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Can you imagine walking into a church gathering and having the leader greet you with these words?
“You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?” (v7)
That’s how John the Baptist greets the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come out to the Jordan River to see him. That doesn’t seem very welcoming and inviting!
Why did they come?
Matthew tells us in verse 5 that people from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. Word got around. People were probably talking about how John dressed – John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. Maybe they were wondering if this was the return of Elijah. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as being hairy and wearing a leather belt.
In Jewish tradition, Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the messiah. Jewish folklore is full of tales of rabbis encountering Elijah who was said to answer questions and bring reports from heaven. We get a glimpse of this in the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain. The disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-8).
Matthew helps us connect John the Baptist with this expectation of Elijah with the quote from Isaiah 40 in verse 3. Matthew says:
The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
So it’s not surprising that the Jewish leaders would come to the Jordan to see whether this was Elijah.
Why does John greet them this way?
Because he’s very rude. Isn’t he? He is! Prophets often are because they tell us hard truths that we don’t want to hear.
This past week my family and I watched a classic Christmas movie called Bright Eyes. It’s from 1934 and stars Shirley Temple in the role for which she is probably the most famous as a five-year-old singing “On the good ship lollipop…” In this movie there is an old man who is grumpy and rude. He’s particularly rude with his niece and nephew who are hanging around waiting for him to die so they can inherit his fortune. He calls them out on their false niceness to him, and he becomes very angry whenever he finds his family mistreating Shirley.
John the Baptist is kind of the like the old man. He doesn’t pander to the religious leaders or respect their authority. Instead he says:
8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.
Later on in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus would challenge some Pharisees for emphasizing the legal traditions instead of God’s love. In the Christmas song O Holy Night we sing that Jesus’ law is love and his gospel is peace. We have peace with God because of Jesus Christ. Our charge is to bring that peace and love to others.
We should make sure to understand, though, that John the Baptist’s harsh words to those Sadducees and Pharisees that day more than 2000 years ago are specific to those people in that time and place. He wasn’t saying that all those people are bad. We should never assume that the actions of a few represent an entire culture or group. Some have used this passage to justify antisemitism. We should do everything we can to stand against it.
Whenever we stand up for peace and justice, we are peacemakers.
Maybe the opposite of peacemaking is gaslighting. Just this week, Merriam Webster announced that gaslighting is their word of the year for 2022. One reason they chose it was that it was the most searched word throughout the year.
The word comes from a play from the 1930s that became a movie in 1944 called Gaslight, starring Angela Lansbury, Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The movie showed an abusive romantic relationship in which the husband insists his wife’s grievances about the constant dimming of the gaslights in their home is a figment of her imagination.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of “gaslighting” says that it “is a form of psychological manipulation, usually over an extended period of time, that ‘causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.’”
There’s an example of this in the prophecies of Jeremiah in chapter 8 where he says:
I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, “What have I done!” (v6) They have treated the wound of the daughter of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (v11)
False prophets were saying that everything was ok, but it wasn’t ok. Jeremiah was trying to warn them and get them to turn from their wicked ways, so that God would bring them peace. The false prophets were gaslighting them.
We can be guilty of this, too, when we dismiss someone’s feelings or experience. And maybe some of us have also been victims of this.
At a Bible study group many years before I became a pastor, there was a man who wouldn’t accept anyone as a Christian if they couldn’t name the date and place where they became “saved” by accepting Jesus as their savior. One night, he asked a new person to the group if he was saved. The newcomer said yes, he was. So the man asked, “When did it happen?” The newcomer couldn’t answer. The man continued to berate and argue with the newcomer, insisting that he couldn’t be a “real” Christian if he couldn’t name the date. In reality, many people cannot name a date because it’s too long ago or it has happened over time, as we continue to renew our trust in Jesus.
Religious gaslighting makes someone feel inferior if they don’t do things a certain way. For example, people have been told they aren’t a real Christian if they vote for a certain candidate or issue or belong to a certain party. People have been told they don’t have enough faith if they go to a therapist or if they get a divorce. But none of that is true.
What makes us Christians is that we follow Jesus Christ, who willingly sacrificed himself so that we could be connected to God 24/7. Jesus brought the good news of God’s love and grace to all people, especially those who were outcasts and despised.
Matthew was writing his gospel to people who were being cast out of the synagogues if they believed Jesus was the messiah. They were being made ashamed for following a new way instead of sticking with the old established way. So Matthew shows them John the Baptist standing up for them against the religious establishment.
More and more these days I see the need for us to be like John the Baptist, to be willing to stand up for justice and peace, and to acknowledge the ways that we may have been a party to gaslighting, if even unintentionally.
Let’s talk about the title of this sermon. I called this sermon “Connecting Peace.” What impressions does that give you?
I chose this title because I have experienced the peace that comes from connecting with God and connecting with people. I have also experienced the incredible challenge of trying to connect with God and with people when I am disconnected from myself. One of the ways we cope with pain and grief and loss is to disconnect from ourselves. In a way, we fool ourselves and tell ourselves we are fine when we are not really fine at all. This is also a survival mechanism, a natural response to trauma.
Part of the process of healing from trauma is reconnecting with ourselves and being honest with ourselves about how we are feeling. A good therapist can help us do this. The Holy Spirit can also work through that therapist to help us reconnect with God and with other people.
But so many people have been told that God hates them because of who they are. It’s not true, and it’s not easy to undo the harm that’s been caused. Presbyterian pastor and writer Carol Howard Merritt has made healing those wounds the focus of her writing and ministry. In her book “Healing Spiritual Wounds,” she tells about a young man she met at a Christmas party. When they were introducing each other, and she said she was a pastor, the man started to frown. When she asked what was wrong, he said,
“Can I be honest?” … “I hate Christianity. I hate Christianity [because] it took away my family. [Heck], I almost destroyed myself because of it.” [Their conversation grew silent for a moment …as [she] let the information sink in. Then [the man] continued. “But even after all of that, I know that unless I make peace with Christianity, I’ll never have any peace.”
The more they talked, the more she learned about why this man had come to hate Christianity. He had been told that he was not acceptable to God, and his family had cast him out and refused to associate with him.
I’m sure this is the sort of thing that would make John the Baptist angry and make Jesus weep. Sharing the gospel is all about helping people know the incredible love of God. So often it’s shared by taking the time to listen without judgment, to convey that Jesus came to bring us peace with God so that we could know God’s unconditional love and connecting peace.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6
This Advent season, in the midst of all the preparations and parties and concerts, I hope you’ll find time to connect with yourself, and reconnect with God, so that our connections with people can be ways of finding and sharing God’s peace.
 By Carl Bloch – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Carl-Heinrich-Bloch/The-Transfiguration.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7850713
 RABBI ELLIOT GOLDBERG, “Elijah the Prophet,” MyJewishLearning.com https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/elijah-the-prophet/#print
 By Fox Film Corp publicity photo – https://www.ebay.com/itm/SHIRLEY-TEMPLE-JAMES-DUNN-Original-Vintage-1934-FOX-FILM-Photo-BRIGHT-EYES/143592361232?hash=item216ec58d10:g:MaYAAOSwwcJeXZqo , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91055628
 Merritt, Carol Howard. Healing Spiritual Wounds (p. 19). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.