|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
Crowds of people came out to John to be baptised by him. "You snakes!" he said to them. "Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins.
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 just before Christmas. He had a beard and long hair but he was so unlike like Santa - he was not in a jolly mood with lots of ho-ho-hos.
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 and you will see his saving power."
John the Baptist was rough, tough, bold and blunt as he
spoke to the people. His rough outward appearance was indicative of his tough
attitude toward those who thought that they didnít need to change. He spared
those who were half-hearted about turning around their lives;
those who thought that they could just turn up and listen to a few of his sermons and everything would be okay;
those who thought they didnít need to hear about sin and turning back to God:
those people who were religious, high ranking, self-righteous.
He wasnít afraid to speak out, "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! Imagine if a preacher were to get up in front of us here today and call us slippery snakes who do anything to get out of following God's ways, always doing our own thing, never stop thinking about ourselves. Slippery snakes - cold, luke-warm at best, no sense of what it means to be loyal and committed as a disciple, always looking for a way out of giving something of ourselves to others and to the church. If I spoke to you like that some would say, "We need to hear that" while others would walk. And you know thatís exactly the response John the Baptist got to his message. In fact, some not only walked full of resentment but went so far as to disconnect his head from his shoulders.
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, and even help out at worship and 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.
This leads me to highlight that this is an interesting
fact about the Christian faith.
It is impossible to be saved until you are damned.
It is difficult to be raised up if you are not at your lowest, on your knees in humility and repentance.
It is tough to receive a gift if you believe you already have everything.
You canít be satisfied if you have no hunger.
And the hunger I am referring to is the need for forgiveness, the need to be reconciled to God, and the need to feel again the love that God has for us.
Before we get to hear about Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, 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." Before we can fully appreciate what God has done for us at Christmas we have to understand why he did it.
At this time of the year we are busy getting ready for Christmas in many different ways. We retrieve our Christmas tree from the garage 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 decorate and clean 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 wonít penetrate the hardness of our hearts. They will bounce right off. 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).
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. 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 physiotherapist 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. 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. I believe that he would be even blunter because we have well developed sense of selective hearing.
Like the converted slob we can't relax with sin
controlling our lives. We need to listen to John the Baptist as he
challenges us once again this Advent season.
"Turn away from your sins.
Stop your excuses.
Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sin and that you are truly full time followers of the Messiah and not part-time followers or members of Christís only when it happens to suit you.
Stop pretending that everyone else owes you a favour because you have done so much.
Get rid of that attitude that only wants to receive and never offer anything back in return."
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 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. Letís face it - we enjoy certain sins. We canít help ourselves. We are compulsive sinners and anyone who says they are not needs to get down on their knees right now. 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 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.
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.
Johnís 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
10th December, 2006