and whose sandals he felt “not worthy to carry”.  John embraced a calling to serve Someone above himself and “make ready a people prepared” for that Someone whom, he often repeated, was “more powerful” than he and “greater” than he.  For, while he but baptized with water, this coming One would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

Although biblical scholars don’t agree about what all this “baptism with fire” means, given how John at that moment immediately described Jesus as having a winnowing fork in his hand to separate the chaff from the wheat so as to burn the chaff away, it’s hard not to think that, at least in part, it means that Jesus intends to purify with the holy fire of heaven the character and conduct of those who follow Him.  Jesus, by a disturbing and troubling process, brings about a wonderful outcome!

When we come under the reign of the Prince of peace, we gain genuine peace, but a disturbing one that, even as it settles us down in our soul, stirs us up in our life.  We become peacemakers who can make no peace with injustice, cruelty and cold disregard of the needy.  We lose our capacity to be OK just because everything is OK with us.  We grow troubled over the problems of even those we never before cared about or even thought about.  We become riled up to embody God’s love and geared up to pay whatever costs it takes, in self-denial and deprivation, to display God’s gracious generosity.

For example, we take up the practice of forgiving others just as God has forgiven us.

J.D. Greear has noted how disturbing and troubling this practice is.  For, he says, our choosing to forgive someone requires our choosing to absorb the cost of the wrong they’ve done us.

Greear invites us to imagine something.  Suppose you steal my car and wreck it, but you have no insurance or money to get me a replacement car.

What are my choices?  I could haul you before a judge who might put you under a court-mandated payment plan that would impoverish you for a long time.  Or I could choose to forgive you.  My forgiving you involves my picking up the tab for the wrong you did me. I, and not you, will pay the price to get me another car. You’ll have no debt to pay, not because there’s nothing to pay, but because I am paying it all instead of you.

I am also absorbing the emotional cost of the pain you brought me when you abused me by disregarding my rights and stealing what belonged to me.  I am absorbing that cost by refusing to inflict an equivalent pain upon you, by denying myself the pleasure of payback. I am choosing instead to give you acceptance, kindness and the possibility of our developing a friendship despite your deserving the opposite.

In this way, and in many others, living out the peace Jesus gives is disturbing, troubling and costly.  But the reign of the Prince of peace is so wonderful it’s worth the price of admission…and of making our home in it!

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