Luke 3: 7-18
13 December, 2015
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen (Ps 19;14)
Did you hear the strong note of rejoicing in today’s lessons? It was there in Zephaniah. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion:…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” It was there in the letter to the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”
Maybe you heard it in the canticle? “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.”
It’s just that, well, given all the troubles of the recent past, how can we rejoice today?
We have had several mass shootings of late. Those act of violence, of evil, come on the heels of so many others events like it and spawn further dissension as they are discussed in the media. On a more personal level we have recently faced the deaths of two old, respected, members of our church family. How can we not have some level of worry or of alarm day to day? What are we to make of these lessons that celebrate God’s promise of freedom, forgiveness and healing, that focus on hope? It’s an interesting thing about that first lesson from Zephaniah and the response taken from Isaiah. Both capture a note of rejoicing, at the coming of God into our midst. And yet. Those ancient prophets, if we were to read them more entirely, set that rejoicing in the light of God’s judgment. Oh yes, indeed. God will come, God will come among God’s people, neither prophet has any doubt about that. They each spoke the word of the Lord to the people and into the situations of their own time. And they each speak the word of the Lord for us as well.
We well know, in the midst of Advent, that God has come among us. In fact, God came as one of us in the person of Jesus. This season of Advent, after all, helps us to prepare our hearts to celebrate the memory of Jesus’ birth in a particular time and place, even while we look for his coming again in glory. There is no doubt that Christmas, our annual celebration of Jesus’ nativity, will come. Still, our prophets, Zephaniah and Isaiah both hold up a question for us. What effect will that coming have when we re-experience the reality of it? What impact will Jesus’ coming have on our lives? As with all our lessons we read only a bit of Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning. We began with the word “rejoice” What we miss is the word “therefore”. “Therefore” sets Paul’s words on the foundation of what came before, strong words of encouragement for the Christian community at Philippi. The thing is, in Pauls’ mind, Christian people can rejoice, not because of their own efforts, not because of what we might do or create on our own, but because we live all our lives in the context of our Lord Jesus Christ’s power. Paul reminds us that our Christian lives are not lived as a job to be performed but as a privilege experience in our relationship to God in Christ. Paul calls us to active lives of faith that allow us to always, every day, in the face of all anxiety, take a deep breath, pray, and then take the next needful step confident that, despite all appearances, God is indeed with us. The Gospel According to Luke said it clearly speaking of John the Baptist. “With many other exhortations, he proclaimed good news to the people.” I’ll confess it freely here. One of the first notes I jotted down while getting ready to preach today was this: “Good News???” I guess I must not, right at that moment, or earlier in these past weeks for that matter, have seen how this passage from Luke, translates into good news. Certainly John the Baptist’s words are those of a prophet. You heard how he began in today’s reading. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But his words are not a simple insult, they do so much more than point a finger and call us names. John confronts us with the very real danger of self-deception. John recognizes how humanly easy it is to approach our practice of religion as a kind of good luck talisman or a holy insurance policy. How often do we hear that all the ills of our culture are clearly the result of how we have pushed God away, perhaps by not allowing school prayer or, maybe, by allowing some change in the freedoms we allow others?
It’s not just bad theology. It’s terrible theology. It’s a theology that says that we in some way control God. It says that our actions, our decisions, in some way act to limit God’s authority over all creation. And that’s just the opposite of the point that John makes in our Gospel today. John calls us to the clear recognition of God’s authority over all human life. It is that recognition of God’s authority that leads us then into godly living. Our faithful living is a response to God. We respond to God, who is always and everywhere with us, with altered lives. John gave us some examples. Those who have plenty are called away from selfish self-interest and into generosity motivated by a concern for others. Those whose position might tempt them to dishonesty, tax collectors in John’s world, are called to honesty and fair dealing. Those who hold power, soldiers in this Gospel passage, are called away from the too easy abuse of their power and into contentment with what they have. Of course we each have to ask the question for our own selves. What then should I do? What is that need to change in my life? Are you quick to judge, does your temper flare to easily? Do you sit back in discouragement or in fear when taking a stand or speaking a word is what God needs? How do you reflect God’s presence, God’s love, in this world? Think about it. John the Baptist stands in a long line of prophets who point to God’s judgment and promise God’s presence. But don’t forget the entirely surprising way that judgment and that presence, is revealed.
First it was a baby, tiny and helpless, born in mumble circumstances, born poor. It was revealed as that child grew into a man who offered a bold ministry of compassion, a ministry that challenged “the way it’s always been”. The depth of God’s love was revealed again in Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross,and yet again in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Oh yes, John the Baptist’s preaching is “good news” indeed. But it is not easy news. God’s values are not our values. God does judge us in relation to God’s own values. And God gives us the power to repent, to turn again and live altered lives.
Lives that reflect the reality of God’s abiding presence with us at all times and in all places. John’s preaching calls us out of our fears and discouragements, out of our need to hold tight to that notion that we are somehow in control of our lives. How can we rejoice in the face of all that we face in this life? We rejoice with God’s help. And we go forward with God’s help. John calls us to altered lives that reflect the reality of God’s presence with us and let others clearly see the reality of God’s loving presence in their lives as well. Amen