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Filled with Expectation

Old Mystic, December 13, 2009
Third Sunday in Advent
Luke 3:7-18

Summary

The harsh words of John the Baptist continue to be a challenge to change what is wrong in our lives, in society, and in the world.

Yet, they do not eclipse—on the contrary, they enhance it—the joy of the expectation of a glorious future in Jesus Christ which requires a commitment but fills us with hope.

Sermon

Preaching fire and brimstone has never been popular though it has been used through the ages with—depending on the view—good results: people have often repented and changed their ways, at least in a manner expected for their age, considering what was wrong in that particular age. On the other hand, such preaching has often prompted rejection. Needless to say, in our own age, where complacency and accommodation to the ways of society and culture continue to be on the rise, most of us are not very fond of messages with harsh words; we want the soothing and healing power of the good news.

John the Baptist—or the Baptizer—was a preacher who came down very hard on his audience. Who would stand today the indictment raised in his message when he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Our passage today begins with such a condemnation and ends with strong words of warning, “His 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.” Yet, people were coming to John because he was preaching a message of opportunity; he was calling people to change, to repent and to start afresh. And at the heart of his message was the proclamation of the hope of the One who was greater than he, the Messiah, who was coming to the world and had fueled in his contemporaries the expectation of a new era.

We, the people of the 21st century and, for the case, many throughout the ages, reject messages wrapped in harsh words. We don’t want to hear words of judgment; we much prefer the sound of messages of grace, forgiveness, and love. Our God is a loving God, a God of redemption; a God of opportunities and I don’t believe that is absent from the Baptizer’s preaching. John’s message, however, was an attention caller. He was addressing a generation of people suffering under a domination system that had become subdued and complacent, and had conformed to such a system. He accused many of those coming to him of claiming their roots as children of Abraham as their source of righteousness; he called everyone to change and go back to some very basic moral principles that would allow them to live in community. In this sense, many of us cannot see the kind of radical change that is necessary. Our broken world needs a little more than someone having “two coats” giving one to that one who has none. The ethics of God’s kingdom require more drastic changes to make life in peace and justice possible for all of God’s Children. Yet, the power of John’s message, in its simplicity, advanced the promise of revolutionary change in Jesus Christ.

If John has captured our attention, if he has even scared some of us, or if anyone has felt threatened by those words, please relax because the heart of John’s message is a message of hope. Let’s not overlook, of course, the fact that repentance, which means change, is necessary. Let us be summoned by the prophetic power of the words of John the Baptizer that remind us that complacency and entitlement are traps that prevent us from living a life of peace, righteousness, and joy in Jesus Christ. Let us dwell on the hope that John brought to his contemporaries as he was “preparing the way;” the message of the Messiah coming to redeem humankind.

The passage does not explicitly speak of joy, yet, we can sense the joy of the people who were being baptized. They “were filled with expectation.” Hope was in the air because even with his harsh exhortations, John was bringing good news to the people and good news always brings joy. Today, I want to highlight two major themes related to the joy that I find implicit in this message. First, those who could found joy in John’s message had made a commitment. Not doing so, for them, would have meant to be on the way to doom. They clearly heard the message that was calling them to repent—to change, that is. And they came to be baptized and to participate of a ritual that has become a Christian ordinance and symbolizes precisely that: change; change that implies a new relationship with God in Jesus Christ and new relationships with neighbors, the community, and the rest of the world.

In our 21st century we don’t feel enticed by statements of impending judgment. We have—perhaps victims of our own complacency—brushed aside those threats and come to rely more on the good news that Jesus brings without considering its demands. We sometimes believe that many have left the church because they were not ready to bear that load. Or is it perhaps that many don’t find the church today relevant because its failure to inspire people to make a commitment to live in a relationship with the living God?

John’s work of preparation of the way was a call to commitment because he was anticipating the coming of the One who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” God has come in Christ to live so close to us as indwelling in our lives through the Holy Spirit! We are not sure how much John’s audience understood about God coming to live in them and with them. Yet, they were ready to make a commitment.

In second place, Joy was in the air because when they made a commitment to change and understood the promise of God brought by the Baptizer, the people were filled with expectation. To look around at what was going on in those days of a system of domination under the rule of the Roman Empire was not very encouraging. Yet they had hope and they believed that change was possible because they were willing to change. In expectation, they were looking forward to the future. They had been doing so since ancient times, hearing from the prophets that a king would rise. It was the expectation of new life, or right relationships, of peace, and joy. And now God’s supreme revelation was near and that was—and is—our Lord Jesus Christ.

The season of Advent renews our expectations—and our joy. Change is still necessary and the pressing needs of people around us, and ourselves, are so demanding. But the message is like old wine—the older, the better it tastes. In spite of all that is wrong, we can maintain our expectations high because God is with us. Jesus came to show us the way of compassion, of wisdom, and of a life in the Spirit. If we are committed to change, we will learn the ways of compassion and wisdom, and we will enjoy God’s ineffable presence in the Spirit.

John was a great preacher for his time and for that reason he had many followers and became very popular. In fact, many New Testament scholars believe that even Jesus himself was one of John’s followers. His appeal, notwithstanding his words of fire and brimstone, is a powerful appeal to walking a life with God and entering into God’s joy. He called for a life commitment and expectation in God, with God, and for God in Jesus Christ.

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