|Text: Luke 3:7,8,18
Crowds of people came out to John to be baptised by him. "You snake!" 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.... In many different ways John preached the Good News to the people and urged them to change their ways.
All over the world people are getting ready for Christmas and Christians everywhere are getting ready for the unrestrained joy of the angels, tinsel, carols, and cheery glow of Christmas. In the middle of our Christmas preparations comes the Baptist, dusty, with his camel hair coat, reeking of locust and honey. You can see just from his appearance he accustomed to a well disciplined and austere lifestyle. He refuses to live in the big city, up at Jerusalem with the powerful and the educated, preferring instead the dust of the desert, a more fitting climate for his brand of preaching.
From the early history of the Christian church, the readings during Advent focus on John the Baptist’s preaching of condemnation of sin, repentance and preparing for the coming of the Saviour. Through the focus on the Baptist the church has always demanded that if you really want to see what's in Bethlehem's manger, you must first confront this crazy product out in the wilderness, whose sermons are as bitter and wild as the terrain. The church has given John the Baptist and his fiery preaching prominence in Advent in order to help us see what the angel meant when he said to Joseph, "(Mary) will give birth to a son, and you are to give the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins".
This week we said goodbye to 74 students from our school at our graduation ceremony. On their way to whatever career they choose they have finished the basics in their education and now need to progress through secondary schooling and then on to university, learning a trade or whatever they choose. To get to their chosen career they need to pass through this educational pathway.
If someone wants to practice law, they must be admitted to the bar.
If someone wants to be a mechanic, they must be successful in gaining an apprenticeship and completing various courses.
Likewise, if you want to get to the joy of Bethlehem and the praise of the baby Jesus, you must get past John the Baptist first of all.
But look what a contrast John is to everything else that is happening at this time of the year. John's gaunt figure with camel hair coat and leather belt is a striking contrast to the jolly fat man in the plush red suit, bag full of gifts for those who have too much already.
How many Christmas cards have you received depicting John the Baptist?
How many decorations depicting John or the word ‘repent’ will you hang on your Christmas tree alongside ‘peace’, ‘joy’ and ‘love’? How would you feel if you received a Christmas card that read something like this, "Greetings from our family to your’s? Luke 3:7,8". And when you look this up you find, "You snakes! 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.
I'm sure you would be taken aback with a greeting like that.
While we are engrossed in singing carols about the baby in the manger, the joy of the shepherds, the visit of the Wisemen, the excitement of gift buying and gift giving, visiting relatives and friends over the Christmas period and so on, John the Baptist seems so out of place. And yet, all the gospels have him there, at the beginning, as if to say that you cannot meet Jesus until you have met John.
It's as if the Gospel writers are saying to us that we cannot know Emmanuel, God with us, until John tells us why we so desperately need God. And so when we come to our Advent worship services, John the Baptist intrudes into our exuberant celebrations at this time of the year.
"Repent!" says John. Repent, turn around, let go. Here in this lead up to Christmas we have a man out in a desert reminding us that we are sinners. That’s an unhappy, disturbing thought. No one likes to be reminded that they are sinners, that they are failures, that they hurt people, that their actions and their speech leave a lot to be desired. Here we are in the midst of our Christmas celebrations and John throws cold Jordan water in our face and calls us to repent.
We hear John speak straight to the point, "You snakes! The axe is ready to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit". We reassure ourselves that John can't be talking about us. He is really attacking criminals, hoodlums, gangsters, drug pushers - the bad types. He can't possibly be calling us snakes.
Then he turns to each one of us, screaming, "And don't say, "We have Abraham as our father. My family has always been involved in the church. I generously support the work of my local congregation".
Even the chosen, the enlightened, the insiders, the long time church members, the C and E (Christmas and Easter) Christians, even pastors, must repent, be turned around to be ready to meet their Saviour.
John is determined not to let us off the hook, "Repent!" he cries in the wilderness. Down on your knees, this is no time to be proud and self righteous. Looking at someone else's knee caps is a good posture when it comes to humility and acknowledging that your sin has gotten in the way of your relationship with God and the people in your lives.
As long as we think there is nothing wrong with us,
as long as we try to ignore how sin has controls our lives,
we will never really see who is lying in the manger;
we will never see what that baby has done for all of us;
we will never see the love of God that sent his only Son to die for our sake.
If we want to experience the real joy of Christmas then we must first repent, recognise our sinfulness, let go of it and turn away from it.
What we wait for during Advent is the forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ. That baby born in Bethlehem was the one who died outside the city walls of Jerusalem for our forgiveness. We were submerged into that cleansing at our baptism; we were made righteous in the sight of God.
But how hard it is for us to live as people who belong to God. How cunning are the forces of evil and Satan and our own evil desires that woo us way from our baptismal identity as Christ's own people. And just as John confronted the people of Israel with their sinfulness on the banks of the Jordan, he still must confront us today. Just as the people of John's day had to get ready to meet Jesus, so too John encourages us to get ready to meet him again this Christmas, and of course, when he comes at his Second Coming.
The singer, the late John Denver, ended a Christmas special with a choir behind him humming "Silent Night" as he said, "Come on people, if we just get together and reach out to one another, we can make peace on earth, now, here!"
I can just hear John the Baptist saying, "John, you're a good singer, but you know diddly squat about what makes true peace in our world. I know it's only a couple of weeks before Christmas. But let's be honest. This appeal to our good naturedness to turn things around in our world just won't work".
And he’s right. Scratch us beneath our Christmas card cheer, our joyful season's greetings, our images of ourselves that we're all right, that all we have to do is try a bit harder, and we soon see that John is preaching at us. As we take a look at our lives we see that we have failed to bear the good fruit that John demands – the fruits of love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, honesty, compassion and godly living. We really do need turning around through repentance.
It is true that there is no way to get to Bethlehem without first getting by a fierce, condemning prophet who tells us that we are not right as we are. It is true we can't really know and appreciate what God is doing in Bethlehem for us unless we taste the bitter castor oil of the Baptist as he calls us to account, measuring our lives, not by what nine out of ten Australians think, but by what God Almighty commands, a cold sobering burst of Jordan water in the face of our denials that we need God's help.
Before we rush headlong into Christmas joy, let's take a moment to stumble over abrasive, rough, straight talking John the Baptist. Joy, real joy, gospel-evoked joy, comes only by way of the truth – the truth that states that only God gives true joy - the joy that comes when we believe that God's love sent to us a Saviour who cancelled our debt of sin totally and completely and promised that his love would follow us all of our days.
There in the manger is a child, a very ordinary looking, plain and simple child, but the infant son saves us from the punishment we deserve - he died on a cross for our forgiveness. But to see who that child is and the value he has for us, we must hear what the Baptist has to say.
Let’s listen carefully to John the Baptist and his call to repent. Let’s look at our lives and honestly own up to
the way we have treated others unjustly and unfairly,
the times we have sidelined God,
found worship and prayer too hard to fit into our busy lives,
the pride that puts us above others,
our insensitivity to the hurts around us,
the attitudes that have built up walls of resentment.
We surrender those painful, sinful aspects of ourselves to God. That’s not easy to do. Repentance means giving up those pet sins that we hold on to so dearly. It means giving them up and giving them over to God to heal, restore, forgive, and make a fresh start.
Repentance is an act of faith, an act of surrender to the God who wants to hold us in his arms of love. God removes those heavy burdens of sin in order to lift us high in his gracious arms. At this time of the year when the world is working so hard to be happy, the people of Christ surrender to God to be merry - to receive God's peace. Repentance is letting go of our sin and letting God fill us with his peace.
Then we come to Christmas ready to see the gift God has given us in the manger of Bethlehem and on the cross of Calvary. We see the love, the sacrifice, the commitment, and grace of our Lord and Saviour. We breathe a sigh of relief that God has dealt with the disharmony and pain in our lives with the gift of his Son.
But to get to this Christmas joy, we need first get past John and his call to repent.
© Pastor Vince
13th December 2009