Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2006
The Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
Sermon: "The God of Challenge and Compassion Comes in the Messiah"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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.
The God of Challenge and Compassion Comes in the Messiah
Third Sunday of Advent - December 17, 2006
Over the years I have been in eight different Episcopal churches in three different dioceses. Some of these churches have been very small with less than one hundred embers. Others have been very large with over fifteen hundred members. As a result of he various sizes each church has had different abilities and issues. Some have had a great deal of money, never enough to do everything they want. Some have had big youth programs and children's education programs. Some have made adult education a major priority. Others have made outreach or social ministries their gift in the community. They have all had different abilities that were functions of size, financial means, and the needs of the community as they perceived them. Each of these communities should be commended for the work they do for God.
However, each of these communities could benefit from a close reading of John the Baptist's message in this morning's Gospel reading. John's message can be distilled into three main points. The first point is a prophetic warning concerning the coming judgment. The second point is a call to justice and compassion. The final point is a confession, a confession of the coming Messiah. Each of these points is just as important to us today as they were to the crowd to whom John was speaking.
John speaks to the crowd about the coming judgment. He does it in a strange way, but it's still a warning. He asks them, "Who warned you to flee the coming judgment?" He calls them a brood of vipers. The people believed they were saved simply because they were Hebrews. They saw themselves as God's chosen people. They could really do no wrong. They were saved by their birthright. We see the same issues today. We have people who believe that they are saved because they have been baptized. We have people who believe that because they have professed Jesus as Lord with their lips they will be saved. Still others believe that God is so benevolent that everyone will be saved so this life doesn't really matter anyway. The problem with these concepts is that none of them really profess an understanding of God. They are all too simplistic. There is no healthy awe of the power of God or of the depth of the love of God.
Therefore, there is no need of repentance or sorrow because one's place in heaven is reserved. Salvation based on ideas of birthright, membership or universalism alone is not enough. John's call to repentance calls for a change of one's heart and one's soul. He is calling the people, he is calling us, to admit that God is God and we are not. In other words we are not to get comfortable with who we are but to always be searching within ourselves to determine the depth of our relationship to God. The first point calls us to examine our relationship to God individually and corporately. Where are we comfortable in our spiritual lives? Perhaps those areas need a little healthy re-evaluation.
The second point of John's message is closely related to the first. The call to examination is always followed by a call to action. John's examples are calls to justice and compassion. In our communities where do we see people being unfairly treated or chastised? St. Thomas' strength is in outreach. We do a great deal of outreach here. We are doing a great deal to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Have we even begun to address the issues of why there are people who are hungry and naked? In other words are we treating the illness or the symptoms? I'm not knocking what we do. If we are really going to begin to make a difference we are called to look for the root of the issues as well.
There is just a word of caution here. Good works are not limited to only people who believe in Jesus Christ. Other groups of people do good works simply because they do them. We do good works because of our belief in Jesus Christ. It is a function of our thanksgiving for the gifts God has already given us. When we do these good works we should not be ashamed to say why. When we take a meal from the church to someone they should know it is from the church. When we offer help to the families at Christmas they should understand it is because of our faith that we responded. When we deliver the meals at Thanksgiving we should let it be known that the food is not from us as individuals but from the community at large. Within this community there are people who believe in Jesus Christ and are responding out of God's love for them to others. If we don't let people know it is because of our belief that we respond with compassion, then it could be misinterpreted that we do it solely for our own benefit. We would be attempting to lift ourselves to a higher status in the community. Bottom line, that is not what we are after. We want to give God the glory and not ourselves. Our acts of compassion come only from our thanksgiving to a God who has richly blessed us.
John's third point is his confession of the coming of the Messiah. Here John tells the people he is not the Messiah. He also tells them the Messiah will anoint them with the power of the Holy Spirit. We also are waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We are expectantly waiting the second coming. According to the scriptures it will be the time of judgment. If we take the scriptural record seriously we are called to be ready. We are called to be strong in our belief. We are called to acts of compassion and kindness. We are called to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and be baptized ourselves with God's Holy Spirit. Through this baptism our faith is strengthened and our works become symbols of our faith and God's incredible mercy and forgiveness.
As I stated at the beginning each church has its strengths. One of ours is outreach. We do respond with compassion and kindness. As servants of the living God are we doing our best to work for justice in this community? We worship well. Through our worship we proclaim our faith. Are we proclaiming our faith in the community through our acts and through invitation to others? Education in our church is growing. Do we participate in educating ourselves about the wonder of God's love? Here again, are we inviting others to join us? These are some of the questions we can reflect upon during this season. The amazing part about God is that if we ask, God will help us in our endeavors. We do have a God who is merciful and compassionate. We do know a God who desires to help us in all aspects of our lives. So, as we reflect on our lives with God we can rest assured that God will always be with us to encourage us each step of the way.
My prayer for us this day is to see the words of John as both challenge and comfort. We are challenged to reflect on our relationship with God and comforted by the knowledge that the Messiah is coming again. Today, we have the opportunity to respond to the challenge and pray for the coming of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of God's kingdom. Amen.