Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
December 13, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent
Old Testament reading from Zephaniah was a song of joy, a song sung by those who experienced God’s saving love. Israel rejoices and sings. God is in their midst. Salvation has come! It’s a passage that speaks of the joy of Emmanuel—God with us—a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That’s remembering the past! But this Advent, and this year we’re remembering the future as we are reminded once again, that not only has Christ’s come, he’s coming again. We need to be ready.
Again this week, we’re dealing with John the Baptist, who preaches a harsh sermon. God’s judgment is at hand! John’s message when compared to Zephaniah’s create the sweet and sour of God’s word. Like sweet and sour sauce, the richness of tastes comes by combining both flavors. God’s ways are good for salvation yet they are linked to judgment. However, listen to what John says, once he gets the people’s attention. I think you’ll then be surprised at what he says. READ LUKE 3:8-18
Francis Thompson depicted Jesus as the Hound of Heaven in his epic poem by the same name… We, of course, are the ones portrayed in the poem as being chased by the hound and out of fear, we run as fast as we can.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I felt Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…
But the hound pursues. He doesn’t give up the chase; when he finally overtakes us, we find it’s the not the deranged dog we’ve feared. Jesus is a loving hound, who chases us down because he cares about us. The Hound of Heaven is the type of dog that would jump all over us and lick us and be happy to be in our presence. At the risk of being blasphemous, the hound of heaven is a dog like our mutt, Triscuit, for those of you who have meet him.
But if Jesus is the loving hound of heaven, John the Baptist is the junkyard dog. Wild and furious, John stands in our way. Interestingly, in all four gospels, before we get to the life of Jesus, we have to go through John. We have to endure John’s preaching and hear about the vipers, wrath and unquenchable fire. We want to get to the stable, where we feel safe and can see baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to bring gifts for the child, to sit at the feet of a gentle Savior and draw in his words, but before we can get there, we have to deal with this wild lunatic. The junkyard dog snaps at our heels, shouting repent, repent, for judgment is at hand.
John wasn’t a preacher that spoke gently. He wasn’t known for his golden tongue and mild-manner ways. When the crowds came, he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers.” That’s not how most church growth consultants suggest we preachers address our flock. Yet, they came. People came from all around. Somehow the word got out and people were intrigued and they made their way to where John was holding a camp meeting. Why, what drew them? Perhaps they needed an honest assessment of themselves. Or more likely, they knew what John said was true, that deep down they were lost and in order to find the way to salvation, they had to be honest to themselves and to God.
Consider this: If we think things are okay, we have no need for a Savior. But when things aren’t looking quite right, when we know we’re in over our heads, then a Savior is welcome. John prepares these folks for Jesus’ arrival, getting them to understanding that just being children of Abraham isn’t enough, they need something more. It’s no longer the “good old boy system” where you get special treatment ‘cause your daddy or uncle is so and so.
Although John has some rather unusual tactics and he preaches judgment as harsh as any fire and brimstone Puritan, his message really isn’t that tough. He gets their attention by harshly pointing out their sin, and teaching that couldn’t depend on the faith of their ancestors. Once they are attentive, John demands they behave in a particular way. By then, they know they have not been living up to God standards for John doesn’t command anything that’s not set out in the law.
What John does is to get his audience’s attention, convict them of their sins, and lead them to the point that they themselves asks, “What should we do?” This question forms the centerpiece of this passage about John’s ministry. What should we do? It’s asked three times in these few verses! First the crowd asks the question. “What should we do?” And John says, “Be generous.” Next we’re told that the tax collectors come and ask what to do. Did you get Luke’s irony here? In the New Revised Standard version, the phrase reads, “even tax collectors came.” It’s as if no one was expecting them to come, but the come and they ask what they should do. Luke sets the stage here for an event that will come later. In the 19th chapter, he’ll tells us the story of Zacchaeus, the wee-little tax-collector who meets Jesus and doesn’t have to ask what to do. Instead, he gave half his possessions away and promised not only to give what he had defrauded people, but four times what he’d taken. Had Zacchaeus heard John’s sermon? Perhaps more surprisingly than the tax collectors are the soldiers who make their way to John’s revival meeting. It must have been surprising to have these thugs of Imperial Rome in the pews.
John encourages the people to be generous, to be honest, to be good, to be content, and to -be nice… There’s nothing really radical about what’s he calling people to do! As one scholar on this passage wrote, “Much of what it means to follow Christ into better ways of living seems so mundane.” He goes on to note that mundane comes from the Latin word for world, and suggestion that John 3:16 could also be translated as “God loves the mundane that sent his Son.” Reflecting the face of Jesus isn’t about making a being on a grandstand, it’s what we do in the mundane encounters of life.
If you think about it, John supports the rights of soldiers and tax collectors to do their job as long as they don’t use their position to extort money from others. These two professions were hated in Palestine because they worked for Rome, but that doesn’t bother John as long as they are honest. And it must not have bothered those who listened to him because we are told they are rather excited about what he’s saying. They flock to him, seeking his baptism. Then they leave, intending to live a better life, to be ready for the coming of the Messiah.
John comes to prepare the way and because of his message people expect something great to happen. The greater the demands, the greater the expectation. As the church, we need to remember that. The people of Israel now expect great things; after John, they are ready for Jesus. But are we? Ponder that question…
Of course, there are those who didn’t want to hear John’s message. There are always those who don’t want to play nice. One in particular is Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome, who is one of history’s rotten characters. Herod can’t stand the truth. In a classic example of shooting the messenger, he has John jailed and later beheaded. But it was too late, John has already spoken, the Savior is on his way, and soon Herod will only exist as a footnote in history.
It’s interesting to me that John is able to pull off his message. After all he preaches to the chosen people, those who feel they are God’s hand-picked handiwork to be a light to the world. He’s telling those who feel secure because they have a covenant with God that they’d better shape up. Yet, they should have known that God would have expected more of them since they are special, since they’ve been given the law.
Will Rogers may be the closest thing we’ve had in America to John the Baptist. Roger’s didn’t pull any punches when attacking “sacred cows.” Like John, Rogers challenged society to live up the values they espouse and to change oneself before changing others. Pointing out the inconsistency in this nation of Christians, he once asked:
What degree of egotism is it that makes a nation or a religious organization think theirs is the very thing for the Chinese or the Zulus? Why, we can’t even Christianize our legislators!
On another occasion he said that we have “the missionary business turned around. We’re the ones that need converting.”
He’s got a point. We need to be converted, and now is the time. Before we head off to Bethlehem, we need to realize our need for a Savior. Before we enter the stable, we need to get our act together so we can anticipate what our God can do for us as opposed to what it is we can do for ourselves. We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones, to be confronted by John’s wrath, so that we too will seek out and clean up those places in our lives that are inconsistent with the gospel.
As harsh as we might think John came across, his preaching wasn’t void of good news. Yes, John points to the ax at the tree not bearing fruit and he talks about the fire burning the chaff. But trees that have been pruned bear more fruit and though the chaff is burned, the kernels of wheat are saved. John’s message encourages the Israelites (and us) to bare more fruit. And in order to be fruitful, we have to put away those obstacles, those sins, which keep us from having a healthy relationship with God.
Before rushing off to the manger to worship the Christ Child, pause long enough to hear John’s warning. His bark may sound mean, but it’s a loving warning. Repent and prepare a place in your hearts to receive the Messiah. Live so that your faith in a loving Savior is shown in a gentle life that is lived honestly and filled with kindness. Amen.
 Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, nd).
 Idea from a sermon titled “A Cure for Despair” where John was portrayed as a Doberman pinscher. See Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain: Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 22ff.
 Luke 19:1-10
 Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future” in Reformed Worship #57 (September 2000), 9.