December 3, 2015 by jmar198013
The manuscript for my upcoming sermon at Central Church in Stockton, CA for Sunday, December 6, 2015. Second Sunday of Advent.
The soundtrack to the composition of this sermon included “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions; Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?”; Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” and “Chimes of Freedom“; Ben Harper, “I Want to be Ready“; Link Wray, “Fire and Brimstone“; and Parliament, “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.”
Sermon audio, for those who’d rather listen, provided in the link below:
Luke: the Gospel musical
You know what I love about the first couple of chapters of Luke? They remind me of a musical.
Think about it: whenever something big is happening, people burst into song. Mary finds the Son of God growing in her belly, and she sings. With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior (Luke 1.46-47). When her child, Jesus, is born, the only people who are awake to hear the news are some nearby shepherds. And they’re treated to an angel serenade: Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors (Luke 2.11).
It’s the same at the birth of John the Baptist. When John’s dad, Zechariah, met him for the first time, the old man had been under a gag order from God during his wife’s pregnancy. When old Zechariah’s tongue is finally untied—after nine months of silence—what does he do? He sings! We heard his song today in our readings: You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
So yes—the first bit of Luke is totally musical theater. Right up there with Gershwin and Sondheim. And when you take in a musical, what’s the point of the songs? They’re not just filler. They set the tone and the mood. They reveal things about the characters. They set up the dramatic tensions that advance the plot.
They prepare us to understand the story. When you hear the first song or two in a musical, you’re pretty much primed for the whole show. It’s the same with Luke’s Gospel. The songs in the early chapters prepare our minds to hear the Good News of what God has done, is doing, and will do through his Son Jesus.
Now, in one of those songs, we met Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. We heard Zechariah sing about him: you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
Like the opening song in a musical, John goes before Jesus, connecting the dots. Getting us ready for the big event. Showing us the story. John prepares us for the coming of Christ.
And as we await his Advent—his return—we will do well to listen to John’s testimony. Even now. John still has much to teach us about preparing the way for the Lord in this time between the Advents.
John the Baptist teaches us that an Advent people is a prepared people. A preparing people. John’s ministry invites us to likewise go before Christ, making crooked paths straight, and rough places smooth. Preparing everyone to see the salvation of God.
A people’s history
Now, here’s something about the Gospels that most people don’t notice. The Gospels are a people’s history. History is usually written from the top-down. From the perspective of the winners. The power brokers. The movers-and-shakers. It’s written to justify why the people in charge are, in fact, the people who deserve to be in charge.
By contrast, a people’s history is written bottom-up. A people’s history says, Wait! That’s not the whole story! There are other stories besides the official story. Truer stories. Better stories. More interesting stories.
The Gospels are those kinds of stories. They are written almost self-consciously opposed to the “official” history of the time.
And Luke is no different. When Luke wants to tell us about the ministry of John, he doesn’t actually start with John. Remember how our Gospel lesson began today?
In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Some people think Luke was just being a good historian—documenting who was in charge when the story went down. So that future generations can accurately date the events.
But here’s the deal, church: It’s a world of difference between knowing the date, and knowing what time it is.
You know why I think Luke named all those big, important people first? The history-makers? I suspect Luke was saying:
God’s word didn’t come to Tiberius Caesar.
God’s word didn’t come to Pontius Pilate.
God’s word didn’t come to any of the Herods.
God’s word didn’t come to the high priests.
God’s word came to Zechariah’s boy, John. God’s word came to the wild man in the wilderness. God’s word came to the scary-looking, bug-eating, funny-dressing survivalist by the banks of the Jordan. On the edge of the Promised Land.
And so far, in Luke, the word of God has come exclusively to people on the edge, on the outskirts, on the margins. The childless elderly priest, Zechariah. A single mother. A bunch of dirty shepherds. A couple of retirees hanging around the temple.
God’s word—the Good News that changes everything; the earth-shattering message that will bury Annas and Caiaphas—and their temple—and Herod and Pilate, and eventually Caesar himself. That word comes to the people on the margins. Not the ones who think they are the center of the world.
And church, that’s great news for us. Because we are surely more like Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph and the Bethlehem shepherds and Simeon and Anna and John, than we are like all those powerful people Luke named.
Maybe God’s word comes to people like John and people like us because we’re more prepared to hear it. We’re ready for something different. We have been longing for the word that makes everything new.
And God shares his Good News with us first because we know a lot of other people who are also longing for some Good News in this world, too.
John’s message: People get ready!
Now, our Gospel lesson today didn’t include the actual word that God gave John to speak. The message that was supposed to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. And, tell you the truth, during Advent—this season of hope—John’s message does not sound particularly hopeful. In fact, it is the very epitome of hellfire and brimstone.
Listen to the word God gave John to speak:
You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.
Now, here’s the deal, church. John’s preaching was an absolute sensation in his time. Out in the wilderness, listening to John’s preaching—that was the place to be, and to be seen, in those days. John the Baptist was more famous than the Beatles.
John was speaking to crowds who were already fed up. Who just couldn’t take it anymore. They knew what trees John was talking about. Caesar. Pilate. Herod. The high priests. And they were itching to hear God’s ax at the roots. Most everybody knew the system was rotten. Judgment was certain. Time to dump the fat cats and make Jerusalem great again.
To all these angry, scared, fed-up people, John issues a challenge: Get ready people! No more free passes from God on Abraham’s account! Don’t just say you’re ready for change. Show God you’re ready! Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. Otherwise, you’re just like all the other trees you’re mad about—the rotten ones, the empty ones—and you’ll go into the fire right with them!
Church, when holy hell breaks loose, it is no time to stand around shouting at everyone that the world is on fire. They already know that.
And that’s where I think we get John wrong. I don’t think John was the Donald Trump or Westboro Baptist Church of his time. John’s job wasn’t to point out that the world was on fire—that was obvious. His job was to get people ready for the new order of things that would emerge from the fiery judgment. To prepare the way for Jesus. John’s message is necessary so that, as the prophet had said, All humanity will see God’s salvation.
Church, John’s words aren’t for the heathens outside our gates. He’s not out there telling them to Turn or burn! John’s words are for us. Are we ready for Christ’s coming? If not, what do we need to do to make ourselves ready?
The refining fire
John’s message was harsh. Hot. Inflammatory. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire, he warned.
There’s no wiggle-room, nowhere to run, in a message like that. You’re either bearing fruits worthy of repentance, or you’re chopped up for kindling. John’s message certainly does sound like, Turn or burn!
But that’s not the whole story. The threat of burning is not the end. It’s the judgment, but it’s not the end.
John the Baptist is, in fact, who the prophet Malachi said he would be. We heard that prophecy from Malachi earlier today: Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me . . . He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver. The fiery ordeal John warned about is about the purification of the people. It is a refining fire. The fire is a means, not an end. Malachi revealed the purpose of the refining fire. The fiery judgment burns so that the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in ancient days and in former years. God’s holy fire burns to make his people holy.
John’s raving was not judgmental or legalistic or any of those other terms we hang on religious killjoys. Sometimes rightfully so. Not at all. It’s just when the world is burning down, there’s no time for diplomacy. Sometimes there’s just no way to comfort the afflicted without afflicting the comfortable.
Last week, we sang one of my favorite hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” There’s this line in there that’s always impressed me: Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face. I think it was like that with John’s preaching. Behind all the frightening images and harsh tones—all the, You children of snakes!, and threats of cutting down and fiery judgment—there was a man who knew his mission. Someone who had come to tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins, as we heard his father prophesy over him. Someone whose heart burned for all humanity to see God’s salvation. So that they could serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness.
John confronted people in the wilderness so that they could repent, be healed, be transformed. His message about fiery judgment was a wake-up call. The kingdom of God is being birthed in the world. God’s holy fire goes before it, to refine his people. But when the flames of judgment are done burning out the impurities, will there be anything left of you?
Church, I’m going to give us a few seconds to think on this. If John showed up today, what do you imagine he would say to us?
What should we do? Share and get along
John has challenged the crowd. He has confronted them with a vision of fiery judgment. The crowds came hungry for change. John told them they needed to get ready for change. John tells them: People, it’s on you to produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.
I know it’s cliche, but John basically told the crowds to be the change they want to see in the world.
Someone calls out: What then should we do? Where do we begin? How do we bear fruit worthy of repentance? What actions can we take right here and now to escape the coming wrath?
John has answers. Straightforward, you-can-do-this-stuff-here-and-now, answers. Are you ready to hear them, church?
John told the crowd: Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.
After all the hellfire and brimstone, John tells them they need to share.
Really? Share our stuff? That’s it? That’s repentance? Well, church—I didn’t write it.
Some tax collectors and soldiers made their way to the anxious bench and asked what they needed to do. He told the tax collectors: Collect no more than you are authorized to collect. Stop selling out your neighbors for profit. And he told the soldiers, who were probably temple police, Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay. Quit threatening to bust that widow’s kneecaps when she won’t cough up her last two mites.
John’s message to prepare the way for Jesus, to get them ready for God’s kingdom, was essentially: Share and get along. Don’t be stingy, don’t be greedy, stop beating each other up.
Notice that for John, repentance is made up of very practical actions. When he told them what it meant to bear fruits worthy of repentance, it was in economic terms; in social terms; in peacemaking terms; in community-building terms. Repentance isn’t just an internal posture. It’s not just a decision. It’s how we live with each other.
If John was here with us today, and telling us to get ready for Christ’s coming, I’m pretty sure he’d tell us the same things. In a stingy and greedy and violent world, where people are afraid of their neighbors, and keep a tight grip on whatever they have, I think his message would be essentially the same: Share and get along.
And please don’t minimize that! Those two things can be so hard to do, can’t they? We do have to work at them.
Church, it may very well be that sharing and getting along are the very things we need to be doing to prepare the way for the Lord as we await his Advent.