The Gospel According to Drosselmeir a sermon on Matthew 3:1-10
Joe Cailles, pastor Trinity UMC
December 8, 2019, The Second Sunday of Advent
 
The Proclamation of John the Baptist

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 axe 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.
****************
What’s the record in your family for the shortest amount of time between when a gift is opened on Christmas Day, and when that gift is broken? What’s the shortest amount of time between the two: “Thank you! This is just what I wanted!” and “I broke it. It’s broken.”
 
For me, I thought I broke something as I was taking in out of the box. That fast! When I was 8 or 9, I got as a gift an electronic game called Merlin, bright red, shaped like a telephone handset, you could push the 9 buttons on its face and solve math problems, play tic-tac-toe, or blackjack. I loved it, and I thought I had broken it right out of the box. The batteries were inside the game; I turned it on, and nothing! I pushed the buttons, toggled the on/off switch. Nothing! Broken out of the box! I was crushed, until I figured out the batteries were in wrong. I turned them around, and it was fine. My toy was fixed! Christmas joy restored! We’ll come back to the broken and restored gifts in a minute.
 
As a reminder, this Advent season, I’m using Matt Rawle’s “The Gift of the Nutcracker” as a guide. The Faith Explorer’s Sunday school class is also reading and discussing this. Each Sunday, we’ll focus on one character in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as a way of helping us understand our scriptures and the Advent season. Last Sunday, Clara, the young girl at the heart of the story, begins her Nutcracker adventure out in the hallway of her home, impatient and hopeful and eager to get into the parlor, into the Christmas party to see and hear and experience the Christmas delights. We Christians spend a lot of time in the hallways of life, impatient and hopeful and eager to get to a better life, a more peaceful life. What our faith tells us is that Christ is with us as we wait, helping us be a hopeful people, living hopeful lives.
 
Today we focus on Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeir, who comes to Clara’s house bearing gifts for all the community children. Drosselmeir’s gift to Clara, the Nutcracker, is broken within 2 minutes of being unwrapped, crushing Clara, until Drosselmeir repairs the gift so that Clara’s Christmas joy will be restored.
 
In our scripture passage John the Baptist appears bearing the gift of baptism to restore broken souls and a broken society. He invites those around him to wash away their sins and then go on their way to lead lives which bear good fruit. John warns those who don’t repent that they will be cast off. For one is coming who will separate the chaff from the wheat and will cut down all the deadwood souls.
 
How is it with our souls today? Are we bearing good fruit in our lives, or are we mostly chaff and deadwood inside? Who can mend the broken souls and the broken lives and the broken society we have?
 
In the Nutcracker story, Drosselmeir is late to the Christmas party. He arrives well after it has started. In most production I’ve seen, Drosselmeir enters center stage, wrapped in a cloak or a cape like Dracula. The music that plays as he enters is ambiguous — is this mysteriously cloaked man here for good for ill? Soon Drosselmeir reveals all the wonderful toys he has which amaze and delight the community children: first a puppet show, and then clockwork dolls that dance.
 
Each child receives something from Drosselmeir, Clara receives her gift last: a nutcracker dressed as a soldier, with large eyes, and a wide-gaping mouth. Clara is delighted with her gift, until her rotten brother Fritz snatches it and breaks it, possibly establishing the new record in their home between opening a Christmas gift and breaking the Christmas gift.
 
Drosselmeir repairs his gift, giving the restored Nutcracker back to Clara and restoring Clara’s Christmas joy and wonder.
 
There are some wonderful similarities between Drosselmeir of the Nutcracker and John the Baptist in Matthew’s Gospel. Drosselmeir arrives to the party wearing his cloak, wrapped in a mystery.
 
Matthew describes John the Baptist wearing clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, which is exactly how the Old Testament prophet Elijah is dressed, 900 years before John the Baptist. Elijah first wore camel hair and leather and began his ministry as a prophet calling Kings and Queens and ordinary people to repent of their wicked ways and to return to God.
 
Matthew writes that John is the one whom the prophet Isaiah spoke about, the one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist has come wearing a prophet’s clothes, wrapped up in the ministries of Elijah and Isaiah, to prepare for the one who will do greater good for all the people.
 
Matthew writes that John offers a baptism. People come to the river, confess their sins, receive the water and go forth to lead lives which bear good fruit. This is a new thing John is doing. He’s not associated with the Temple in Jerusalem or with any of the local synagogues, where the rituals of repentance and renewal and restoration are supposed to be done. He’s on the outside of things, literally outside at the Jordan River and outside the usual established religious structures. Matthew writes that the people respond; they come from all over to see the new prophet and to begin new lives at the Jordan River.
 
Representatives from the established religious orders also show up at the riverside: Sadducees and Pharisees, two groups whose job it is to help the Jewish people follow God’s law in the established traditional ways. Sadducees maintain the Temple in Jerusalem, and Pharisees work among the people, teaching them how to follow God’s laws in their everyday lives. They’ve come to see what John is up to down by the riverside. Matthew writes that when John sees Sadducees and Pharisees coming for baptism, he says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” I find that harsh! When I start the worship service here, I say, “Grace and peace to you. All are welcome!” I’m not sure how long I’d last at Trinity if every Sunday I sneered at you, “Who told you to flee the wrath to come.”
 
As it happens, our Bibles may not have translated this verse correctly. Our Bibles read, the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism, which sounds like they want what John is offering, the gift of a fresh start and a new life full of good fruits like love and joy and hope and peace. Why is John sneering and rejecting them?
 
The key word in that sentence is “for.” Our Bibles read that the Pharisees and Sadducees we’re coming for baptism. The Greek work there is epi — E. P. I. — which does mean “for,” and it also means “against.” Matthew could very well mean that the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming against baptism.
 
They don’t want the gift John is offering them, and they don’t want anyone else to have it either. They don’t want his outside ways of doing things. “We’ve always done it this way. We’ve never done it that way.” They are against this new and different way to God.
 
John calls them out, “You brood of vipers!” and he sneers at their claim of heritage and tradition. Children of Abraham, ha! God can make these desert wilderness stones into children of Abraham.
 
It would be so easy to join John in mocking the Sadducees and Pharisees for their stubbornness and their opposition and their hard-heartedness. Except! Let’s confess it! We’re often the same way!
 
Bless our hearts, when God offers us the gifts of mercy and forgiveness for our sins as we forgive others of their sins, too many times, we say, “No” to the gift. We’ve never done it that way! Our we take what God gifts us and we break it in record time. God gives us the gift of hope and we break it down until all that remains is fear. God gives us the gift of joy, and we break it down to hatred. God gives us the gift of peace and we break it down until it becomes despair.
 
At their heart, I think the Sadducees and Pharisees fear the change and the new things John represents. He’s dressed like a prophet of old, but he offers a new way of life.
 
Let’s confess it, how much does fear influence our lives today? We fear if others have more, then we’ll have less. We fear that life really is a zero-sum struggle. If they win, then I lose. We fear that if we really do forgive others and show love and compassion for our enemies, then we’ll suffer abuse and hurt again and again. We fear if we really do love all of our neighbors, even the ones who don’t look like us, love like us, vote like us, or speak our language, then we’ll have to see our common humanity and treat others with kindness and with greater respect, when really it’s so much easier to slap them with a label! Brood of vipers!
 
Some of our fears are based in genuine care and concern for our world. Many of us fear environmental changes and economic stagnation in our families and communities. We fear violence in our schools and even in our military bases. If those places aren’t safe, is anywhere safe? In our home, in our communities, in our souls, we fear change and we fear things will never change.
 
Friends, here the gospel, hear the good news!
 
Drosselmeir repaired the broken gift of the nutcracker, restoring it to good use and returning it to Clara. The prophet John baptized broken people, washing away the accumulated chaff and the dead wood in their souls to allow good fruits and good lives to grow.
 
We today have come to this sanctuary, this place to seek healing and hope and lives filled with good fruits and good works. We today also have chaff and deadwood, and we carry around a load of fear and hatred and despair, but all are welcome here and welcome to start new. The one who comes after John, the one who’s birth and who’s return we are waiting for, Jesus Christ baptizes us with water and his own Holy Spirit, giving each of us and giving our congregation fire in our souls. As we follow Jesus, this advent season and for all seasons, loving all of our neighbors, forgiving as we have been forgiven, speaking truth to power even when it isn’t popular or easy, and doing new things in new ways because they offer more mercy and more grace, then Christ Jesus will burn away fear and hatred and despair, and repair our lives for hope and joy and love and peace. Thanks be to God!