This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones and St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on December 16, 2018, is built on the readings for the Third Sunday in Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news? Really? John the Baptist is out here in the wilderness calling people vipers, talking about the wrath that is to come.
He’s telling us that there is an ax lying at the root of our ancestral tree and that the Messiah is coming with a winnowing fork in hand, to burn the barren branches and the chaff with unquenchable fire! That doesn’t sound much like good news to me! But people are flocking to him, anxious to hear what he has to say! Why?
Are we rushing into the wilderness to hear good news? Because I don’t hear much of that… Or are we coming to John in fear of judgement hoping he knows how we can save ourselves, asking in desperation, “What then should we do?”
That must be it because John asks us, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Are you serious? You did John! And you’ve got us scared to death! That’s why we’re here! We are afraid!
But that doesn’t sound right… does it? I mean… I hope that we aren’t here because we are afraid. We’re not afraid… Are we?
No. We’re not afraid. We came her for the Good News and there must be some of that in here somewhere… right?
Yes! There is… There is good news in this story.
There is John, the voice crying out,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
And John has got it right! We need to prepare! There is one more powerful than John who is coming to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
John is right! God is about to fulfill God’s promise. The Messiah, the Christ, is coming into the world, and that is Good news! Luke is right when he says that this is good news! John has it right!
But I have to tell you that that there is even better news in the fact that John… has some of it wrong!
John thought, and so did pretty much everyone else, that the nation of Israel was suffering because they had failed to follow God’s law, because they had sinned in the eyes of God. And John was sure that the Messiah would come with power, great might, and seething with wrath.
An ax lying at the root of the ancestral tree, chopping off the barren branches and dead wood, saving the wheat and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire… This was how people believed God would intervene in the world, how God would make things right. This was how people believed that God would help and deliver God’s people. But John didn’t understand some of the prophets who came before him. So the people weren’t prepared.
We, none of us, were ready to believe that the Messiah, God Among Us, would come into the world naked, bloody, crying, cold and shivering in the night air; not in a royal court, but in a manger, among the animals, defenseless, dependent on us… given into our hands… a child.
God comes to us as a child, and upon that child’s shoulders authority will rest, and that child will be named
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
John, we, didn’t understand, couldn’t imagine that God’s power and great might would manifest in the world as vulnerability, surrender, and love…
So, it seems pretty clear that, while John had the big picture right, his grasp of the finer points left a little to be desired…
No wrath. No ax. No unquenchable fire.
But then, you know, that sort of begs the question…
If we’re not here asking “What then should we do,” if we’re not here because we are afraid. Why are we here, in the wilderness with John?
There sure seems to be some urgency about our gathering this morning. Listen again to the Collect of the Day:
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;” (BCP. 212)
Stir up your power, and with great might come among us… Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…
Those words convey urgency, they reflect desire, they speak of longing.
Jesus Emmanuel, God Among Us, came into the world and offered us something unimaginable, the opportunity to experience, to participate, in a life colored by, infused with, the love of God… life eternal.
And having been given a glimpse of that life, of God’s dream for us, we find ourselves groaning with the psalmist:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; * my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1 BCP)
If only, if only we could live and move and have our being in God and experience that life that Jesus offers us.
Longing, desire, urgency!
We are here today with a real sense of urgency, but driven by love, not by fear, in the wilderness with John and his followers, asking with longing and desire, “Teacher, what should we do?”
Because… and here we go back to the Collect of the Day,
“…because we are sorely hindered by our sins…”
Hindered by our sins… hampered, impeded, prevented, thwarted in our desire and attempt to live, and move, and have our being in God… by our sins… or, as we will say in just a few minutes, by:
“The evil that enslaves us, The Evil we have done, And the evil done on our behalf” (Enriching Our Worship 1, page 19)
“Teacher, what should we do?”
Suddenly John the Baptist, having discreetly moved his seat to the back of the class, raises his hand, and with a smile on his face, stands and says, I know, the Messiah is coming, God is coming into the world, and you want to live the life that God dreams for us, free to love god and your neighbor, and to love yourself… oh to love one’s self… so let me just say it again… a little more slowly this time…
To the crowds I say,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
Cultivate a sense of abundance by giving some of what has been given to you to those who have not. You’ll be amazed by the way it feels to give without expectation of return. Give out of love, give for giving’s sake and you will get a taste of the life God dreams for you.
To the tax collectors I say,
“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3:13).
Insist that giving for the common good benefits those who need it most, doesn’t become a burden on those who have the least to give, and that what is given to provide the things we all need isn’t used to enrich the few, but to care for the many.
Give the needs of the community the same priority that you give your own and you will be taking the first steps in realizing the life for which you long.
To the soldiers, the police, I say,
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
Or to quote my predecessor Amos,“
“…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)
Work to make your justice blind, equitable, fair, and be sure that it is shaped and informed by God’s love, mercy, and grace.
Be sure that the law isn’t twisted and used to uphold the powerful at the expense of the voiceless, and you will begin to balance the scales in a way that leads to the love and peace that you so desire…
John sits back down, and Luke, our narrator this morning steps into the frame and says,
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
It really is good news! Jesus is coming to show us the unimaginable, a life lived in communion with, reconciled with, God, one another, and with ourselves. It can be awfully hard, seeking and serving Christ in all persons and respecting the dignity of every human being, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And sometimes it feels like too much, an overwhelming task, to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
And so, the best news of all, is that God isn’t coming to judge us for having fallen short of the mark. God isn’t sending Jesus
“…into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17)
God is coming into the world to help us to realize, experience, live and move and have our being, wrapped in the truth and light of God’s love!
And so, our prayer this morning:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.