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Third Sunday of Advent
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, December 13, 2015

Understanding the Problem

Text: Luke 3:7-18

And with many other words John exhorted the people
and preached the good news to them. Luke 3:18


I have to confess that for a long time, I found today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel ironic. I say “confess,” because it is not intended to be ironic. It shows us John the Baptist preaching repentance. He is surrounded by throngs of people who have followed him out into the desert to hear what he has to say. When they get there, the first thing he does is insult his audience.

• He calls them a brood of vipers!

• He tells them not to count on their Jewish ancestry to save them.

• He says everyone who doesn’t bear fruit will be thrown into the fire.

• He tells everyone with two coats to give one away.

• He tells tax collectors and soldiers to clean up their act.

• He says someone is coming after him to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to baptize with fire.

And then Luke ends the passage this way: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” Maybe you can see why I thought this was ironic. John the Baptist, an eccentric man with wild eyes and a booming voice, who wears a camel’s hair tunic and eats bugs, calling people names and telling them to repent. And the Bible calls it good news.

Part of the reason it sounds ironic is that our culture tells us we are entitled to be whatever we want, and we have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, this bias has led many Christians to twist the Genesis story to say: God created me in His image, and so I’m perfectly wonderful just the way I am.

Try to picture John the Baptist preaching this message to a 21st century audience in modern day America. First of all, I doubt that many would go out into the wilderness to hear him. But once there, how would they react to his message? I can hear them saying:

• If you want me to listen to you, don’t insult me and call me a snake.

• Don’t tell me I will be burned up in the fire if I don’t bear fruit. That’s not “good news.”

• This message is cruel and discriminatory.

• It’s presumptuous of you to tell me to repent—I have nothing to repent of.

• And you’re telling me someone is coming who is going to separate the wheat from the chaff. How judgmental is that?

• I don’t have to listen to this.

The irony is not in the message. It’s in the way we hear it. Let’s look at it from the perspective of God, for whom John the Baptist was speaking. He had, in an act of great love and boundless creativity, made the universe. He had put the earth in the universe, a unique planet capable of sustaining life, abundant life. He had created human beings in His image, and given us this planet to tend and keep, and told us to be fruitful and multiply. And He had given us all the instruction we needed to live together in peace, love, joy, goodness and abundance. He declared the whole thing to be good.

And then, the people turned. They decided they didn’t need God’s guidance. They decided to do things their own way. And the world soon was filled with tragedy, sorrow, corruption, pain and death.

But as the Bible tells us, God loves this world. He’s not going to give up on it. He’s going to restore all things to the way He created them to be. Isn’t that GOOD NEWS? It’s wonderful news. There couldn’t be any better news. But in order to see it as good news, you first have to understand how bad things are. And to accept the call to repent, you first have to understand that you are part of the problem. That is what John the Baptist’s message is all about. God has drawn the crowds out into the wilderness to hear His prophet. And the prophet does not speak a politically correct message. He does not try to avoid giving offense. He tells the truth. And his message is: the world is a shambles, and you are part of the problem. But if you will repent and turn toward the God who loves you, He’s going to save you, and He’s going to save the world. That is not ironic. That is the whole message. And without the bad news, the good news doesn’t make sense.

People might nod their heads and say, “Yes, you’re right. There are a lot of bad things going on in the world.” But it wouldn’t occur to them that they are just as guilty as the people at whom they point their finger. It wouldn’t occur to them that they need to be cleaned up and fixed along with everyone else. But once they grasp that, they understand the good news in John’s message of repentance. God is giving them and everyone else the opportunity to repent—to turn away from their sin and to turn to Him.

How is it with us? It is easy to agree with God that the world is a shambles. We can easily share God’s disappointment.

• It is obvious that hatred is running the lives of those terrorists who dominate the news night after night.

• It is obvious that greed is running the lives of those corrupt people in business whose scams wiped out our retirement savings.

• We can see the evil of those murderous drug cartel kingpins.

• And those tin-god dictators who live in luxury while they let their people starve.

• We can rail against those who say there is no God, and who take offense at our nativity scenes and our public prayers.

• We can criticize a Supreme Court which thinks it can rewrite God’s definition of marriage.

But it is not that easy for us to see ourselves as part of the problem. We can look at those other people and say how wrong they are to think they have nothing for which to repent. But we need to repent every bit as much. I may not be a terrorist, or a scam artist, or a murderer or a drug trafficker. And yet,

• I may need to repent of the fact that when I make decisions, my first consideration is about myself.

• I may need to repent of my blindness to the need of others.

• I may need to repent of being stingy.

• I may need to repent of squandering my time and talents on things that don’t bear fruit in God’s eyes.

• I may need to repent of the ugly way I feel about someone who hurt my feelings.

• I may need to repent of the way I let the school system and the television and the internet be the ones to teach my children their values.

I know why today’s Gospel reading strikes me as ironic. It’s that I, too, tend to think John the Baptist is being presumptuous in suggesting that I need to repent along with everyone else. But what is presumptuous is my belief that I have nothing to be ashamed of when I stand before a holy and awesome and powerful God. One of the great insights in the Bible is in the Book of Romans, where it says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) That includes me before I gave my life to Christ. And that includes me as I get up each day and go about my business.

The purpose of this 4-week period we call Advent is to prepare for the coming of the one whose sandals John the Baptist was not worthy to untie. His name is Jesus. And He is the Son of God. And the Father sent Him into the world, because He so loved the world. He is the one who will come with His winnowing fork and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Most of us have already been through His winnowing fork. I say that, because His Word tells us that if we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will be saved. (Romans 10:9) We have already accepted Him as our Savior and turned our lives over to Him as Lord. So we are saved, and we won’t be burned up in the unquenchable fire. Alleluia! But we still have a lot of preparing to do. For He is coming again. And this time, He wants to find that our faith in Him has borne good fruit. He wants to find a bountiful harvest of believers who have come to put their trust in Him because we loved them. So the message of repentance is still relevant in our lives. That is why it matters that we take the message of John the Baptist personally.

To repent means:

To recognize that what you have done is wrong.

To tell God you are sorry you have offended His holy law.

To resolve to put this sinful behavior out of your life.

And it means to let God make you a better person through the power of His Holy Spirit.

When you do those things, God opens the way for you to bear fruit.

• If there is someone in our life whom we have ignored, we need to repent.

• If there is someone whom we can’t invite to church because we have treated them badly, we need to repent.

• If there is someone who sees us as a hypocrite and so is not interested in our faith, we need to repent.

• If there is someone we won’t talk to because we feel we are better than them, we need to repent.

Each one of those little changes could result in a new person coming into the Kingdom. And the fruit you bear would delight the Savior when He comes.

When Jesus came the first time, an angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields watching their flocks by night. And what the angel said was that he brings Good News, and tidings of great joy. The good news was that there was born that day in the city of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And the great joy is that God has sent Him to save the world. And for those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and put their trust in Him, there is more good news—that if we will repent of our sins, we can be no longer part of the problem, but part of God’s solution.

© 2015 The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar

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