We continue our journey in Advent with some good old fashioned hellfire and brimstone preaching. Not really. I’ve been called a lot worse than a viper in my life, and I imagine most of you have, too. I have found my stroll through the commentaries interesting, though. There is a serious discussion, almost a back and forth in the commentaries, between those who think that naming sins and calling people to repentance is anything but good news and those who think the age of overly permissiveness has caused us to forget our real Gospel news. Put in English language, some experts wonder how John’s preaching could ever be considered good news by Luke and the people. The struggle for them, of course, is that the crowds flocked to John to hear his message. I’ve only been doing this a dozen years or so, and my sense is that I really don’t have to beat people up with their sins. They know them all too well. But, neither can we let them pass unaddressed. When we fail to call sins sins, people begin to think that some of their activities and thoughts are no big deals. Who really gets hurt if I watch online pornography? My company makes so much money anyway, it is never going to miss the reams of paper/boxes of pens/tape dispensers and other stuff I took, is it? If we both agree we should divorce, it is not really a bad thing, right? It does not really matter if I give the middle finger to those idiots who cut me off on the highway or at traffic lights, does it?
I hear chuckling, but my guess is that most of the chuckling is rueful. We have become experts at rationalizing our behavior, have we not? And we like to think most of our behavior is ok in God’s eyes. Yet it is precisely those everyday sins as well as the “biggies” that caused Him to come down from heaven. It was precisely those “no big deals” that separated us from our Father in Heaven every bit as much as the big ones like murder and rape. People need to know that the secret sins, the horrible sins that make them unlovable, have been paid in full by our Lord Christ. But people also need to know that those little sins matter every bit as much to God and that our Lord died as much for them as the big ones in our lives. In many ways, we are much like the Jews who came to hear John preach. We understand righteous behavior; what we don’t really understand is this idea of forgiveness.
Our reading from Luke picks up right where it left off last week. John’s activity has been placed alongside the emperor’s, the governor, and the tetrarchs. This nobody by worldly standards, John, comes from the wrong family and the wrong town, has been given the responsibility of serving as the last of the Old Testament prophets, this after God has been silent for a few centuries! He has strolled out of the wilderness and has begun preaching his message of repentance. Amazingly, the people have heard his message. In a day when social media, television, and cell phones did not exist, John’s message was enough to get the folks in the city to head down to the river to hear him preach. Many, we are told by Luke, were baptized by him. Some wanted to place their salvation in their family tree or in their location; John reminded them that God was having none of that.
As they approach, as they hear his message of repentance, they wonder. What does a repentant life look like? What are the fruits of repentance? As people ask, John answers. John’s answers, of course, do not sound so new to our ears. We know that the second great commandment is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, but we have the hindsight of Jesus’ teaching and the red letters of His words to direct us. John simply has the torah and Holy Spirit upon which to base his answers. Those who are wealthy, having two cloaks or plenty of food, ought to share with those who have none. Even traitorous IRS agents, tax collectors, can bear fruit worthy of repentance simply by collecting only what is owed. Soldiers, too, come to John and ask if they can bear worthy fruit, and John instructs them that they must not allow themselves to be used to extort people and that they should be satisfied with their wages. Presumably other professions were in the crowd also asking how they might bear fruit, but these would be two groups many would think outside God’s love and one group that must clearly be loved by God based on outward appearances. John, of course, reminds them and us that God has little concern for outward appearances. It is the repentant heart and the accompanying fruits which God desires.
John’s answers are simple yet profound. The crowds, we are told, began to wonder whether John is the Messiah. John answered them all, Luke tells us, by reminding them that he baptizes only with water for repentance. The Anointed, the Christ, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, empowering them for incredible work and ministry. Luke ends our passage today with this amazing little snippet. “And with many other words, John exhorted and preached the good news to them.” Those who reject sin and those who have become too permissive about sin reject John’s preaching as good news, Gospel. Similarly, those who want to believe that there is no accounting before God, that there is no threshing floor, cannot accept that the people in the crowds are exhorted and filled with good news. I suppose the difficulty comes from being an academic versus being a pastor. How can calling sin a sin be good news? How can a reminder about judgment be good news? How can a critique of one’s profession be good news?
Notice anything remarkable about those coming to see John?
Boy, if I called on people in the pews this morning, there would be a panic, wouldn’t there? Who are the people in the crowd? They are normal people like you and like me, are they not? Luke highlights the tax collectors, soldiers, and rich, I think, because of their perceived standing by those in the crowd. The Jews often thought themselves unassailable because of their chosen status by God. Some really believed that those living in Jerusalem could never be conquered because God had to protect His Temple. God could never allow His people to be subjugated because that meant He would be subjugated in the heavens. They really believed this despite the testimony of the Exile and the warning of the prophets. What is the saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Clearly, many of those who come to hear John speak think their birthright protects them from God’s wrath or ensures them of God’s promises. John reminds them that their ancestry guarantees them nothing from God. What forges the relationship with God is a repentant heart.
We see this attitude of the people alive and well in the modern church, don’t we? I encounter it all the time. “Are you a Christian?” “Of course.” “Great! How has Jesus worked in your life?” “Well, I’m not that kind of Christian?” “What do you mean, that kind of Christian?” Then follows a list of excuses. I’m just a Christian because mom and dad took me to church as a kid. I’m just a Christian because mom and dad and grandma and grandpa are Christians. I’m a Christian because I’m an American.
You all are chuckling, but we hear these excuses all the time. In my short time among you I have met a number of people in the real world of Target or the mall or Publix or other sites who proudly tell me they are Adventers. When I ask how they support Advent, either through worship, prayers, or financial contributions, I get a litany of excuses. God knows I need sleep, so I sleep in on Sundays. Why don’t you come to worship on Monday mornings, Tuesday evenings, or Wednesday noondays? Well, I’m really busy so I don’t have time to pray. Not even at night before bed or at mornings when waking? How about in the car? I can barely pay my bills as it is, or my favorite, that’s all you priests care about is money. Well, you do know there is a cost associated with worship and with ministry? It costs money to let sex addicts meet in our church. It costs money to let a refugee community worship in our church. It costs money to be there when you finally decide you need to talk to someone about God. But you can also give in ways than financial. People today, like people in John’s time, act as if Peter is going to ask for a membership card when we reach the pearly gates and not question our allegiance to His Lord our God.
John’s rebuke of the selfish or miserly rich should prompt them to live lives that feed, water, and clothe the Lazaruses in their lives.
Sitting here today, though, I have also heard some of your arguments against John’s teaching. I’m not sure what caused the conversation dam to break, but over the course of the last six weeks or so, we have had a lot of conversations, so many that I am now usually running a couple weeks behind on getting my sermons typed up and put up for those absent to follow along. I have heard until I am ready to scream what I call the excuse of ordinariness. God needs someone better than me for that ministry, Father. I can’t possibly do that, Father, I’m just . . . me. That would take someone more holy than me. What we often forget is that, in God’s eyes and under His tutelage, the ordinary become extraordinary.
Think of John from our passage today. Does he come from the right family? Is he from the right town? Does he have the right career choice? Does he wear the right clothes? Heck, does he say the right words? John reeks of ordinariness. His father serves in a town outside of Jerusalem. He is located at the parish and not the cathedral, to use our language! His clothes are rough, to say nothing of his diet. Yet, how does God view John? He caused us to remember his name. The world might be fascinated by Augustus, Quirinius, Pilate, and the Tetrarchs, but God loves those who fear him and follow His teaching. This unremarkable man, by worldly standards, is well known by all Christians today and many non-Christians. More importantly, He was and is well known by God, who gave him the honor and privilege of being the one crying in the wilderness for the Anointed One!
And lest we think John is an exception, let’s talk some of our recent stories. Ruth? A Moabitess widow! Neither her heritage nor her condition cause the world to notice her, yet God and Boaz does. And what about Boaz? A seemingly ordinary guy of middle age! Yet both become the parents of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, you know, that famous shepherd with a heart after God’s own. Peter? A fisherman. James and John? Fishermen or net-minders? Matthew? An old fashioned IRS collector! In reality, if we pay close attention to Scripture, there are very few extraordinary men and women, at least by worldly standards, who choose to follow and obey God. Most are normal John’s and Jane’s, right up until that moment they decide to do as God asks! Then, and only after their faithful, obedient response, does God truly bless them. What if Ruth would have followed the footsteps of her sister Orpah? What if Boaz had been more like his kinsman closer to Ruth or a wicked man who ignore God’s torah? What makes the people special, what makes the people extraordinary in our eyes is the One that they serve. There is nothing in them that causes the world to go “Wow. We could totally see that in her/him.” It is their faith in God, who promises to redeem all things and who promises to indwell in all His people, who makes them the giants we think they are.
All of that, of course, brings us to Nashville in the year 2015. Look around for a moment. Consider prayerfully what you think God is calling us to do and to be at Church of the Advent. What do we really lack? We have tons of skills seated around you. Tons. And now think back to that face staring back at you as you dressed this morning. What role is He asking you to play in His wonderful plan of salvation? You can bet that if He is asking, you will have the skills necessary to accomplish His will. Either they are already within you, or He will give them to you at just the appropriate time. Best of all, that plan He has for your life and for salvation is dependent only upon Him. True, He asks us to respond obediently in faith. But the real execution of His plan, the real working out of His plan, is up to Him. If His enemy, who is diametrically opposed to His plan cannot thwart Him, what makes you think you are powerful enough to really screw things up?
Brothers and sisters, you and I serve a God who excels at taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary, who takes the common and makes them sacred, and that truly is good news to those of who hear and believe! As John reminds us, our Lord takes faithful obedient behavior and uses it to His glory and His honor and the welfare of His people. Rather than fight Him in your life or argue with your inner demons that you are incapable of incredible work in His name, why not join yourself to His will? Why not do as He asks and look expectantly for the result? In the end, He has promised to share His honor and His glory with all who follow Him. Should we really be surprised that we remember and honor men and women like John, like Peter, like Mary, like Ruth, like Boaz, like Martha? Should we really be surprised that one day men and women born again of our Father’s Spirit remember you or this parish in the same prayers of thanksgiving?