A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley

Isaiah 11:1-10

1   A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2   The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3   His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4   but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5   Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6   The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7   The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8   The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9   They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Matthew 3:1-12

1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.’”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even 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.

11“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. 12His 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.”

Last night I attended the concert that was right here in our sanctuary, and as I made my plans for the evening I planned to walk from my house, to the church.

It was a very good thing that I planned to walk, because when I walked out of the house what did I see? A truck, parked across the end of my driveway, blocking my car.

It was a bad presumption on my part to have thought that if I wanted, I could have driven my car last night. Or was it a bad presumption on the unknown driver’s part, to presume that it would be alright to park me in?

I’ll give whoever it was the benefit of a doubt, and PRESUME that he wasn’t deliberately being malicious. And I’ll presume that he had been there awhile, because when I walked out of the house there were several empty blocking spaces on either side of my house – so I presumed that they were full, when he (or she) parked across my lane.

But presumptions, well- they get us in trouble, sometimes.

For one, we presume that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were, well, bad people.

Even John the Baptist calls them vipers,

And Jesus seems to always arguing with them-

And they seem to start all the arguments.

But consider this: they wanted to please God.

They wanted to honor God and obey the commandments.

In fact, they even codified the commandments: they numbered them from one to six-hundred-thirteen, 248 of them being POSITIVE commandments (DO this) and 365 of them being NEGATIVE commandments (do NOT do this), and then they set out to obey all 613 of them.

But that wasn’t quite enough. So first, they motorized the whole Old Testament. And then they set about asking ridiculous questions, to see how each of those commandments would be applied in unusual situations- and they debated their answers.

It must have been weird hanging out with them, even if you were a bible geek.

But guess what? They PRESUMED that they were shoe-ins for the kingdom of God.

After all, who knew the bible better than they?

No one.

Who knew the commandments backwards and forwards?

They did.

Who kept track of how many they obeyed, and how often?

They did.

And who could trace their ancestry all the way back to Abraham-

The Abraham that God loved.

The Abraham that God made eternal promises to.

They could.

So they figured they were shoe ins.

But not in John’s book.

“Who warned you to run for your lives?” he asked them.

No, you’re not shoe-ins, not if your strong, good-looking roots don’t bust out and produce some fruit.

You see, it’s not about your resume. It’s about results.

So when it comes to knowing God, the first lesson, and the last lesson are these: keep it humble. Don’t presume that God is pleased with what you’ve done and what you’ve not done. Because even if there are 613 commandments, and even if you know every one, a lot can slip by between daybreak and sunset, and in the night, well-  a lot of mistakes can be made.

So here’s what we should know: when the people were coming to be baptized, they came for all sorts of reasons- and they made great sacrifices to get to where John was.

Most of them came because they were expecting something.

Something that would fulfill their hopes.

Something that would answer their prayers.

And some came because they were afraid.

Afraid of what they had done, or not done,

And they wanted to bathe themselves in God’s mercy.

But some came for less noble reasons: to show off. To affirm their own goodness. And to sneer at other people’s sinfulness.

But John’s message was ominous: “Really, you came here to be judged by God, because the court is about to be called to order…and the judge is in a hanging mood.”

You know, it’s interesting that John used the metaphor of a tree and its roots. Because the most common tree in those parts was, and is, an olive tree. And olive trees live several thousands of years.

In the garden of Gethsemane, there are olive trees still living that were there when Jesus went there to pray.

And if they are pruned and cared for they will keep right on producing.

A living olive tree is a very valuable commodity, which is why there is loud wailing when the Israeli’s bulldoze them out to make way for Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories.

But John said something else: If those old and venerated trees don’t actually yield any olives, the gardener is ready and willing and EAGER

To chop them down.

So don’t presume that you’re protected.

Well now, a lot of people say that it’s impossible.

613 commandments? You CANNOT keep them all.

You can’t answer the needs of every beggar on the street, for starters.

You cannot go through the day without at least muttering under your breath about some stranger who parks in your driveway.

Well, maybe you can. But I can’t.

But a lot of things ARE impossible.

Lambs cannot live with wolves.

Kids cannot live with leopards.

Babies cannot sleep in a snake pit

And toddlers can’t reach out and touch a snake.

Not if they want to live, they can’t.

You’re right, we can’t do any of those things, let alone all of them. And maybe that was the point the Pharisees were trying to make: you have to TRY- and even if you only score an 68, that’s way better than not trying.

They have a point, and it’s a good one. But what is God’s point?

God’s point is that righteousness is what makes for good relationships- with strangers who park in your driveway, with neighbors who sit beside you at the ballgame, with citizens who voted differently than you on election day, and with God.

But the further point is this: the better you are at righteousness, the more fulfilling your life will be, and the happier you’ll BE.

Consider these facts, in general terms:

People who are in long-term marriages are happier than people who aren’t.

According to one study, being married produces the same psychic gain as earning $100,000 a year.

And just in case you’re one of those folk who was not cut out to be married, another study discovered that joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.

People who have one faithful intimate partner in a year are happier than people who have several intimate partners.

People who have more friends have lower stress levels and longer lives.


It goes on and on: we are happier if we have deeper relationships,

We are happier if we have stronger relationships, we are happier if we have longer relationships,

We are happier if we have more relationships

And we are even happier if we try harder at having GOOD relationships.

And that’s what righteousness is about.

It’s not about obey rules.

But here’s another fact: relationships are messy, and they are hard, and they are fraught with risk.

So no matter how hard we try, things are not going to be hunky-dory.


Unless what gets shopped down also gets a new life.

Unless we are forgiven, and lifted up, and slapped playfully on our rump and given a word of encouragement:

Get out there, the game’s not over yet.

Unless we take that forgiveness that comes from God,

And cherish it and nurture it and make it bloom.

Then, all sorts of things that we presume could NEVER happen

Just might happen, after all.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

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