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December 12, 2015 - Luke 3.7-18

“Thunder Bells”

Luke 3:7-18

December 13, 2015

 

7John 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? 8 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.9Even 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.”10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”14Soldiers 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.”

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John 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.17His 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.”18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

Jingle Bells.  I don’t really like jingle bells.  I find the jingly bells to be unbiblical and annoying.  There was a little jingle bell somehow rolling around on the dashboard of our van the other day, and it annoyed me, so I grabbed it and threw it over my shoulder into the back of the van.  Now it annoys me by rolling around on the floor of the van where I can’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am no Scrooge.  I love Christmas music, but not jingle bells.  There is just not enough there.  Not enough “oomph.”  Christmas is about this cosmic event that shook the foundations of reality and reshaped the destiny of humankind.  “Thunder Bells” would be more appropriate.

“Come on Preacher.  Don’t you know it’s Christmas time?  Why are you preaching about John the Baptist again?”  I admit that he seems out of place this time of year.  John’s preaching was part of God’s preparation for the coming of Jesus.  He fits.  What doesn’t fit is our society’s treatment of Christmas.  We make Christmas to be nothing more than a lame, warm and fuzzy reason to keep merchants in business.  We ought to be shouting the joy that Christ has come, that God is with us, that we now have hope in Christ!  We sing these little, puny songs like “Jingle Bells” – we ought to be singing songs with stronger, bolder titles - “Thunder Bells”, maybe, but not “jingle” anything.

 Advent is about the coming of Christ into the world.  That is the message that Jesus was proclaiming.  But instead of snowflakes and reindeer, we get fire and snakes. (v.7).  He calls us to prepare for the coming of Christ.  He calls us to repent.  Our culture would have us prepare to Christmas differently.  Emeril gets us cooking our goose with a tasty tarragon sauce, and Martha Stewart can teach us to grow our own wicker, but John the Baptist would have us prepare for Christmas differently. 

“Repent!” he says.  In his native tongue, the word was “Shub!” a word that meant to turn around 180 degrees and travel the opposite direction.  “You’re going the wrong way,” in other words.  That’s what it means to turn around and flee in the opposite direction.  John uses a vivid picture here to characterize these people to whom he is preaching.  He lived in the desert.  Deserts are very dry.  The plants are basically like paper there, and when there is a fire, they burn hot and fiercely.  John portrays his listeners as snakes that have come out of their desert holes and are fleeing the fire.  His call is for a moment of truth, to abandon all devices used to maintain the illusion of innocence

John’s call to repentance is one to all peoples.  The crowd was filled with people from all across the spectrum.  It remains the same for us today.  It is a call for people that have never made a decision for Christ, and it is call for those of us who have followed him as long as we can remember.  John is preaching a basic spiritual necessity, which can be forgotten, as we get busy being the church.

I confess that I sometimes get sidetracked by the little subtleties of the scriptures.  That’s because I love them so much.  They really are the rare jewels of God’s wisdom.  It is good to seek them out.  But John is not dealing with theological subtleties here.  He is dealing with a basic foundational need.  Often the analogy is used to compare spiritual teaching to food – calling it “spiritual food”.  In that analogy, the subtleties that I have referred to would be like shellfish, that you have labor and work through this tough shell and all you get is a small, though succulent, morsel of food.  John the Baptist has slapped a 30-ounce porterhouse steak on our spiritual plates and is urging us to eat.  His is serving up theological vitamin C for spiritual scurvy.  “Repent!”  There is no more basic response to God, and no better way to prepare for the coming of our King.

One of the scariest things that John says is that “the ax is at the root of the tree.”  It is only scary when we realize that he is calling us to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” – he is talking to us like we are trees.  Repent? Great!  Now bear fruit that proves you have repented.  Do good things.  Walk the other direction.  Everyone there asks him “What should we do?”  That is an admission of guilt, and he tells them to do good deeds.  John’s answers to them addressed the injustices of the world.  Hunger.  Poverty.  Injustice.  We still have them today.  These words are for us today.  John the Baptist makes it clear that a religion void of moral and ethical earnestness is just that – void.  Traditionally, repentance was observed by sackcloth and ashes and sacrifices.  For John, repentance takes the form of realizing the commandment to love one another and to do deeds of loving-kindness.  The first step toward a redeemed community is for those that have to share with those that have not.

This is where this message stretches beyond Christmas.  John Wesley said that the doctrine of the Devil is to do good when you feel like it – like at Christmas.  People are hungry in April.  Children need shoes in August.  Homeless folks are cold in February.  To truly repent is to adopt a lifestyle of repentance – that means all the time.

I am encouraged by all the good things I have seen this church do in my time here.  I have seen us reach out to families in our community that need help.  I am glad to be a part of this church.  But simply being part of the church does not get us off the hook.  It’s not that simple. 

That brings us back to our individual responsibility to repent.  Just because we are part of the church makes no difference.  John warned them of the dangers of this.  He said – “Don’t even begin to think that just because you are children of Abraham...God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones, and God can raise up good Baptists from kudzu leaves just as easily.  Being part of the church does not make us exempt from scrutiny or excuse our failures.  Only our repentance can place us in the right position in relation to God. 

What you do counts, not that your name is on a roll somewhere.  It’s what you do that people remember.

I saw a guy once that could catch a bullet in his mouth.  Really!  Another guy would fire a gun and this guy would catch the bullet in his mouth! But I can’t remember this guy’s name.  What does this guy have to do in order for me to remember his name?  Just how impressive does his feat need to be?  He must have worked at this trick for YEARS, and I see him do it and I forget his name.  How do work up to that?  Do you start out by having the other guy throw a raisin at your mouth really fast?  How?  But I still don’t remember his name.

And that is because names aren’t as important as what we do.  People will forget your name, but they will remember what you do.  And if you live your life in sin, they will remember that you called yourself a Christian and it didn’t make a difference.  The opposite is also true.  If your actions bear out your words, then people will see the good you have done.  If you live a life of repentance, people will see your actions and remember them.

But just because your name is on a list somewhere at church does not mean that you are square with God.  That doesn’t make you or me a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car. 

The temptation is to rationalize our involvement in the church to be equal with having our own personal relationship with God on solid ground.  We are tempted to rationalize that because we are committed to church or any number of humanitarian causes that we must be living lives of repentance. We call the word “rationalize” because we like to tell ourselves rational lies.  It has been said that God has no grandchildren.  We are only made right (justified) by God’s grace and our active response to that grace.

How will you prepare for Christmas?  Perhaps being concerned about the tree or the lights isn’t the most important preparation we could make.  There is a story about the Greek teacher Socrates, while passing by a house of ill repute, he noticed one of his students inside.  He called him out.  After trying to hide, the student reluctantly came out.  He said that he was ashamed to be seen leaving that place.  Socrates replied, “Son there is no shame in leaving such a place.  The shame was entering, not in leaving.”  There is no shame in repenting of one’s sins.  Advent is the time we spend preparing for Christmas.  “Repent!”  John cries.  Like singing “Thunder Bells,” it might seem strange to a world so wrapped up in Yuletide euphoria.  But there is no better way to prepare for the coming of God.  May all of us respond to God’s grace with lives worthy of repentance.  Amen.