December 12th, 2021 – Pastor Elizabeth

3 Advent Year C / December 12, 2021 / St. Paul’s Random Lake / Luke 3:7-18

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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,[a] 16 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[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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.

John’s Straight Talk

Let us pray. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. We wait, we hope, we yearn, even though we know not what for. Come speak a word of hope to our hopelessness. Come, be a light in our darkness. Come give direction to our aimless wandering. Come, Lord Jesus. AMEN.  What’s the big idea? Here we are all itching to get to Christmas—the baby in the manger (or maybe some of us would just as soon skip that part and get to the guy in the red suit with the presents) and here comes John the Baptist AGAIN! Out in the wilderness preaching God’s judgment and wrath. Didn’t we just hear about him last week? Luke says in his gospel that John preached good news to the people, but frankly his sermon sounds like doom and gloom to me! What’s this all about anyway? In what way was John preaching “good news”?

John’s task was to prepare the way of the Lord, the long expected Messiah, God’s chosen one to come into the world. I can’t imagine standing up and preaching like John the Baptist. How would you react if I called you a “brood of vipers”? A bunch of sneaky snakes? “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” God is coming and is God ever ticked at us! John told it like it was. He didn’t sugar-coat the message. He didn’t pull any punches. “Even now the ax is laid to the foot of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Hey, time to wake up or you’re going down!

Since Jesus came on the scene, it might seem easier to set John aside as someone who filled the role of preparing the way for Jesus, but way too harsh to be relevant for us today. I don’t think we can dismiss John so lightly. John has an important message to speak to those who are waiting for and preparing for the coming of Christ today. Most of us know that preparing for Christ means far more than just getting ready for Christmas, wrapping gifts and hanging decorations. As John suggests, it means preparing our hearts and our lives to make room for Jesus, not only as he comes mild and quiet in the manger, but as he challenges us to live out the promise of the gospel in our daily lives by serving others in concrete ways in the name of Christ. He challenges us to bear the fruit of repentance which means to show the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus has transformed us so that we can make a difference in the world.

Maybe we want to fast forward through John the Baptist and get to Jesus because John’s message is so darn demanding. He assumes that when there is real inner transformation in our lives it will show outwardly too, in our words and actions. If we don’t bear the fruit of repentance than we’re dead wood. We might as well get tossed on the fire.

Our image of Jesus is gentler and kinder than that. Especially at this time of year when we are laser-focused on the tiny, innocent baby whose biggest demand is for his mother’s milk. We like that Jesus because there isn’t a lot of expectation laid on us. But John offers up a very different image of Jesus then we are used to seeing. John says, “Just wait until you see the guy I’m preparing you for! You think I’m scary, you think I’m demanding, wait until you see the guy who is coming after me! “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[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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!” Wait a second! Is this the baby in the manger that we’re waiting for? Is John even talking about the same guy?

We tend to forget when we are focused on the Nativity story that Jesus came to turn the world upside down. He showed a clear concern for the lowest and the least of these—the poor, the sick, the outcasts and lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, people others wanted nothing to do with. Not to mention that he got the religious authorities extremely angry by challenging their interpretations of God’s Word and teaching in a whole new way. Remember, they got angry enough later in his life that they wanted to get rid of him, angry enough to kill him. The question we need to ask is how do we prepare the way for someone like that to come into the world? Do we dare make him part of our lives? Or will he just cause trouble? What will he ask us to do?

What John the Baptist is saying to the crowds and also to us is this: if you really want to invite this Messiah into your life prepare to be changed, prepare to be different than you have been. Prepare to be transformed. Because if inviting Jesus into your life doesn’t make a difference, you might as well get tossed into the fire for all the good it will do you. We shy away from this kind of image of Jesus because it is demanding and scary, but in the Advent season we can’t avoid it.

This image is especially fearsome if we start trying to sort individual people into worthy wheat and worthless chaff. More helpful is to begin to see that there is wheat and chaff, good and evil in all of us. As we enter the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit enters in to burn away the chaff in us and leaves the wheat to grow and be gathered. Throughout our lives we may return to the promises God made to us in baptism each day: “Holy Spirit burn the chaff away and set me free. Make my life the wheat that you would have it be.”

Whenever we offer up our lives to God in humility, asking for forgiveness, to turn our lives around, to be born anew—that is the fruit of repentance. God creates the inner change. Through the Holy Spirit God does the cleansing work within us and then the fruit of repentance begins to show.

What shape does this fruit take in your life? How do you prepare? What should you do? In our gospel for today, John the Baptist is very specific with his responses. We prepare the way by being about the work God calls each of us to do.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”

So you can prepare the way of the Lord by giving of what you have to those in need and by being about the work that God has given specifically to you and through living and modelling the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the fruit of repentance what the Holy Spirit brings about in you when God is a part of your life. It is something that simply grows and shows. Caring for and nurturing that fruit is how we prepare the way of the Lord.

So as tempting as it may be to leap over John the Baptist to get to Christmas it is good to listen and heed what he has to say. Advent is about more than preparing for just one day—Christmas, but it is about preparing ourselves and our world to welcome Christ. Part of that preparation is inviting the Holy Spirit to transform you and make you ready and the other part is to get to work, spreading the good news and doing the tasks he calls you to do in caring for the world as only you can do. Come, Lord Jesus. AMEN.

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