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.”

Matthew 3:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) on Matthew 3:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When were you transformed? 

I paused a little longer than usual after that question because I’m not necessarily sure it’s easy to answer. We might be able to name those things about ourselves that have changed but the word transformation feels as if it should describe something bigger. Right now, there are plenty of ads and commercials this holiday season trying to convince us that we can buy transformation. Yet we know that rarely works. Instead, we end up with a new doohickey that we use only once before donating to our church’s Trash and Treasure rummage sale. Those ads know that we all have a vision of what being transformed is all about. But I’m not sure if that’s always exactly what we want. To me, Transformation is what happens when our assumptions about ourselves are turned upside down and we find ourselves, for better or worse, living in a new way. And that newness is scary because we don’t know what the transformed life will look like. We’ll find ourselves facing new challenges, experiencing new situations, and we’ll have to confront the old assumptions that supported the life we used to live. Transformation changes us because it redefines who we are. 

So when thinking about the transformation in our own lives, I sometimes find it helpful to notice when transformation happens on a larger scale. And so I want to talk about an organization called Muso that I first heard about this week. Muso’s story begins over a decade ago when doctors and medical professionals in the United States and in the African country of Mali decided that they wanted to address some of Mali’s major healthcare issues. Mali had, for example, one of the highest child mortality rates in the world meaning that 154 out of every 1000 kids - 15% - never saw their fifth birthday. So these doctors partnered with the Mali government and moved into poor neighborhoods, thinking that if they lived in those communities and struggled alongside with them, these highly trained medical professionals could really make a difference. Ari Johnson, one of those early team members, described in an interview what it was like to provide care at the start of their project. Mere days after arriving, parents and grandparents would form a huge line outside their clinic before it even opened, hoping those doctors could heal their kids. But - they couldn’t. And instead, Ari found himself attending a lot of funerals. Now he had trained at some of the best medical schools in the world and yet his knowledge and his skills couldn’t change the neighborhood around him. Too many people kept dying - and he couldn’t transform their life outcomes. Something needed to change but he didn’t know what. Yet he, and the rest of his team, didn’t give up. And as they struggled alongside the community, they realized the community was teaching them things they didn’t know. As Ari listened to the patient stories and as he got to know who they are, he realized our typical approach to healthcare was actually stopping people from getting well. He was taught that, as a doctor, his responsibility for the patient began the minute the patient showed up at his door. Yet he and his team noticed that many people couldn’t get to his door in the first place. The high cost of insurance, fees, co-pays, the distance to the clinics, and more - was stopping people from getting to their doctor’s door in time. The people knew they were sick but by the time they got the resources they needed to see the doctor, it was usually too late. If a child’s malaria was diagnosed early, it would only take a few dollars worth of pills to cure her. But if the diagnosis was made too late, even the best hospital in the world couldn’t help. Muso realized that their model for care needed to change. And instead of seeing their responsibility only starting the moment the patient first came to them, Muso decided that the wellness of everyone in their neighborhood was their primary responsibility. So they developed a model of proactive healthcare, sending trained staff into people’s homes to make early diagnosis, provide basic care, and if more advanced help was needed, the patient would receive free-to-them healthcare at a strengthened government clinic. By turning upside down their assumptions about when their responsibility for care began, Muso ended up transforming their neighborhoods. In a seven year period, the child mortality rate in the areas they served dropped from 154 per 1000 to 7 - which is about the same as the United States. Yet that story is even more amazing than those numbers reveal. Because during that 7 year period, there was a coup-da-ta in the government; the terrorist organization Al Qaeda occupied the northern part of the country flooding the areas Muso served with refugees; and if that wasn’t enough, there was also an Ebola outbreak. Yet through all of that, an amazing number of lives were transformed. And it happened because people struggled together; they listened to one another; they were willing to live through funerals; and they let their assumptions about themselves and their world - be turned upside down. Transformation happened because what people didn’t realize was the chaff in the lives was burned away and, in their place, seeds for a new kind of life were planted.

John the baptist’s first spoken word in the gospel according to Matthew is: “repent.” Now, in ancient Hebrew, repent meant “to turn around.” And it was used to show how we need to change our focus; to turn away from what we think is our priority and instead look towards God. Yet when repent was translated into ancient Greek, the language Matthew wrote in, the word repent also meant “to change your mind.” But this change was more than just shifting your opinion. It was really about changing who you knew yourself to be. In other words, repenting to Matthew is all about being transformed. And John spoke this word of transformation not in a city or in a temple but in the wilderness. The wilderness, in Scripture, is never a serene or peaceful place. Instead, it’s always unpredictable - full of unknowns and things we can’t control. It’s there in the wilderness when our assumptions about the world and ourselves are turned upside. Yet the wilderness is also the place where, through John, God’s message comes. God’s call to transform wasn’t given in an environment that was warm, cozy, and safe. Rather, God delivered it in the middle of all our possible unknowns - giving a visual representation of the promise that immediately followed John’s first word. This was God’s way, I think, of letting us know that no matter where our transformation takes us, God is already there. And with God comes love, mercy, guidance, and, above all, hope. Now the unknowns of our transformation might be scary. And it’s perfectly okay to be afraid. Yet we live through our transformations not because we know where we’ll end up - but because we trust that God is along side us and will be there ahead of us. So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we listen to a camel hair wearing, locust eating, prophet preaching in the middle of our unknowns - it’s okay, I think, to lean into your transformation. That transformation could be as big as creating a new organization to redefine what healthcare is all about or it could be something a little more personal; like finally making that appointment to see a therapist or get help for that issue you can’t fix on your own. When our transformation begins, we don’t know where exactly we’ll end up. But we do know that, through our baptism and through our faith, we are already with God. And since God is alongside us and since God is ahead of us, the transformation we will live through will, in the end, make us new.