Today is the second Sunday of advent and on the second Sunday of advent Christians for 1700 years have turned their attention to John the Baptist. Advent is that season in which Christians are preparing themselves to rightly celebrate the birth of the King, Jesus Christ and preparing themselves for His second coming, for His return. And since John the Baptist’s primary mission was to prepare the people for the coming of the Christ, Christians still turn to his message and say, “What can we learn from John’s message that will help to appropriately prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas.”
And so we turn to the message and the person of John the Baptist. And as we do I want to teach you a little bit about John the Baptist and then we’re going to turn to his message. We’re going to hear from one of his actual sermons, the actual words that he spoke and we’re going to ask the question, “What does this mean for us today?”
So each of the four gospels begins with the story of John the Baptist. Actually Matthew begins with the birth of Christ but then before we even meet Jesus as an adult we meet John the Baptist. And he’s preparing the way for Christ’s ministry. In Mark’s gospel, it actually begins with the words of John the Baptist. In Luke’s gospel we find that the gospel begins with the story of the birth of John the Baptist. And in John’s gospel we find that John the Baptist speaks before Jesus ever speaks and communicates who he is and why he came preparing the way for the Lord.
Now John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah were in some ways like Hannah and Elkanah, the parents of Samuel in the Old Testament. And the stories are very parallel to one another. And also very much like Abraham and Sarah. They were a couple who had prayed for years to have a child but had been unable to bear children. And finally at the age where they didn’t think they could have children God spoke to Zechariah who was a priest of God and said, “Zechariah I have heard your prayers and the prayers of your wife. And I’m going to bless you with a child. And your life will be filled with joy when this child comes into the world.”
And then God tells him that, “The child that your wife will bring into this world is a prophet of the Most High. And he will prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. And he will be like Elijah, ministering in the spirit and the power of the prophet Elijah who lived 900 years earlier.”
So then we find the scripture that we have before us today. Zechariah holding his child John in his arms says these words, (this is a prophecy and a promise over his son) “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And this is precisely what John the Baptist grew up to do, to prepare the way for the Lord and to show the people the way of peace.
Now John was likely committed by his parents to a monastic community to live with the monks who lived in Qumran along the banks of the Dead Sea. There he would have learned the scriptures. He probably would have learned to be a scribe, copying the scriptures, and would have been fully devoted to the Lord. And we think that is probably what happened with John the Baptist.
Now this community is known for something by almost everyone. Anybody know what that is? The Dead Sea scrolls. This was the community of people who copied the scrolls and then hid them in the caves when the Romans came through and destroyed Jerusalem.
And so this is the place where likely John the Baptist grew up – this sort of wilderness, this arid land.
Now in the monastery it’s important for you to know that the monks so dedicated themselves to God, they believed in purifying themselves in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. They would do this by immersing themselves sometimes multiple times each day in these baptismal pools. They would pray for God to purify them. They would immerse themselves and come up believing that God had taken away their sins and they’d been purified.
So this form of baptism was practiced regularly among the monks at the monastery. When John was 30 years old around AD 27 or 28 he left the monastery and he began to preach publicly to all the people. He thought that salvation wasn’t just for the monks it was for anyone. And he began to dress like John the Baptist in his camel hair and leather belt around his waist he began to call the people to repentance. And as he preached the people recognized, “This looked like, this must have been what Elijah the prophet was like.” They came out to see him out of curiosity in part. In part though they came to hear John preach for the same reasons many of you come to church. They felt there was something missing in their life. Or they recognized that they had strayed from the path to God and they wanted to come back to God. Or they were anticipating the coming of the Messiah and they wanted to be ready. But for whatever reason they came to hear him, first by the 100’s then by the 1000’s they came to the Jordan River where John called them to repentance and then he baptized them. He put them in the water. And as he put them in the water the imagery was powerful.
By stepping into the water they were saying, “We wish to be God’s people, wholly and completely. We wish to be forgiven and be made right with God.” And then symbolically the water of the Jordan washed away their sins and carried them downstream to the Dead Sea where nothing could live.
Now I want us to ponder for a little while the teachings of John the Baptist. What he actually preached that we might have an understanding of that. John came preaching and people came listening. The villagers, the commoners, the peasants, the workers, the shepherds, the farmers, they came out by the 1000’s. And when they came this is the message that they heard. This is found in Matthew’s gospel, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” That’s a summary of John’s message. It was also Jesus’ message when He began preaching; the reign of God, the kingdom of God was coming near. The King is coming - that is Jesus, He’s coming so get ready. Be prepared by repenting.
Let’s talk about what that means. The Greek word repent is metanoia. That means that you were heading in this direction and you had a change of heart. You change how you think and that resulted in changed activities and changed behavior and you now start living this way. So it’s a change that starts here and here but it’s a change that’s manifest in your life.
And in order to understand why he would call people to change we have to first understand the idea of sin. Now when we talk about sin, I recognize that there are people who say, “That’s such a downer topic. Why do pastor’s talk about sin so much.” And in some churches that’s all you ever hear. It’s just all about guilt and shame and you’re all sinners. You hear a very pessimistic view of humanity. “You’re evil and depraved and full of sin.”
But then let’s recognize that sometimes there are other churches where maybe they don’t talk about sin enough. And that’s the sort of approach that some people have. They would say, “Yes we sometimes make mistakes, we make bad decisions, but we’re inherently good.” Well the challenge with that is that if you adopt that philosophy – a sort of overly optimistic view of the human condition.
So there’s must be some balance between this overly optimistic view and this overly pessimistic view. The pessimistic view in my mind I associate with John Calvin’s idea of the total depravity of human beings. And so taken to an extreme it says that every single thing about us is tainted by sin and is not just tainted by sin but it’s depraved, it’s broken, it’s wrong. Well, yes, there’s brokenness. But there’s also some goodness in us. The image of God is still manifest in our lives. We see people who aren’t even Christians sometimes who do kind and caring things for one another, because we were created in the image of God. The answer is somewhere between these two extremes. But we have to understand sin. We have to take sin seriously.
I recognize that as a pastor in looking at people in our own congregation who struggle with sin and as a result of their struggle with sin I’ve watched families come apart. I’ve watched people, men and women in my congregations that have ended up in jail as they were struggling with sin and ended up succumbing to it. And I’ve watched the pain that this brings to other people when we give in to sin.
I preached a series of sermons a year or so ago on the seven deadly sins. And you know when I think about those deadly sins, let me remind you they are: greed, gluttony, lust and indifference, pride, envy and anger. And I think about these. Which of us has never dealt with any of those? I mean we all struggle with them. Sometimes I struggle with them all at the same time. And they are things that can bring us great harm.
You know the reason why God calls some things sin is not because he doesn’t want us to enjoy life or to have fun. God wants us to enjoy life. He wants us to have life. The problem is that sin takes life away from us. It may even seem like fun at first but it robs us, it diminishes our humanity. It hurts other people. It impairs our relationship with God. It damages our own sense of self. And so for all of these reasons God says “don’t do this because I love you. I want you to be healthy. I want you to be whole. I want you to have peace. I want you to have joy. I want you to have life.” So He says for us not to do these things.
But of course we struggle with them. For me a sort of humorous way of seeing that is looking at the animals, dogs in particular.
Halloween last year we had a bunch of leftover candy and a bowl with this candy was sitting on the end table in the den. And our dog Shelly would eye that bowl of chocolate candy. She would circle around it. She would try to jump up on the couch to try to get to it. She would look around to see where we were and she would wander away. Then she’d come back and sniff around. Usually we would remember to put it back up on the counter where she couldn’t get to it. But one night we forgot to do that and she seized the opportunity and grabbed one of those candy bars in her mouth and then ran behind the couch and started to eat it. And of course that is not behavior that is allowed in our house. Which is why the dog ran behind the couch to hide and eat the candy bar. But what I also know and what Shelly doesn’t know is that chocolate can hurt a dog. It can make the dog sick. And if she continued to go back and get more and more of those candy bars to her heart’s desire she could actually die from having too much of this.
And so I look at that, that’s a picture of how sin tends to draw us to do things that could actually be harmful to ourselves. And to feel ashamed afterwards.
Now that’s rather mild compared to another one of the dogs we once had. His name was Buddy. He was a Pompoo (Pomerania and poodle mix) and Buddy was always a little on the wild side. Buddy would spend most of his time outside but would come in the house at night and when it got too cold. At that time we also had a cat. And at that time the laundry room was where the dog’s food was in a bowl on the floor and the cat’s food was up above since the dogs would eat all of the cat’s food otherwise. And then underneath the big deep sink was the litter box.
And so Buddy somehow had a real fascination with what was in the litter box. I think he considered them doggie treats. I know this is really disgusting isn’t it? And what I know is that it’s not just our dog. Almost every dog does this if you have dogs and cats. It’s disgusting. I want it to be disgusting because I want you to imagine that in relation to the conversation about sin.
So Buddy can’t keep himself out of the litter box. So we tried to train him, “Buddy, no!” We told him this. We chastised him. He’d always feel shame and he’d walk away. We’d watch him walk in that room and we’d say, “Don’t do it! Stay out of there!” But you know he couldn’t help himself. And the way we knew he had been in the litter box is when he came to you in the den and there’s kitty litter on the top of his nose. And I would say to him, “Buddy were you in the litter box?” And he would look all pitiful and he would slowly wander away, tail tucked between his legs. He was ashamed. I mean he would know that he had done something wrong. And he did something that’s disgusting.
So when I look at this – you know he couldn’t help himself, he was drawn to this – when we talk about sin we’re talking about things that either are disgusting or are dangerous to us or are harmful to our relationship with others that take away from us having peace. And so John says, “If you want to get ready for the coming of the Messiah, the reign of God then getting ready for that is to check yourself. It is to evaluate your life; to examine yourself and say, ‘what are the places where I am not living in a way that is not consistent with my faith?”
Now the Greek word for sin in the New Testament is hamartia and it’s an archery term. So when an archer would pull back the bow and let go the arrow to hit the target, if they miss the target what happened was hamartia, they missed the mark; they missed the bull’s eye, or the target. And the idea is that God created us as human beings with something in mind for what it means to be human; how we treat each other, how we live in relationship to God, the kinds of things we think and feel and do. And then there are times when we stray from that path and we do what not hitting the mark. And what John was saying was, “to prepare for the coming of the King examine those things and give them to God and seek to live in right relationship with God; to live according to what God created you to be.”
So where are you straying from the path? Where do you struggle with that? And you know I remind you that we can sin both by things that we do but also by things that we don’t do. The things that we do are called sins of commission. The things that we don’t do are called sins of omission.
So where have you strayed from the path?
Now here’s the thing I want us to remember. The Gospel is not about the fact that you’re sinners; that’s not the message of the Gospel. The message of the Gospel is that there’s a God who sees that your sinners and wants to do something about it. It’s not that your crummy, worthless people, it’s that God loves you so much that He’s willing to do whatever it takes to save you from yourself. And to give you a life in which you experience God’s peace; in which you live in right relationship with God and other people; in which you’re a whole human being, authentically human and living into what God created you to be.
The message of the gospel is that as far as the east is from the west so far shall the Lord remove your sins from you. The message of the gospel is that God sent His Son Jesus, whose very name means “God saves”, for He will save His people from their sins. That’s the good news!
But you can’t understand the good news until you first understand there’s something broken that needs to be fixed. So until you understand that, the good news is not good news at all. It’s just, “ho hum,” until you understand that you need it.
That’s what John was saying. He was saying to the people, “Repent. You need this.” But then he was offering them a washing so that they might be forgiven. That was really the point, the forgiveness.
Alright with that in mind I want to begin to wrap this up by turning our attention to one particular message that John preached. It’s found in Luke 3 beginning in the 7th verse. Here you have a chance to actually hear the words of John the Baptist that he preached. We have a portion of a sermon recorded from AD 28.
Listen to what he said to those who were coming to be baptized.
He said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Graphic imagery and prophetic words. The prophets didn’t mince any words. They preached and they let it fly. “You brood of vipers. What are you doing here? Do you really get what I’m asking of you? Do you really understand what it means to repent and to be saved, to be washed and to be made new?”
And what he was preaching against was cheap grace. What he was warning against was people who would come and say, “oh yeah I sinned again this week. Come on, wash me clean, John.” And he dunks them in the water and they go back out and they go and do the same thing over and over and over again. Like a dog in the litter box.
This is how he visualized what was happening. Do you really get it? Because you see if you really get repentance, and you’ve really experienced a change of heart then the behavior’s going to change too. You may not be perfect and you may make mistakes afterwards, but you’re desiring – you’re going to have a fundamental change in how you live your life. Because your heart has been changed. He’s preaching against cheap grace.
So the people began to ask, “So John what do the fruits worthy of repentance look like? Tell us what that looks like.” I want you to listen carefully to what he said.
These are John’s actual words. He said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
How interesting! That the fruits of repentance, the proof that you have actually repented and desire to serve God are manifest in generosity and compassion in your life. Now isn’t this the message that we see in most Christmas television shows, books and movies?
Think about the Grinch who Stole Christmas. I mean what was his problem? His heart was three sizes too small wasn’t it? And when he finally saw the world in a different way, when he repented and he had a change of heart, what happened to him? He became compassionate and generous. And then what did he experience in his life? He experienced peace, joy, wellness.
Or the film version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. What was the story with Scrooge? I mean he had experienced the difficulties and the adversities of life and all of that had made him not more compassionate but less compassionate until his heart became so hard and so small. But then he had an experience, right? With the ghosts who showed him the past and the present and the future and he could actually see himself the way God and others saw him. And he had a change of heart; he repented. But what happened after that? He became generous and compassionate to Tiny Tim and all the rest of them, right?
That’s exactly what John teaches us. And when we read in the Old Testament it’s consistent with when the prophets were asked, “What does the Lord require of us?” The prophet said, “Here’s what God requires that you do justice, you love kindness, and you walk humbly with your God.”
When Jesus was asked what does God want from us it’s to love God with all our heart but also to love your neighbor as you love yourself. And they said, “What does that mean?” And He told them the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped people who were in need.
Last week we learned about the parable of the sheep and the goats and Jesus says, “At the last judgment this is what God is looking for; were you compassionate? Were you generous? Were you willing to help people who are in need because that’s what it means to be authentically human, to live in right relationship with God and then to be God’s hands to offer peace to those who know no peace.”
Isn’t that what St. Nicholas was doing when he first began the tradition of giving gifts at Christmastime? You remember his story don’t you? The tradition is that Nicholas who became bishop in Myra somewhere around 400 AD. Shortly after his election to be a bishop he was to receive an inheritance from his parents who died. And he recived a significant sum of money and what he knew he wanted to do was to give it to the poor; to figure out how to give that away and to help other people.
And so every year at Christmastime he would make a list of all the children who didn’t have shoes on their feet, didn’t have clothes or coats or gloves or whatever it may be; the people who didn’t have enough to eat and then he would prepare bundles. He would have shoes made in advance. And he would have clothing made in advance then he would leave these bundles on the doorstep. He would leave the bundles on the doorstep. And the people would wake up in the morning and they would find these gifts – no name, nobody knew where they came from.
But the people began to discover it was Bishop Nicholas who was providing these gifts. And his generosity changed an entire community so that entire community began to look at ways that they could do what bishop Nicholas was doing. And you know years later he was named a saint, Saint Nicholas. And to this day St. Nicholas and the spirit of St. Nicholas continue to be a part of Christmas as we look to see who is in need that we might bless. How can we help them?
But the idea that St. Nicholas had was not to first to give more stuff to people who already had to rent a storage unit to put all their stuff in. It was to give stuff to people who don’t have stuff.
Now I am very proud to say that you in this church have really come to embody that spirit of generosity and kindness and compassion. And I see it not only during this season of the year, during Christmas time, but that spirit, those fruits of repentance are evident all throughout the year.
Let me just remind you of a few ways we have seen that spirit this year:
Community outreach day
Sr Citizen Dinner
LINK Coat Drive
You provided food. You provided clothing. You provided coats and gloves.
And what you do is you give them peace. You give them shalom. That word literally means well being. It doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. It means well being. It means that people are doing well; you’re caring for their total needs, and they’re doing okay. And you provided that for them.
That’s a fruit worthy of repentance. That demonstrates a change in our orientation from having more stuff for ourselves to figuring out how we give hope and peace to other people. And it makes me very proud to be your pastor.
How will you produce fruits worthy of repentance? How will you offer other people peace?
Here’s what I find interesting. As we seek to give other people God’s peace, as we help them find the way into that peace, you know what happens to us? Is we find God’s peace for ourselves.
Let’s pray. While your heads are bowed and your eyes are closed I’d like to invite you to confess to God yourself; to take just a moment and I want you to examine your own life. In the last week or the last month are there things you’ve said that you shouldn’t have said? Things that you did that you look back and you say, “I know that wasn’t your will O God.” Are there things you should have done that you didn’t do? And would you take just a moment and simply say, “God please forgive me for these things and change my heart and help me to honor you.”
And finally would you simply just ask God to give you a generous and compassionate heart; just to enlarge your heart that you might honor Him and care for His people.
God I thank you for these who are gathered here today. You know our hearts. You know our stories. You know the places that we fall short of your will and stray from your path. And yet you still love us. You long to heal us and forgive us and to help us be what you made us to be. This Christmas, Lord, help us rediscover the meaning, the meaning of John’s preaching, the meaning of the good news of Jesus Christ and help us to live Christmas and find your peace. In Jesus name. Amen.