12/13/2015 Third Sunday of Advent The text is Luke 3:7-18.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We stumble over him every year about this time. He is Jesus’ cousin, or at least his mother was Mary’s cousin. But he doesn’t sound much like Jesus when he preaches. Even though, he’s one of those characters in the Bible that few can forget. Dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, preaching in the wilderness, baptizing people in the waters of the Jordan River, John is unmistakable. There’s little doubt that he’s one of the people that most of us would go out of our way to avoid if we encountered him on the city streets, and yet people are drawn to him. They are drawn to him because of his prophetic vision of what is to come. When John preaches, people drop what they are doing and venture out into the wilderness.
I dare say that I can’t say the same thing about my preaching experiences. Few people, if any, have ever penciled time in on their calendars when I’ve been scheduled to step into the pulpit. Maybe it’s because I’m not as dynamic a preacher as John. I’m not a hell-fire and brimstone kind of gal. I’ve never pointed my finger at the gathering crowd, calling them snakes in the grass nor have I put such a fear of God, or the fear of hell into them that they flocked to be baptized and changed scrupulous practices. Maybe it is that I haven’t wanted to offend people with the scandalous truth. After all, I have found that people usually come to church to be comforted. They usually come expecting to have their prejudices and preconceptions confirmed. They come to get stroked and soothed. Yet, years ago, the people came to hear a fire-breathing preacher who stood, not in an elevated pulpit but in the muddy Jordan, a preacher who pulled no punches as he spoke of axes and judgment and fire.
We don’t have the full text of one of John’s sermons. But from his images – the fire, the ax and all, we know that John preached about the death of old ways and the breakout of something new. John was an ax. He was a dog growling outside the door, a rat gnawing at the sack of feed. Get washed, he demanded. You are dirty. Prepare yourself for what is to come.
Now all of us are curious when it comes to the future. We would love to know what tomorrow holds for us and for the world. We all have hopes and dreams. The people of Israel during the time of John were no different than we are today. They all had hopes ans dreams of a better time. But before the world could change, people needed to see themselves and their world through the harsh eyes of reality. They needed to accept the fact that they were not perfect. It didn’t matter who they were or what they had or how they traced their ancestry. They needed to turn around and live in accordance with God’s will, not their own desires – and they needed to do that now. There was a sense of urgency about change. For, the time was coming upon them when they could no longer sit on the fence. They had to stop making excuses for themselves and to seek the help of God in order to prepare for the future.
For what God was about to do through Jesus was not tied to the past. God was about to do something new and exciting. The one the people waited for was coming. He was coming soon but he was not coming in traditional ways. So the people needed to prepare for the last day and the new beginning that God was ushering in through his Son.
By instinct, the crowd perceived that it was not enough to listen to a teaching: the teaching must be put into practice. On the whole nothing extraordinary was being expected of the people in order to show true repentance, and nothing extraordinary is needed today to prepare the way of the Lord – just let one who has two coats give to the one who has none. Those with food, do the same. And be honest in your business practices. Do not extort money from anyone by threats and false accusations. Be satisfied with your wages. The answer to what must be done involves getting outside of ourselves and focusing attention elsewhere. The answer lies in putting aside selfish concerns and sharing with others so that fruits of repentance will flourish.
You see, John knew that baptism wasn’t enough. More was and is needed to prepare the way of the Lord. Baptism was and is just the beginning. When we are washed in the waters of baptism we are reborn children of God. But if we live as if the baptism never occurred, we will never bear the fruits of the spirit, the signs of God’s grace in the world. The baptism by John was far less than this baptism we receive today, but it still was a life changing event. Baptism has always been a sign of God’s grace, a means of forgiveness, and a way to refocus life energy. If a person was baptized with the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then the person’s life was turned around and re-centered on God. But that re-centering would not be complete until God’s grace was revealed in the Messiah who would baptize these same people with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is then that the judgment would come. It is then that redemption would be complete.
So while John’s hell-fire and brimstone preaching certainly caused some to quake in fear and others to change their lifestyle, in the end, it would be God’s grace in Jesus Christ which would prevail. And this is also true today. Those same words of John which point the finger directly at us, might cause us to squirm a little bit, especially if we see ourselves through the harsh eyes of reality. But in the end, if we let it be for us, it is God’s grace in Jesus Christ which would prevail. For the judge who was and is to come brings salvation to the world through his death and resurrection. In the greatest turnaround of all times, the cross, the instrument of suffering and death, becomes the sign of hope and redemption.
So listen to John, my friends. Hear his words. Stand accused before him and God almighty. And then immerse yourself in the baptismal promise. Repent, and look to God for help. Look to God for life direction and hope. For your salvation is at hand. The Lord who came, will come again, with his winnowing fork in hand. He will gather the wheat in his granary, his children into his kingdom, and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
This is the good news for this day. May we hear it. May we believe it. May we live in its shadow and grace. Amen. And may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.