Rev. Katherine Todd
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you[d] in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.[e]
I will remove disaster from you,[f]
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “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.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
When I read these verses from Luke about John’s ministry to the people in the wilderness, I am a tad perplexed when this chapter wraps up with the words, “So,…he proclaimed the good news to the people.” It feels wrong.
All my life I’ve been hearing this story. All my life, I’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and honestly, this story of John’s words and ministry does not sound to me like good news. He proclaims a hard word. He does not mince words. He is a strait shooter.
To those who have been swindling others for personal gain, he tells them to stop. He tells them to curb their own insatiable desire for more and to be content with what they have. To those who have food and clothing, he commands them to share with those who have none.
When folks come overconfident and haughty – reasoning that they don’t need to worry about their souls because they are children of Abraham & thus heirs to the promises of God – John shoots right through their false sense of security. Yes, God is faithful, but God also prunes away the branches that do not bear fruit. The ax lies at the foot of the tree. And God can raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones of the earth. In other words, God does not need them in order to be faithful. If they are unfaithful, God is still faithful, and God will do the work God intends through others. And indeed God has done this – raising up descendants of Abraham from among the Gentiles – raising up all – whomever they are – who believe in him as children of God, members of the family of God.
From the beginning of time, we humans can become complacent. And when we have known the love and belonging of God, we can take that for granted. We can think that nothing we do really matters anymore. But God continues to teach us that what we do DOES matter.
It’s not the kind of mattering that keeps us strung out on a thin thread of good grace. It’s not the kind of mattering where God threatens to stop loving us, in order to get us to behave
No, it is not the kind of mattering that we’re used to – where grace is extended conditionally, where love is shown with strings attached. It’s the kind of mattering that says our actions and inactions matter. We have purpose in the world. Our lives have consequence.
And so God is continually inviting us to put the blessing of our lives to do good in this world. And not to do evil.
And so here is John stirring the people out of their false sense of security, out of their complacence, and reminding them that their lives matter. He implores them to do justice. He implores them to live rightly, to change their crooked ways and return to God.
IF they are truly returning to God, truly repentant, their lives will bear the fruit of repentance, in justice, in goodness, in mercy, in righteousness.
And John is calling each one to take a hard and honest look at their lives.
Are their lives bearing the fruit of repentance? Or not?
God is faithful. God is sending someone more powerful than John, but will the people be a part of it? Will they see him when he comes? Will they receive him when he comes?
Or will they continue in their complacent, blinded, self-righteousness? Will they persist in sin? Will they harden their hearts and miss God’s voice, breaking through cloud and space, saying, “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Christ is on the way, but the gift of this child will only be received by those who are ready – by the wise men who have watched the night sky and waited and journeyed for this very night – by the shepherds who are staring at the night sky (and not at their phones) and hear the angels of heaven proclaiming the Messiah’s birth – by Anna and Simeon who have waited, trusting God’s word that they would see the Messiah in their lifetimes…
The gift is here for the taking.
But who receives it?
We may think that there is nothing to do while we cry out to God to make things right in this world. We may think that because we are Christians that our eternity is pretty much set & we don’t really need to be concerned with questions of right and wrong. We may think that God is far more concerned with big ticket sins than with our seemingly small and insignificant lives.
But John is here, reminding us that our lives matter. Our lives matter. And that if we are not actively participating in God’s work in the world, we are likely working against it. God will still be faithful, but we just may miss out. And he is here, crying out in the wilderness our aimless busyness for us to stop and listen, for us to look ourselves honestly in the mirror.
Do our lives bear the fruit of repentance?
Repentance is a 180 degree turn. It is a turning away from sin and a turning back toward God. Repentance is not a way of earning God’s love. Repentance does not make us holy. Repentance isn’t our litmus test of holiness.
No, repentance is simply the one thing we can do to be ready for God. It is the way we open our stubborn selves, again and again, to the Holy One, who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love.
Everyone wants John to give them the magic ticket to eternal security. Folks want to know what they can DO. And John points them to the only thing they CAN do, repent.
Repentance does not make things right, but it points us back toward the ONE who makes all things right, the ONE who heals all our infirmities, the ONE who came from heaven as a little babe that we might know the GOD SAVES!
As we prepare for Christmas, may we hear again this strait-shooting, wilderness call to look ourselves truthfully in the mirror and to return to God.
The Lord of Heaven and Earth awaits, ever yearning to gather us in, to welcome us home and rejoice over us with singing.
You are of great worth to God.
Your life truly matters.
May you ever return to God,
repenting and returning,
and may you know the sweet joy of our Lord God,
rejoicing over you with singing,
as God renews you in God’s love
and changes your shame into praise.
The Good News of God!
Let us ready ourselves.