A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Well what do you think of John the Baptist’s “good news”? That’s what St Luke the Evangelist calls the strange, disturbing passage we’ve heard this morning.
At the end of John’s tirade, Luke tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
I’ll ask again: what do you think of John’s “good news”?
His words are harsh words—words of judgment, words of condemnation, words of wrath. He calls his listeners snakes, counts them no better than scattered stones, compares them to unfruitful trees, and commands them to change their lives, utterly and completely, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.
Most startling of all, John warns that his whole ministry—his ranting and his raving and his baptizing out in the wilderness—is merely preparation for someone else who is coming: and from John’s description offered here, that someone else seems, if possible, even more unsettling and terrifying than John himself.
And all of this is called “good news” by Luke the Gospel-writer.
How can that be? How can this difficult, troubling Gospel passage actually contain a joyful, life-giving Gospel message—an announcement that is truly Good News?
If we would find the Good News in our passage this morning we must begin where John begins: with the possibility of repentance. The key to understanding this passage lies hidden within the very concept that causes us to squirm. For if John’s call to repentance is what makes us fear him and want to turn away from him, John’s call to repentance is also an announcement of great Good News.
The possibility of repentance is always Good News, if only we can hear it. For wrapped up in the summons to repent is both an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong and an opportunity to set them right again. The exhortation to repent is always a word of both justice and mercy—both the stern warning that the path we are pursuing will lead to destruction, and the loving invitation to turn around, to turn back, to turn again and escape the fate we have made for ourselves with our words and deeds.
The call to repentance is hard news, because it confronts us with the justice of a God who cannot abide evil. But the call to repentance is also Good News, because it comforts us with the love of a God “who desireth not the death of [sinners], but rather that [we] may turn from [our] wickedness and live.”
Repentance was John’s mission and message. He proclaimed to the people who came out to him and the wilderness—and by all accounts a great many did come out to him in the wilderness—the possibility of change: of living in a new and better way.
When the crowds—crowds including hated tax-collectors and cruel soldiers—came to him in fear and trembling, knowing that they had made messes of their lives and yet desperate to set things to rights, John could actually give them something to do.
“Live lives of humble generosity!” John said. “Don’t take advantage of your power and position!” John said. “Dwell content with what you have been given!” John said.
In John’s call to repentance, we hear a message of hope; an announcement that things can be different; a promise that people need not live forever in the weary wickedness of their old, warped ways. In John’s call to repentance we hear the beginning of Good News.
But it is only just the beginning of Good News.
For if John brings the assurance that change is possible, he also forces us to ask, plainly and honestly, whether change has occurred. What happens when we set the possibility of transformation alongside the record of our human reality—either our individual realities or the reality of our world? What happens when we widen our focus from looking merely at the invitation to live better, fuller, more faithful lives, and turn to see how and when and whether that invitation has been accepted?
If repentance is possible, then why haven’t we done it?
For you and I know that we are called to share of our goods and resources with which God has blessed us. Why then do we guard so fiercely our material wealth and the security it brings us?
You and I know that we are called to sacrifice our own advantages—our own power and privilege—for the sake of lifting up the lowly and the least. Why then do we cling so tightly to our positions and pretensions?
You and I know that we are called to live lives of contentment and satisfaction. Why then do we grasp so greedily and strive so relentlessly and work unendingly and worry unceasingly after the things we do not have but for which we lust and crave?
Over all these things, John the Baptist has spoken a word of judgment this morning. Have you heeded his warning? I confess that I often ignore it.
John has set before us the mercy and patience of a God who waits for us to return to him. Have you seized that opportunity? I fail to each day.
John has called us to repentance. Have you borne fruits worthy of that call? Beloved, in the light of this morning’s passage I look with shame on the bare branches of my heart and find myself tempted to despair.
For if the possibility of repentance is all that John the Baptist has to proclaim, then indeed our initial suspicions were right: there is no Good News here at all.
But John himself does not end his message with merely a call to repent. The possibility of repentance is not all that John has to proclaim.
For while John’s mission and ministry was all about repentance, repentance was never an end in itself.
Yes, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s justice and mercy. But he did so in preparation for a new and more startling expression of that justice—for a new and better working out of that mercy.
“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.”
Someone is coming, says John, who can do more than symbolically wash away the sins that cling to us so closely. Someone is coming, says John, who has the power to wash us and purge us and cleanse us within. Someone is coming, says John, who can remake us and renew us by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.
“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.” Terrifying as this sounds, beloved, this is the best news we hear this morning!
John does not leave his hearers—John does not leave us!—scrambling and struggling for a repentance that we can never fully achieve. But John announced then and John announces now that God himself is coming to complete the work that we cannot even begin without God’s help.
God is coming to effect the transformation we know we need but cannot possibly accomplish on our own.
God is coming, and he will sift us as wheat is sifted: breaking away that which is useless and worthless from each individual grain, and preserving for his use that which he has given for his good purposes.
For the full extent of John’s Good News this morning—the full extent of the Good News for all time, dear people—is that the God who cannot abide our sin has come himself to bear the penalty of our sin. The God who calls us to repent is working in us to bring about the fruits of repentance. The God who made each of us for a purpose is coming to fulfill that purpose in each of us and all of us.
“Our hope and expectation,
O Jesus, now appear!
Arise, thou Sun so longed for,
above this darkened sphere!
With hearts and hands uplifted,
we plead, O Lord, to see
the day of earth’s redemption,
and ever be with thee!”1
1-Verse 3 of “Rejoice! rejoice, believers”, Hymn 68, The Hymnal 1982