Sermon
December 6, 1998
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
Write to Rev. Hamilton

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Scripture: Isaiah 11: 1-10 Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea,

proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 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.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt

around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people

of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the

Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their

sins.

7 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? 8

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 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. 10 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.

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. 12 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." (NRSV)

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Sermon: The Fruit of the Tree

I grew up in a family where the Christmas Tree took on major importance,

because my father was the fire chief. Every year we had to wait to decorate

the tree until it was dipped in a fire retardant solution. It was always later

than my brother and I wanted to decorate it. When I was a teenager I decided

that the way the tree looked was an indication of your family status. That

was the year that we had a white flocked tree with blue and green balls and

lights on it. I got away with that because my father had discovered that the

flocking also acted as a flame retardant. I have long since given up the

notion that the decorations on the Christmas tree say anything about our

family - I am just happy to have it cut, in the stand and not falling over

fully decorated.

Even though, as Christians we have borrowed from the Druids, the use of a tree

for our celebration of Christmas still remains an important image for us.

Isaiah reminds us that a shoot from the Stump of Jesse, the line of King

David, will grow out of his roots and the world will be transformed. Each

annointed king of Israel was expected to bring peace and prosperity, just as

David had. The prophet Isaiah tells us what to expect when the king comes, -

"The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord" - and John the Baptist

reminds us that we had better be preparing for this event, for the prophecy is

about to be fulfilled. - "Repent and bear good fruit."

What is it that we are supposed to be doing to prepare? We already live with

the knowledge of Easter Morning, so we can't just pretend that Jesus hasn't

been born yet. Most of us already have so much to do this time of the year,

that just the idea of setting aside extra time to devote to prayer probably

will go the way of our New Year resolutions. It is a good idea whose time has

not yet come. Instead, we manage to focus our energy and our time on

catalogs, cards, shopping for the best bargains, a party here or there,

special food and all of those decorations. Instinctively, we know that those

things will not fill our hearts with the joy of Christmas. So what is it

that we can do to prepare. What is it that will allow our hearts to soften

and receive the gift of love in Jesus Christ?

For years I thought preparation meant getting my family to cooperate with all

of those neat suggestions that I would read about in women's magazines. One

time I tried the straw in the cradle routine, each person places one piece of

straw in a cradle for each good deed that they do. Well, basically - we found

that the cat loved to play in the straw and it sure did make a big mess. And

I actually never noticed anyone at our house doing any good deeds. (In fact -

there wasn't much straw in the cradle)

One year I suggested that the kids earn every penny that they spent on gifts.

That went over big - life was so full of negotiations that it was unbearable.

Remember the line, "and a little child will lead them"?

This past week has been filled with preparation and anticipation. Many kids

and parents approached me with real excitement in their voices; the phone

lines were lighting up. Friday night was the big night. The kids in JYA or

SYF were constantly declaring that they couldn't wait, because their favorite

youth group activity is "Santa Fund shopping". Which has always been evident

to me. Our youth groups do a lot of work to earn the money that they spend

on those gifts. The Senior High kids bake and rake and anything else they can

think of - the junior high kids plant, pick, haul and sell pumpkins - all so

they can spend that money on other kids.

Let me tell you what it is like to watch your children - 46 of them this year

with nearly 20 adult advisors, -, swarm into the mall with their money - They

take this very seriously. They sign a covenant to go, and promise to be on

time and respect other people's feelings. For those 2 hours at the mall they

think only of the kid that they are buying for - they are fully focused

outside of themselves. They are consumed with searching for just the right

color of sweat suit for a 9-year-old - or combing the toy store for a toy safe

enough for a 12-month-old. And when they walk out of the mall, it has been

their established tradition to give all of the remaining money to the

Salvation Army - and those who have nothing left, dig in their own pockets.

It is always a surprise to the bell ringer that evening.

"Bear fruit worthy of repentance," says John the Baptist. He calls us to turn

away from our usual way of doing business to bear fruit worthy of the gift

that God is sending us in Jesus Christ. Our lives are the evidence of that

repentance.

Tomorrow my eldest daughter Elizabeth, who works for the Hartford Courant,

will fly to Honduras to cover what is being done there to help the people

whose homes and food supply were destroyed by hurricane Mitch. She will stay

with a peace Corp volunteer in a small village of 50 people, who lost all of

their crops and most of their animals in the hurricane. They no longer have

safe water or food to eat, their homes have been destroyed, they have lost

everything. And even though Beth will be paying them $50 U.S. dollars a day

for lodging, there is nothing for them to buy. Disease is a huge problem -

during what is their rainly season. Their lives have been totally

overturned by this natural disaster.

What more can we do to help these folks? The United Church of Christ is

ready to roll into action, but they need our help. We want to put together

"gifts of the heart "kits. This is where you come in - pick up one of these

flyers that give you 2 different options for kits that you can prepare to be

sent into the disaster area. Each kit only requires a few items, but they are

important items, like a toothbrush or rubber gloves. Shop for these items,

they must be new, and package them up and label it according to the kit you

have prepared. Bring them to the church office and our own social concerns

committee will make sure that they are shipped off for distribution.

Isaiah and John the Baptist and Jesus all envision a world, the kingdom of

God, where peace would prevail, where people would take seriously the

commandment to love one another, where those with more, would help those who

didn't have enough.

This year let us make that Christmas tree stand for the coming of God's reign

in the birth of Jesus Christ. As the new growth from the stump of the tree of

Jesse, work together as a family, a congregation, as a community of faith, to

build up those who are alone, who are hungry, who are abused, who live in

desperate circumstances, those who without your help live in darkness. As

you sit in front of your Christmas tree this year imagine that each light

shining on that tree represents a life changed by the gifts that you have

given to the world. And then, as you wait for that babe who is the reason we

celebrate, to enter into your heart, give God thanks. Thanks - for all that

you have been able to do this past year to bring the Kingdom of God into view

has been brought to fruition by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The very

one who invites us to receive at this table all that we need to become agents

of God's love in the world. Truly, a Christmas miracle. amen

"GIFTS OF THE HEART"

For those who are interesting in donating a kit:

The National Office of the United Church of Christ is now ready to receive

kits for the victims of Hurricane Mitch. You are invited to give a "gift of

the heart".

"GIFTS OF THE HEART" KIT CONTENTS

CLEAN-UP KIT 1 bucket filled with sponges, 1 wire brush, plastic garbage bags,

1 scrub brush, rubber gloves.

HEALTH KIT 1 hand towel, 1 comb, 6 Band-Aids, 1 wash cloth, 1 toothbrush, 1

nail file, 1 new bath-size bar of soap, 1 tube of toothpaste.

Each package should include ONLY the items listed, so that distribution will

be equitable. They should be securely and uniformly packed. Please pack in

large Zip Lock Bags. Drop them off at the Marsh Parish House between 9am -

2pm any weekday, before December 20, 1998. The First Congregational Church

of New Milford will mail them to the UCC.

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