Text: Luke 3:3,7,8
John went throughout the whole territory of the Jordan
River, preaching, "Turn away from your sins and be baptised, and God
will forgive your sins." Ö
Here we are just a fortnight away from Christmas and we have this strange character appearing in our readings this morning. John the Baptist is the most unlikely Christmas character that we are ever going to meet, yet every year he shows up. He shows up to remind us that sometimes God speaks to us with a soft voice in the silence. And sometimes God speaks to us in the thunder. Through John, God uses the thunder to get our attention. John stands at the outskirts of Christmas, in the wilderness, and thunders out his message of "Turn back to God and be baptised! Then your sins will be forgiven." John put pressure on people to look at themselves and then change. Young and old were asked to meet the challenge: "Turn back to God." "Turn back to God and you will see his saving power."
John the Baptist was no softy. His rough outward appearance was indicative of his tough attitude toward those who thought that they didnít need to change. He laid into people when they were half-hearted about turning around their lives. When they thought that they could just turn up and listen to a few of his sermons, then undergo baptism and that would do the trick, he surprised them with rude words: "You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgement? Do something to show that you really have given up your sins" (Luke 3:7,8 CEV). John was tough! Perhaps some of us think that he was too tough.
But sometimes tough words are needed.
Tough words prick our consciences.
Tough words challenge us to take a long look at what is happening in our lives.
Tough words that knock us down shock us into seeing that there is plenty of room for change.
Sometimes we think that what is being said doesnít refer to us Ė they are for real sinners, the unconverted, not for us who have been baptised, attend worship regularly, even help on some of the church committees.
We might even quietly say to ourselves, "I hope so and so is listening; he/she really needs to take this seriously." Thatís when tough words are needed. Soft words just wonít work.
Hard words are needed to get through the false image that we have of ourselves. Sharp words are needed to help us realise that the call to renounce our sin and renew our commitment to God applies equally to us as to anyone else.
But why do we have to listen to John the Baptist and his rough and crude words at this time of the year. Christmas is the season of love, peace, and happiness. We donít need to hear all of this now, some other time of the year, perhaps in the lead up to Good Friday and Easter, but not just a couple of weeks before Christmas. We should be hearing about mangers, shepherds, and angels and the good news that a Saviour has been born in Davidís town.
We will get to hearing about Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus but before we do, we need to hear Johnís call to "turn away from our sins" because this has everything to do with Christmas. Before we can have Christmas - really have Christmas - we've got to hear these words of John that say, "get ready."
At this time of the year we are busy getting ready for Christmas in many different ways. The children are rehearsing carols and learning their parts for the Christmas Eve service. We retrieve our lovely fake evergreen out of storage and spend a lot of time trying to figure out which bulb on the string of lights was the one that was causing the whole string not to work. We put the ornaments on the Christmas tree. We clean up the house. Buy Christmas gifts. Plan to visit relatives or have them over on Christmas Day. But the kind of getting ready that John is talking about is quite different to all of this. He is talking about getting rid of the dirt in our lives Ė renouncing our sin and making a new commitment to live lives worthy of our calling as one of Godís special people.
Thatís where Johnís tough words come in. He knows the human heart all too well. If he speaks softly and gently his words will go in one ear and out the other. So he speaks loudly, rudely and bluntly, "You snakes! Do those things that will show that you have turned away from your sins." He went on to warn those who refuse to turn from their sinfulness, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9). John was fearless in his outspokenness Ė If he had something to say, he would say it regardless of who it was he was saying it to and how harsh his words might seem to the listener. He even dared to speak tough words attacking King Herod.
At first Johnís tough words jolt us in this season of peace and joy. Hard words hurt but at the same time these hard words are good news because they lead us back to God and his coming salvation. Even though John the Baptistís words were tough, they were a good message from God. His stern words were turning over the soil of the human heart making it ready for the Saviour.
Max Lucado tells the story of a man who had been a slob most of his life. He just couldn't comprehend the logic of neatness. Why make up a bed if you're going to sleep in it again tonight? Why put the lid on the toothpaste tube if you're going to take it off again in the morning? He admitted to being compulsive about being messy.
Then he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn't mind his habits Ö if he didn't mind sleeping on the couch. Since he did mind, he began to change. He said he enrolled in a 12-step program for slobs. A physical therapist helped him rediscover the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose was reintroduced to the smell of Pineocleen. By the time his in-laws arrived for a visit, he was a new man.
But then came that moment of truth. His wife went out of town for a week. At first he reverted to the old man. He figured he could be a slob for six days and clean up on the seventh. But something strange happened. He could no longer relax with dirty dishes in the sink or towels flung around the bathroom or clothes on the floor or sheets piled up like a mountain on the bed.
Can you see what has happened in this manís life? His wife was loving and patient but was tough when it came to her husbandís untidiness. John the Baptist was tough on the mess that sin makes of our relationship with God and how we deal with other people. If John were here with us today, his message would be exactly the same. As we wait for Jesus to return at the end of time and now as we wait for the celebration of his first coming at Christmas, he would speak these same tough words to us, "Turn away from your sins. Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins."
John the Baptist urges us, to clean away the garbage in our lives, to clear away every bit of mess that sin causes. Clear away selfishness and an uncaring, unfriendly attitude Ė "Whoever has two shirts must give one to the person who has none". Clear away dishonesty, greed and a focus on material things. Clear away dissatisfaction with who you are and what you have received from Godís hand. Clear away all immorality and everything that opposes Godís will for our lives.
Repent, turn away, from every obstacle, from every favourite sin, from all of our excuses for our poor commitment to God and his church. Turn away from everything that is contrary to the way God wants us to live as his people.
Thatís not an easy thing to do. In fact, itís well near impossible for us to turn around our lives just by sheer will power. We enjoy certain sins. We are determined to not do something again and next thing you know, we are doing it again. We canít help doing, saying or thinking in ways that are harmful and hurtful.
Even as Godís baptised and forgiven people we still keep on sinning. We keep on living lives that are filled with all kinds of hurt, greed, selfishness, lack of consideration for others, and we could go on cataloguing all that we do that contrary to Godís will. The Bible says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us" (1 John 1:8).
In this time before Christmas, letís not mind those tough words of John the Baptist, "Turn back to God." "Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins." You might say that John speaks tough to us for our own good. He speaks tough like a parent who speaks loudly and emphatically pointing out a childís wrong-doing. Parents do this not only to make the child aware of the wrong that has been done, but to make the child a better person and avoid the same kind of wrong in the future. In addition, through forcefully highlighting the wrong that has been done, the child then appreciates all the more the parents words, "I love you" "I forgive you". If the child doesnít appreciate the fact that he/she has done wrong, the beauty of the parentís love and forgiveness will be missed.
None of us want to miss out on Godís good news. Prompted by his messengers, like John the Baptist, we turn to God, open ourselves up, allow him to deal with the sin in our lives, and then receive what he has promised. Promises of forgiveness, healing, new life, a change beyond words.
As we listen to Johnís tough message we again appreciate our need for a Saviour - the Saviour born in Bethlehem, the Saviour who died to give us forgiveness for all the times we have slipped back into sin, the Saviour who rose again to defeat the power of death over us.
John message was indeed tough and at times rude and blunt. Listen to the voice calling in the wilderness and hear the good news. "Prepare the way of the Lord" "Turn away from your sin" and you "shall see the salvation of God."
(1) Max Lucado, In the Grip of Grace (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 116-117
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
10th December, 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.