SERMON: December 16, 2019
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people. 7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Last Thursday night I watched a Disney animated Christmas special called “Prep and Landing.” You may be familiar with this show – It has been on network television more than once. “Prep and Landing” is about two of Santa’s elves tasked with preparing each house for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. After all, if Santa is to make it all around the world in one night, often in bad weather, preparations for his visit must go like clockwork.
Of course, this is a covert operation, as the elves must get everything ready for Santa without alerting the household – especially the children. One of the elves is frustrated and bitter about his job. He becomes apathetic while preparing for Santa, and almost blows the whole operation.
Now, I realize a Disney animated Christmas program is nothing like Advent Scripture. But God has a way of speaking to us from places we least expect, most often in our daily lives while we are focused in a different direction – or in my case while watching TV. In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist urges a crowd of everyday people to wake up and do the difficult prep work before Christ Jesus lands on earth. In a way, Advent is about prep and landing.
I don’t mean to sound flip about this. When Christ becomes human and dwells among us, no less than God’s kingdom starts breaking into our world. Yet, John’s prophecy as Luke records it does have elements of what we learned in kindergarten: Be kind and share, be honest, and don’t be a bully. Lessons that many people seem to have forgotten these days.
Today’s scripture lesson begins with Luke’s list of the most powerful men of his time. It includes political leaders, economic leaders, and religious authorities. Isn’t it striking, then, that the very next words Luke writes are, “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
The Word of God comes in the wilderness to a man who is – well, an oddball. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God has the tendency to call the most unlikely people, right in the middle of places we never think to look. It might seem obvious to us that God should speak directly to the powerful and the wealthy; after all, those are the people in a position to change the world for the better. But in Luke’s gospel, God aims holy words clear out into the desert – well away from centers of influence.
The word came to John, a colorful character who lives totally off the grid – although unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke downplays John’s diet of bugs and honey, and his road-kill wardrobe. Luke tells us something about John that I admit I was slow to notice. Luke writes, “[He] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” John does not just pop up in the desert one day, he was there all the time, waiting to hear from God. And as he waited, he grew stronger in spirit.
For most of us, wilderness – especially spiritual wilderness – is not something we would choose on our own. The wilderness prepares John to hear God’s words clearly, away from a noisy, distracting world. For us, wilderness can be a place where God’s voice is easier to hear, and we are less likely to get it mixed up with our own needs and wants, so we become stronger in spirit. Prophet or not, everyone is vulnerable in wilderness situations. John announces the coming of a Savior that brings a renewed covenant with God in a time of deep despair. We can understand that kind of despair today, can’t we? The headlines are too full of the lowest kinds of human behavior. We need renewal and we need good news.
Sometimes, despair crouches deep within our own hearts. We are stranded in the wilderness – either of our own making, or because we are pushed and shoved there by loneliness, loss, or difficult circumstances. Yet, into our desert places, John announces the good news of deliverance.
At first, John’s call for repentance doesn’t sound like good news at all. “You brood of vipers!” he yells at his crowd of listeners, “Pay attention before it’s too late. The ax is ready and waiting at the root of the tree – and in case you missed it, you are the tree!”
Someone in the crowd must have opened their mouth for a rebuttal, because John says, “Don’t start telling me you are exempt from the coming judgement because you claim Abraham as your ancestor.”
One of the central tenants of Israel’s covenant with God is the generational promise that began with Abraham, and continues through all his descendants. But John says that this promise is meaningless apart from repentance. In other words, claiming the promise of Abraham without the practicing the faith of Abraham just doesn’t work. He declares that a baptism of repentance requires the one baptized to live out their faith through their actions. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he admonishes the crowd.
This applies to the entire community. Preparing for Christ’s arrival means rethinking systems and structures that some might see as normal but that God condemns as oppressive and crooked. The world’s authorities often make claims that conflict with God’s claims.
On a personal level, each of us need God to humble down what is proud and self-satisfied in us, so God can heal and raise up what is broken and beaten down. To prepare a new highway takes a certain amount of excavation work involving the removal of rocks and other obstacles. John’s call to confession involves clearing whatever obstacles in our lives prevent us from fully making way for Jesus.
John is doing more here than scolding and threatening, and that must have come across to his listeners. Rather than slink away disheartened, the people seem eager for John to tell them more. “What then should we do?” they ask. In reply, John offers simple, pragmatic advice.
He doesn’t tell the crowd to leave everything and join him in the wilderness. He doesn’t demand that the tax collectors sever all ties with Rome or that the soldiers (Roman soldiers, by the way!) leave Cesare’s employment and become pacifists. Instead, John points out how they can live lives of witness and service right where they are, in the present moment.
Be kind and share. Be honest. Do not bully.
Be the sort of person that will greet Jesus and the Kingdom he brings with him with open, and true and honest hearts.
Opportunities to serve God and neighbor are all around us and it does not take a hero to do them. In our present circumstances – our age, our financial status, our standing in the community – we can still bear fruit. We might then ask who is excluded. The answer is of course: no one. John preaches to all, Jesus comes for all, and as Isaiah prophesizes, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It is indeed possible to live faithful lives even when we find ourselves in the wilderness. Or when we are tempted, like the tax collectors, to skim a little off the top or even use fear or coercion to get what we want from others as the soldiers did.
Even John accepts his relative powerlessness in the light of Christ. People question him, thinking perhaps he is the Messiah. But John is not some beta version of Jesus. “He who is coming is mightier than I am,” he says, “Why, I’m not worthy to kneel down before him and untie his shoe.”
John actually lives out his own advice; he is content with what he has been given. Not only that, his preaching calls us to notice all the places where we have a chance to make a difference. Especially in a culture that favors indulgence over compassion and self-interest over sacrifice. We can witness to God’s promise to meet us where we are, accept us as we are, and make good use of us to care for those around us.