Sermon, Advent 2C, Sunday December 9, 2018
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.
Luke 3:1-6 All people will see the salvation of our 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.
5 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.”’[a]
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised 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 axe has been laid to 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 baptised. ‘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 baptise you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with[b] 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.
We Christians find ourselves in this dilemma at Christmas.
We live between two stories. One is told with earthly authority and considerable force; the other comes from other-worldly dreams and words of biblical proportions.
The mind says go along with the worldly story for it is easier and more fun. But a heart of faith says we are taking the harder option and the long way home with the other-worldly story that comes via the Voice of biblical proportions.
Today John the Baptist is that other-worldly voice.
John announces with beautiful words from Isaiah about a level path ahead for planet earth, mountains lowered for us, valleys lifted for us; clear and straight and easy journeying with God into his future …
This is a beautiful good news story because our current ways are anything but smooth, straight and safe.
The other story at this time of the year seems to rise up like a mountain every year. The Christmas tunes played earlier and earlier. The decorations the same. Songs of living faith once, reduced to muzak to accompany the real Christmas preparation for this alternative Christmas story – shop ‘til you drop!
But to hear this other-worldly story of God we need something else to happen first. We cannot hear it by our own intellect of effort. We need God to shout it to us. We need the Spirit to prepare us, and that is the part of the story we may not like much. The world certainly does not like it.
It has been a long time since I laid an axe at the root for a tree where the roots begin ready to lay the first blow to fell that whole tree. But I have done this with my Husqvarna chainsaw lately – it is quicker and more fun!
This is the picture John used to describe how God needs to prepare us for Christmas. Some preparation! Death and complete destruction. This tree cannot live in God’s new future as it is.
John tells it like this for a reason – to prepare the world to receive what God is doing: to prepare people for God’s new story of biblical proportions.
John is a CFS siren. He is the not the Nuri fire alarm predictably sounding out three times on Thursday at 7.30 pm, which surprises no-one. He is the siren sounded twenty times on Saturday afternoon at 1.30 pm. He gets the town’s attention!
Has he got your attention?
He says something in us has to die for this complete birth and life of a person; a Someone, who is coming to bring about something new for people that will make us new trees – strong and true, is to be truly received and loved.
Why so brutal?
Because we believe ourselves to be strong trees despite this new King and his kingdom coming. We tend to believe we are already all we need to be.
Even more, the people John spoke to believed themselves to have the right family tree – the right family name, the right behaviour, the right roots, the right goods.
They were the good people and they were very keen about their goodness. Everyone else should be very good like them.
So keen were they to maintain their own name and place in God’s good books, they became blind to those who did not or could not. In their pursuit of goodness on their own terms they could not see the vulnerable in society. They don’t really care either.
That is the tree that needs to be felled. In their self-focus, self-reliance and invincibility they had not just missed the vulnerable, but the Lord and his heart for the vulnerable – including them.
That was the offensiveness of John – daring to suggest that the good people with the right name and family tree and behaviour were vulnerable and in need for a new day, a new way, a new man … How dare he suggest that!
Sounds like our world. Sounds like that alternative Christmas story. How dare you Christians interrupt this happy story with all of its happy songs! How dare you speak of death and destruction at this happy time. How dare you speak of faith more than food, discipleship more than drink, the smell of cow dung and the scratch of straw more than the warm crackle of fireplaces and stockings and eggnog in the lounge room!
Surely we do not want this alternative story to be THE story because we know him and his story of biblical proportions that has come to us, for real.
He has come to us by more than dreams but by a real act in real time – baptism, the worship gathering of God’s people, the gift of body and blood a thousand times … Forgiveness, healing, hope for the vulnerable, peace for the unsteady, life for the dead, strength for the tired and new for the old.
We know what it has cost our God to fell us and then re-grow us – the death of this boy on the tree.
We know what tree was felled so that a new vineyard, a new forest, a new landscape of strong and true trees of the field has come to be
And this is why we clap our hands at this time of year – because of the wonderful acceptance and love of a God who is with us and for us and working through us and will come again to complete everything.
Friend, God’s axe; God’s word is striking at your very roots today. Not to destroy you but to wake you up, so you may be renewed so you stand strong and tall in grace this Christmas.
And when you are strong and true in the gospel of Jesus, you are happy not to have two shirts but keen to give away one to a one in need of a shirt.
You become happy not to make a lot of money just for yourself by any means, but you are content to play fair with integrity in business for the good of all.
You are happy to not get your way by any means; means of using power and stand-over tactics, but you are content to stick with the truth of things and let that be enough no matter what it costs you.
With this boy and his calling to be him among our friends and family this Christmas we are definitely going to take the long way home as we follow him.
There is no easy way to live in the Christmas Dilemma. It takes faith and courage born of repenting and believing daily. But we have serious help.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
Let the axe fall where it needs to today. He will prepare him room in your heart and you will be strong and true in him again.
John answered them all, ‘I baptise 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 baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.