Monday, December 14, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Time's Up"

Sermon 12/13/09, Luke 3:7-18

Time’s Up

Perhaps by now you are wondering if Advent will ever bring a text that sounds like we’re preparing for the baby Jesus. After all, we started out with Jesus talking about the signs of the times, and images of disaster. Last week things sounded a little more advent-y, but really we were talking about a grown-up John the Baptist. And now, this week, we get more John, only this time he’s yelling about broods of vipers, fleeing from the coming wrath, and how Jesus is going to be throwing things into an unquenchable fire. Can John really be preparing people for Jesus, born a sweet babe, prince of peace, tender and mild?

Our text picks up where it left of last week, and if our question last week was, “What are we waiting for?” today there is no missing the urgency in John’s tone. Crowds are coming out to him to be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should next expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “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.” In other words, yes, God has had a special relationship with the people Israel. But that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the relationship. John continues forebodingly: “Eve 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.”

John obviously catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words, and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah. “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.” A winnowing folk was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Is what John is saying “Good News?” There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the winnowing fork – it hardly makes us as eager for the messiah to come as John certainly was. But John is sharing with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. As I mentioned before, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently the John was expecting. John does see judgment, just as surely as Jesus comes with salvation. So John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news.

What John does is tell us how we’re to prepare for this good news, and this messiah, no matter how this messiah exactly ends up coming. First, he says, it’s your responsibility and no one else’s – your behavior, and your relationship with God. Many of John’s hearers were lifelong Jews, raised in families that were “children of Abraham” for generation upon generation. They had rituals and laws and customs and practices that were all tied up in practicing their Judaism. But John is saying that none of that matters – not in terms of preparing for the messiah, not in terms of repentance and forgiveness, not in terms of being open to embracing the good news. What matters is whether or not each individual person is preparing for the messiah’s coming.

So it is for us. Preparing for God moving in your life is your responsibility and no one else’s. This year, we have a group of young confirmands going through a preparation process for becoming members of this congregation. But it’s also more than that – it’s a time – probably one of many steps in a process really – of taking a faith that has been a family faith – the faith of their parents or grandparents or other adults in their life – and determining whether or not it is a faith that is their very own. Because ultimately only they are responsible for what they believe, and how they life, and what they do with God’s call on their lives. We can help and assist and encourage. But the choice is theirs.

It’s not much different with us – attending church, serving on committees, claiming the title, “Christian” – these things can be expressions of our discipleship. But they don’t make us into discipleship, create our discipleship, or relieve us from the responsibility of discipleship. We can only be disciples by following Jesus, by following God’s path. There’s no substitutes, and the only one who can make you a disciple is you. And, by the same token, the only one you can make a disciple is you – no one can follow God for you, and you can’t follow God for anyone else. We encourage, we support, we work together. But you must decide, and act, or not, for you.

John also tells us that preparing for the messiah, preparing for this good news, is actually easy to understand, clear, and easy to do. That claim might surprise us. Discipleship is easy? But listen again to his responses to the crowds who wonder exactly what they’re supposed to be doing to prepare. John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collector he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldier he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” What John is describing isn’t hard to do. There’s nothing complicated about what he’s saying, nothing difficult to understand, is there?

Somehow, though, we manage to make it complicated. If John says that whoever has two coats must share one with the person who has none, we can’t seem to take it at face value. We wonder if it is fair that we have to give up one of our hard-earned coats. We wonder what the person without a coat did to end up that way. They must have been pretty foolish, or lazy, or ignorant to end up without a coat. And if we can be convinced to part with our second coat, we’d rather not have to give it to the person face-to-face. We’d like to set up a program for coat-giving, making sure that the person receiving the coat is properly credentialed, and making sure that we can get some sort of credit for giving the coat – a thank-you note, a tax write-off, a welcome-gift, something. Suddenly, giving away a coat to someone without one has become very time-consuming and complicated, and really, who has time for all that? Of course, I’m being a bit facetious – but my point is this: John is pretty clear about what we need to do to prepare our hearts for the messiah. And in fact, he’s not telling us anything we don’t already know, really. But if being a disciple feels complicated and hard, it’s because we’re making it so, because we’re not actually ready to commit, all out, to following God. “What then should we do?” we ask with the crowds. John has the answers for us – we just have to decide if we are ready to listen.

Finally, John tells us that whether or not we’ve actually prepared, repented, and changed our lives to follow God is something that is measurable. He says that essentially, what he’s looking for, what he thinks that the messiah is looking for, is that we are bearing fruit – a tangible result of our health, our growth, our nourishment, our discipleship. What do we have to show for ourselves? Are we full-grown wheat that is ready to be gathered in by the messiah? Do we have good fruit? What is the fruit of your life?

I’m terrible with proverbs. I never remember them correctly. I once asked my mother, all serious, why people said, “close, but no potato.” It made no sense to me. Of course, she explained that the saying is actually, “close, but no cigar,” and its origins. So I try to double-check on proverbs before I use them. You know the saying, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s actually a shortened version of the full proverb, which makes more sense. It’s actually "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." In other words, "the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use." (1) Have we prepared? Have we repented? Are we ready for the messiah to come? We can only know by putting our discipleship into action, by putting our repentance into action, by actually carrying out the words of promise that are easier to speak. John wants to see our fruit, and thinks that Jesus will want to see it too. Because if you witness people enjoying the delicious pudding, you’ll have no doubt that the pudding was very good. If you look at the fruit, you can tell something about the quality of the source of the fruit. And if you see discipleship in faithful action, you can get a look right into the good heart of the disciple. John calls us, as Jesus indeed will, to bear good fruit.

John was getting awfully anxious for the messiah to come. Time’s up – that’s the urgency, the energy of his message. Act now. Repent now. Bear fruit now. I think I’m just about ready too – ready to stop counting down, and start welcoming the messiah. Time’s up. Are you ready?

Amen.


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