Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Luke and we find it in the third chapter, beginning with the first verse Hear the Word of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
This is the Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Will you pray with me? Gracious God, open our minds to these words and open our hearts to the living Word of Christ. That we may be changed today and forever. Amen.
Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers, God is going to cut you down like an orchard full of rotten trees. Happy holidays.
If John had been the sort of guy that sent Christmas cards, that is the sort of message you would have received. Not exactly the cheery sort of greeting you would get from a Hallmark card, certainly not the message of Christmas joy that we would expect. But perhaps that is precisely the message we need to hear.
And who is this guy, John? And what's he doing in the middle of the Christmas story as we prepare for the celebration of Christ?
Well, last week Genny challenged the children and us by helping us identify what had been missing from the nativity set. And what was missing last Sunday was: Jesus. She helped us restore Jesus to the center of our Christmas message. Well, this morning we were talking about a guy who never even comes near the manger. There are no statues of John in our nativity sets, no lighted lawn inflatables of someone dressed in camel hair, and his picture sure is not on the front of our Christmas cards. The reason we take a look at John this morning in the sequence of Advent is that his message is at the very heart of the joy of Christmas.
It's worth noting that Luke begins the life story of Jesus not with his birth but with the arrival of John, and that is very significant.
There's actually a good bit of information written in the Gospels about John. He is the miracle son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, and he was no ordinary child. In fact, his parents were told that he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedience to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Even before his birth, John was celebrating the appearance of his cousin Jesus as he danced in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth.
And when he begins his ministry, as we read about just a few moments ago, he does so by proclaiming the arrival of the Christ, the coming of the Savior. Droves of people begin to respond to the message and to be baptized by him as a symbol of their new life, of being cleansed of their sin, and it is here that he acquires the nickname John the Baptizer, not John the Baptist.
For all we know, he probably was very well a Methodist, although I'm not sure his locust and wild honey casserole would have been very popular at our potluck dinners.
People were beginning to wonder if John was the Messiah, the promised one. Well, he makes it very clear. It's not the case. “I baptized you with water,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Soon, John would baptize Jesus himself and John would begin to fade away as Jesus takes center stage. And that was the way it was supposed to be all along. John had accomplished his mission. He was a herald of the Christ, the forerunner of the Savior. He was the one who was proclaiming a deep message of Christmas joy.
Now, John's arrival on the scene was the fulfillment of the words we heard read from the prophet Isaiah earlier, a voice of one calling in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Now, road building is a common theme throughout Isaiah's work, and it is used as a metaphor very often to talk about the coming of the king, the Messiah. God is on his way to save his people, and in order to expedite that, certain things have to take place. The way has to be prepared. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill brought low, the rough ground shall become level and the rugged places made smooth.
Now perhaps Isaiah was prophesying about Lampkin Street, just saying. John was the one, he was the one in charge of preparing the Lord's highway. He is driving a spiritual D9 caterpillar bulldozer and nothing is gonna stand in his way. He's gonna get the job done and his message cuts right to the heart of the matter: God is on his way to save you. Now.
Right now is the time to get your act together and straighten up. Quit playing at religion and get right with God. John calls for repentance.
Now, There's a popular Christmas message: repent you sinners! But really that is in fact the reason for the season. Jesus did not come to Bethlehem to be a cute little baby to be adored. He was born as a mighty king who arrived to save his people. And that, of course, implies that we need saving, and we do. We need to be saved from our sin. We need to be saved from ourselves.
As we've talked about before, sin is the things we do wrong, sins those little things with a lowercase s, but Sin with a capital S is the motivation that causes us to do those wrong things, the inner desire toward selfishness that separates us from God. And until that is dealt with, nothing else will fall into place.
And the way to fix that is more than saying “I'm sorry.”
Saying I'm sorry has become a bit of a national pastime these days. Business leaders, athletes, politicians, even preachers, when confronted with some moral mess that they themselves have created, will say they're sorry, but most of the time they're just sorry because they got caught, not because they've done wrong. I'm sorry doesn't change anything. What is required is not merely a change in attitude, but a change of the heart, a change of action.
Repentance is the word and, as we've talked about before, it means literally to turn around. Where one day we were walking away from God, we turn our lives around and now walk toward God. To go back to our road analogy, John is here to tell us and I'm here to tell you you're going the wrong way and I know that because I know me and you're no different than I am.
Our lives are a mixture of sin and salvation, and every once in a while, even during the Christmas season, we need to be reminded to change direction. John is saying you're headed down the highway to hell and you are making excellent time. Turn around, get on the highway to holiness, and it is only when we do that that we will really be able to celebrate the coming of Christmas and the Savior. It is then that true Christmas joy that is everlasting will be revealed.
That is when John's proclamation of bad news turns into a proclamation of good news.
If the front of John's Christmas card was a little bleak and foreboding, the inside would be a message of joy.
That is the proclamation Isaiah first made to the people of Israel. Yes, they would suffer as a result of their sin, but God would not abandon them. He would come to them in their separation and offer healing and offer hope. That was the first part of the message we heard from Isaiah 40. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.”
That's the message of John that our sin has been paid for this time not by us, but by God Himself.
You know, sin in our lives has a way of bringing us down. Lies, anger, jealousy, neglect all those things bring the weight on our shoulders. The things that we've done, the things that we've left undone, the consequences of poor life choices and open rebellion against God. It all piles up. Even in a world overflowing with Christmas happiness, we can find ourselves mired down in sorrow and despair. But it doesn't have to be that way. Christmas tells us that we have a God who rescues us. Jesus brings joy to our lives, like the angel declared to the shepherds in the field on that first Christmas. I bring you good news of a great joy, because unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ, the Lord.
God knocks away all the mountains of guilt that are standing between us and the Lord. He does away with the valleys of despair through which we travel. God is on the way and our lives can be different. Our lives can be better. What a message.
“Well, what must we do?” The people asked John. He told them, and he told us that change direction must be reflected in changed action. The way in which we live, recognizing our sin and doing nothing about it, is like when some road crew puts up a sign on the highway that says bump, instead of spending the effort and the money on fixing the bump.
What must we do? Let God change our hearts and then let our hearts be reflected in action in our lives.
Other than Luke's gospel of course, one of my favorite Christmas stories is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and this is my personal copy of the book. This is not our son's. I got this long before we had a child. I keep it on the coffee table at the house during this time of year. And of course, y'all know the story. You know how the Grinch. Well, Grinch is all grinchy and he steals Christmas from the whos down in Whoville and he hauls all their gifts up to the top of Mount Crumpet, where he's about ready to push it off the cliff and ruin Christmas.
But we find out that, that's not the way the story ended. The Grinch heard all the singing of the who's down in Whoville and he has a change of heart and he realizes Christmas is more than just all the trappings. And, as a result, things change not only in the heart but in the life of Mr Grinch.
And what happened then? “Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day, and the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, he whizzed with his load through the bright morning light. He brought back the toys and the food for the feast and he, he himself, the Grinch, carved the roast beast.”
What a great story. Now I'm not here to tell you that the Grinch became a Christian. I'm not here to tell you that Dr Seuss wrote some grand Christian allegory. It's just a good story.
But the parallel is pretty clear: Changed hearts lead to changed lives.
What are we to do, the people ask. Well, john gives some specific pointers which play out well for us during this time of year. Verse 11, the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one with his food should do the same. In other words, share, share during the Christmas season, give to others who are in need, share out of what God has blessed you with.
There is no better way to experience the joy of Christmas than to give of yourself, give of your stuff to lighten somebody else's load. In fact, the best way to do that is in secret, quiet Down low, without them knowing it or anybody else knowing it. It's fun to be a secret Santa at Christmas.
John goes on to say in verse 13, don't collect any more than you're required to. That's what he told the tax collectors. In other words, treat others the way you want to be treated, fair and square. Jesus said something like that, didn't he? We call it the golden rule Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What a great piece of Christmas advice.
And then, in verse 14, John adds, telling the soldiers don't extort money, don't accuse people falsely. Be content with your pay. In other words, don't abuse your authority or your opinion. Treat people right, be content. If we are content with ourselves, then all around us will seem a much better place. All of those are signs and actions that emerge from a changed heart, a life that has turned around and is now headed in direction toward God, moving down a new road.
Christmas is a busy travel season, busiest of the year. Many of us will be on the road over the next few weeks. We'll be going on vacation, going to grandma's, heading to the old home place to meet with family and friends. That's going to be great.
But let me ask you this: where are you headed, spiritually speaking, this Christmas? What road are you on? And if you're not heading to Bethlehem to praise the Lord and Savior, it's not too late to turn around and find your way on the road that leads to Jesus. Don't miss out on the true joy of Christmas, the joy that comes with Jesus. Joy to the world. The Lord has come. Hallelujah and amen.