12/17/2018 12:00:52 PM
John the Baptist's Christmas Card [Sermon]
John 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? Bear 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. 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers 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.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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. His 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Pastor Marc's sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 16, 2018) on Luke 3:7-18. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
If John the Baptist sent Christmas cards, what would they look like?
Most of the holiday cards I’ve received can be sorted into three different categories. One set has pictures of people smiling on the front. These are the ones with kids, grand kids, and entire families standing in front of some festive background while wishing us a Merry Christmas. Another set of cards are comical, with Snoopy, cats, and a cartoon from the New Yorker offering us a tiny bit of holiday cheer. The third set are religious, where a pastel colored Joseph and a golden glittery manger show us the kind of treasure Jesus is. All of these cards are meant as a gift for us, giving us a taste of what this season of love, peace, and expectation are all about. Yet on first glance, I’m not 100% sure if John the Baptist would have sent those kinds of cards. We can imagine his having a picture of himself on the front, standing on top of a hill and surrounded by a desolate landscape. He’s wearing a shaggy outfit made out of camel hair and he’s leaning on a large walking stick. His hair would be all over the place and his beard would be anything but cute. And I bet, as we looked at his card, we’d swear he was staring right at us. John’s card would probably freak us out and below his picture on the front would be his holiday greeting for us all: Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.
Now, that’s not really the kind of holiday greeting we’re used to. During this time of year, we expect something a bit more joyful. John’s words about wrath and about our being tossed into a fire doesn’t seem to match our seasonal context; a season where we can binge watch slightly ridiculous made-for-tv Christmas movies all day long. Yet, I think, we read John’s words on this 3rd Sunday of Advent to remind ourselves that our future expectations make a difference today. As we heard last week, John’s ministry began in the wilderness, in the place where our control breaks down. Over and over again, he told the crowds that came to him to repent: to do more than just feel sorry for the ways they’ve hurt themselves and others. Instead, we’re called to change our lives so that causing hurt isn’t the default experience other people have of us. This kind of life matters because the future God is creating will come about and we can live that future kind of life. So as John kept talking, the crowd gathered around him asked the same question you might be asking yourself right now: how?
And luckily for us, the Bible actually recorded an answer. John said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” His words then turned more specific, addressing tax collectors and soldiers separately. Tax collectors made their living - and usually an extravagant living - by legally charging more in taxes than the Roman emperor actually requested. So John told them to collect only what was officially owed. To the soldiers, who served Rome and the Emperor, John told them to be satisfied with their wages and to not use their power to steal and commit violence against those they’re protecting. Now, all of this can feel a bit basic. It’s as if John looked at the crowd gathered around him, told them God was coming soon, and they’d better start learning how to share. They were invited to see how they fit in our social world; to admit their privileges and advantages and to use those to help their neighbors in need. John told the crowd to recognize their power and to use that power so that those without clothes and food might thrive. No one was told to quit their jobs. No one was told to leave their family and friends and join John in the wilderness. Instead, John reminded everyone that the fruits of repentance are made real in our everyday lives. And that kind of life is a little doable by all of us.
Which is why, last week, those who could - purchased Christmas gifts and hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards for families and individuals in our area. Other people in our church made sure to pick up a couple of extra boxes of cereal during their weekly grocery shopping trip and they brought those boxes to church so that another volunteer could drive all our weekly food donations to the Center for Food Action in Englewood. Last Thursday, a small team of volunteers, using financial resources from the Special Gifts fund, our Care Committee, and other places, purchased and assembled 48 bags full of bath towels, shampoos, toothpaste and other hygiene items. Those bag were given to our friends at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passiac who, each week, gather with day laborers in a Home Depot parking lot to worship and offer them a warm breakfast before they go off to do their tiring, dangerous, and sometimes stolen labor. I’ve seen people in this church this week check in on each other and I’ve seen them pray for each other when a serious illness or hardship impacted their neighbor’s life. These little bits of God’s future kind of life also includes those unseen moments when you, either as a child, student, parent, business person, or even as a high school history teacher: served, cared, and honored others while doing your job. That doesn’t mean, of course, we did everything perfectly. You might be, like I am right now, going over in your head the different ways this week when you didn’t love, or share, or use your gifts to help those around you. But just because you weren’t perfect this week, doesn’t mean we get to stop tiring. We all have multiple opportunities everyday to make the most loving and life-giving choices we possibly can. We regardless of our age, positions, or resources, get to commit ourselves to the welfare of those around us. If we enjoy a standard of living that lets us thrive, we are invited to grow in our contentment with what we already have and to work hard so that all can thrive like we do. This kind of work isn’t only done by special people in special moments of their lives. This kind of work gets to be done by all of us, right now.
Because when we finally open the Christmas card John the Baptist sent us, we see the gift he was pointing to: we see Jesus. And this Jesus, this Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to come to us where we are, and, through the Holy Spirit, grants us the faith, the promise, and the hope to believe that the future God is already creating will make a difference in our lives today. Jesus, the One who chose to be born, who chose to grow up, who chose to live, and who even died - he is the One who will keep claiming us as His own even when we fail to share God’s most perfect love with everyone in our lives. He is always with you, no matter where your lives, your jobs, or your careers take you. And since he’s already saved the world, we can trust, and we can have faith, that with Holy Spirit’s help - we can share and love and make a difference in our little part of God’s beloved Creation.