Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent – December 12, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ve long had an idea for a Youth and Family night activity during the Advent season. We could invite people to come to church for a photo op, but instead of Santa Claus, we would have John the Baptist. We could get someone with a long beard (we have a few of those to pick from), and we could have them wear a scratchy camel’s hair tunic with a leather belt around their waist. We would have them not take a shower or use deodorant for like two weeks ahead of time to get that authentic wilderness-living effect. We’d have a festive basket on a little stand off to the side, but instead of candy canes it would be full of dead bugs and Bit-O-Honeys. We’d put our John the Baptist in a big chair and people could go up and sit in his lap. But instead of asking people if they have been good all year like Santa does, John the Baptist would just start yelling at everyone, calling everyone a brood of vipers, a bunch of snakes. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he would yell. John would tell everyone that they are on the naughty list. And then as soon as everyone is crying, that’s when we’d take the picture.
I’ve never been able to get anyone to go along with my idea, so I guess it won’t ever happen, but even if we never offer sit-downs and photo ops with John the Baptist, we all have an encounter with him today through God’s Word. And as unpleasant as it might be for us, John’s message is important for us to hear before we celebrate Christmas.
John reminds us that we are indeed a brood of vipers. We are the children of snakes – specifically the serpent in the garden. Like our ancestors Adam and Eve, we let the serpent talk us into eating the fruit. Like them, we disobey God in a vain effort to be our own gods. Like them, we like to think we can choose for ourselves what is right or wrong. As we say in the baptism liturgy, “we are born children of a fallen humanity.” This is just a more polite way to say we are a brood of vipers.
John’s message is one of repentance. To repent is to have a change of heart. It is to change one’s mind, one’s thinking. It is to pull a U-turn in the dead-end alley we’ve been traveling and turn back to God – focusing our hearts and minds on him. Our need for repentance is constant. Martin Luther said that the entire life of a Christian is one of repentance! And repentance isn’t just a mental exercise. It also involves a change in behavior. John is clear about this when he says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Don’t just think thoughts about God, John is saying. Let your relationship with God bear fruit! Let it be shown in lives of obedience, lives of faith active in love!
John warns that we cannot ride the coattails of others into the kingdom. “Do not being to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” John says. Don’t think that your family heritage or your name on a church membership roll is enough when it comes to your relationship with God. John pulls no punches here. John warns us that God is not looking for roots, he’s looking for fruit!
John gives some examples of what this fruit looks like. He tells those who have more than they need to share with those who don’t have enough. He tells tax collectors to stop gouging people and only collect the prescribed amount. He tells soldiers to stop extorting people and instead be content to live by their wages. John tells us that our behavior matters. John calls us to put our faith into action in our daily lives, right where we are in our down-to-earth vocations, our down-to-earth callings, whatever those callings may be. He calls us to strive for holiness in simple ways, by living with integrity and honor and righteousness. This is what it means to bear fruits worthy of repentance!
John prepares the way of the Lord by telling the truth about us. He tells us the painful truth that we have decided to be our own gods. We have decided to go our own way. We have decided to live for ourselves. More often than not, we fail to produce the fruits of holiness and godliness in our lives.
As painful and unpleasant as it might be to sit on John’s lap and hear all of this, it is really his truth-telling that gets us truly ready to celebrate Christmas. Note how St. Luke describes John’s message as Good News! And it is Good News! Because, you see, John is preparing the way for one who is more powerful than he is! John is preparing the way for the Messiah, the Christ, the long-promised savior who will save people from their sins! This savior will baptize not with water alone, but with God’s own presence, with the Holy Spirit and fire. This savior will come to burn away all the chaff around and within us, so that God might harvest some good grain, some good fruit, among us.
Without John the Baptist, Christmas too easily becomes the story of a cute little baby all cutely bundled up in a cute little manger surrounded by cute animals. But Christmas is about so much more than that! Christmas is about God looking down on a fallen humanity and deciding to join us in the trembling flesh of a helpless infant. Christmas is about God keeping his promise to crush the head of the serpent and to bless all the families of the earth, regardless of their pedigree or heritage. Christmas is about God sending Jesus, the One who would save people from their sin.
Without John the Baptist, would we know what a gift Jesus is? Without John’s blunt truth-telling about us, would we really understand our need for a savior? Without John reminding us of our need for Jesus, would we really have much reason to celebrate his birth?
In all his bluster, John is preparing the way for the One who is more powerful than he is. John is the law that prepares the way for the gospel. He is the prophet who prepares the way for the savior. He shows us our names on the naughty list in order to prepare us for the One who takes them off that list by his grace and mercy and writes them instead in the Book of Life.
Santa turns a blind eye to our sin. I mean, has anyone ever really received a lump of coal? But what we need more than Santa turning a blind eye to our sin is John boldly and unflinchingly pointing it out. Only then are we made aware of our need for a savior. Only then are we truly prepared to celebrate our savior’s birth.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church