12/16/2018 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.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Season’s Greetings! These are words of good cheer that we use during this time of the year. But such words seem out of place with today’s gospel.
John’s Advent and Christmas greeting is not merry, happy or cheerful. The words he uses describe people as slithering snakes. Instead of words of glee, his words give a warning for axes are poised to strike sharply at the roots of trees as fruitless plantings (that is, fruitless people) are to be chopped down (or destroyed) and thrown into the inferno (that is forever estranged from the blessings of God’s kingdom). This Advent greeting of John doesn’t sound much like Christmas. And yet, it is good news for the oppressed and confused people of John’s world who were looking for things to improve. These are words of good cheer, words that provide hope. For, with these words, John is proclaiming that God has paid attention to their cries. God is not ignoring current events and letting business go on as usual. God is not turning a blind eye to the naked and hungry, or to the scams of tax collectors and other powerful entrepreneurs, or to the violence around them. God is finally going to do something. God is going to bring about a change that will have an effect on the world as they have known it.
So, John’s greeting is good news, but it is good news that comes with a challenge. For you see, this is not the type of news that enables people to sit back and relax and bask in the glory of what is to come. In order to be ready to receive the good things that God is bringing into the world, there needs to be some personal response. People are not to stand idly as God does his thing. They need to change the focus of their lives. For, what God is about to do is no spectator event. People need to be on the move – living lives worthy of repentance. They need to share their resources and spread the word.
This is a challenge. The gauntlet has been tossed into the ring. But then all sorts of events in our lives require some sort of heads up preparation. Ask the Lundstens what they are doing to prepare for the advent of a second child, or ask me what I am doing to prepare for the advent of retirement. I know I have a list and I’m checking it twice and the list seems to be getting bigger and bigger.
In many ways, preparing for the advent of Christ is simpler than my list of what I need to do to be prepared. John’s list for preparing the way is much shorter. Repent! Turn to God! Keep God as the focal point of your life. Act in the way that shows God’s love for you and for all of God’s creation. This isn’t a long list, but it is an urgent one that is to be maintained for a lifetime – and because of this, the preparation is much harder than it seems.
Go and get ready! Don’t wait! Don’t put it off to another day! It is with this type of urgency that John the Baptist delivers in his message to the people. John doesn’t speak in soft monotones, but at the top of his lungs as he tries to get the attention of the people mulling about – especially those in danger of losing it all. “Why are you not getting ready?” he yells to people. “Why are you just standing there? Don’t you see that your time is running out? You need to be preparing the way, and making the path straight. Go and get ready. For one more powerful than I is coming!”
This is the urgency of this season. This is no serene occasion filled with good food, good company and good times. Although the God given gift will be as good as it gets, it comes with a challenge and an opportunity for people to repent, prepare and serve. For, the one who is coming is more powerful than John and he is coming with his winnowing fork to clean up the mess that people, left to their own devices, have created.
For most of us, this doesn’t sound like good news as good news usually brings a release from responsibility, worry or concern. A pay raise is good news. Winning the lottery is good news. Getting a few extra days of vacation is good news. Not having to take an exam is good news. Yet it is also good news for a woman diagnosed with cancer to be told that her health may be restored if she undergoes many months of treatment. It is good news for a man on the brink of bankruptcy to be told that his family will be able to refinance their debts and in a few years be free, even though it means living within a strict budget with no more credit buying. This type of news is hopeful, even though, in reality, it is challenging and difficult to live out.
John’s news is like that. His is a message of judgment; but in the judgment is opportunity – an opportunity wrapped up in the word, “repent.” The message is full of hope and anticipation for the long-awaited savior is coming. Yet, at the same time, it is blunt and clear. For although we may not like to hear it or accept it, John points out that we are sinners. We are imperfect, and we cannot hide from the one coming who knows our flawed behaviors and attitudes. Yes, he will be compassionate, holding little lambs and gently gathering children. He will be forgiving, making us whole in his grace. But this gentle shepherd also comes as an authoritative and powerful king who will righteously separate the wheat from the chaff.
I know I don’t want to be among the chaff and neither do any of you. So, it’s best to prepare…prepare to meet and greet the One of whom John speaks. Repent! Turn to God! Keep God as the focal point of your life. Act in the way that shows God’s love for you and for all God’s creation. In this way you will join the throngs in preparing the way of Lord.
So, have a Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Season’s Greetings! Be of good cheer as you prepare for the advent of the Lord. Make things a little better this year as you keep Christ as the center of your celebration. Share what you have with those who have less. Charge a fair price for your work, do not gouge others or be deceitful in any way. Don’t threaten, don’t harm, don’t extort, don’t make up false charges against anyone, and be satisfied with what you have. Be grateful for what God gives and find hope and grace in all circumstances of like. And most of all, BELIEVE! Believe in the One who came and who will come again. And this way, you will be ready whenever the One comes.
May you find peace and hope in the challenges that lay ahead. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.