Sermon 3 Advent Yr C
December 14, 2006 Leave a comment
3 Advent Yr C, 17/12/2006
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
A man who thought he was John the Baptist was disturbing the neighbourhood, so for public safety, he was committed. He was put in a room with another crazy and immediately began his routine, “I am John the Baptist! Jesus Christ has sent me!” The other guy looks at him and declares, “I did not!”1
Although some of us may find this joke humorous, today’s gospel is certainly no laughing matter! John the Baptist, that desert, eccentric, end times preacher is full of hell-fire and brimstone. In fact, a psychologist or psychiatrist might very well label John as a fire-fixated, fire obsessed, pyromaniac. I don’t know if you noticed it, but two out of the three references John makes to fire are really sobering and downright scary. The first reference is to trees not bearing good fruit being cut down and thrown into the fire. The second reference is a little different, for it is a description of Jesus the Messiah’s baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. This fire is perhaps a little more hopeful, and may refer to one’s commitment to God’s justice and love. Then, the third reference to fire is similar to the first one, only this time it is a description of the end times judgement of the Messiah separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. That one is really scary, doesn’t it literally scare the hell out of you?! Actually that is the intention of John’s preaching.
Notice how John begins his call for repentance, he grabs everyone’s attention as if they’ve been hit on the head with a two-by-four, saying: “You brood of vipers!” Imagine that! “You snakes!” Now that sort of language certainly isn’t going to win any popularity contests, is it? It is not the kind and gentle approach. I don’t know about you, but I know that if someone called me a viper, a snake, I wouldn’t be very happy. Yet, John continues with his very confrontational message, telling the people what they really need to hear, but most likely don’t want to hear. His message of repentance is most urgent—turn or burn, John says. Don’t think that it’s by your roots that you’ll be judged, no! Rather, it’s by your fruits. It’s not I’m a baptized and confirmed Lutheran; I go to church every Sunday, I give generously, I have no need to repent of anything. No! Rather, it’s I’m a sinner, each day I fail to love God and my neighbour in thought, word and deed. Each day I’m in need of Christ’s grace and forgiveness. Each day Christ is calling me to follow him by sharing my gifts more faithfully and generously with others in need. Martin Luther believed that as followers of Jesus, our life involves a daily repentance of our sins. A daily turning around, a change of heart and mind, a turning away from that which is sinful and destructive to a turning towards that which is loving and life-giving. Professor Fred Craddock describes something of what this means for us in the following beautiful story:
When I was pastoring in Tennessee, there was a girl about seven years old who came to our church regularly for Sunday school, and sometimes her parents let her stay for the worship service. They didn’t come. We had a circular drive at that church. It was built for people who let their children off and drove on. We didn’t want to inconvenience them, so we had a circular drive. But they were very faithful, Mom and Dad. They had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant. He was upwardly mobile; they were very ambitious; and they didn’t come to church. There wasn’t really any need for that, I guess.
But on Saturday nights, the whole town knew of their parties. They gave parties, not for entertainment, but as part of the upwardly mobile thing. That determined who was invited: the right people, the one just above, and finally on up to the boss. And those parties were full of drinking and wild and vulgar things. Everybody knew. But there was their beautiful girl every Sunday.
One Sunday morning I looked out, and she was there. I thought, “Well, she’s with her friends,” but it was her Mom and Dad. After the sermon, at the close of the service, as is the custom at my church, came an invitation to discipleship, and Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the front. They confessed faith in Christ. Afterward I asked, “What prompted this?”
They said, “Well, do you know about our parties?”
And I said, “Yeah, I have heard about your parties.”
They said, “Well, we had one last night again, and it got a little loud, it got a little rough, and there was too much drinking. We waked our daughter, and she came downstairs to about the third step. She saw that we were eating and drinking, and she said, ‘Oh, can I say the blessing? God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Good-night, everybody.’ She went back upstairs. ‘Oh, my land, it’s time to go, we’ve got to be going.’ ‘We’ve stayed too long.’ Within two minutes the room was empty.”
Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad began cleaning up, picking up crumpled napkins and wasted and spilled peanuts and half sandwiches, and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen. And with two trays, he and she met on either side of the sink, they looked at each other, and he expressed what both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?” The moment of truth.2
The party guests in this story likely didn’t want to hear the prayer of that little girl, for them it was something like those whom John called “You brood of vipers!” Yet, for those who opened their ears and hearts and minds to John’s message, and the prayer of that little girl, it was “a wake up call,” it produced the fruits worthy of repentance.
As we continue in our Advent journey, we prepare for the celebration of Jesus the Messiah’s birth. Our preparations, like those in John’s day who heard his message, involve repenting of our sins. Although for us who attend worship regularly, repentance may not take as a dramatic form as the parents of that daughter in Professor Craddock’s story—although that possibility should not entirely be ruled out. Rather, for most of us, who are “God’s frozen chosen,” repentance is more likely to be in the small, little, inch-by-inch details of our living. Things like trusting more and more in the Holy Spirit’s leading us to love God and neighbour through our loving thoughts, kind words, and simple actions of justice, love and mercy. Although they may seem small, Christ works through us and them to make a difference in the church and in the world. As W.M. Taylor once said: “True repentance hates the sin, and not merely the penalty; and it hates the sin most of all because it has discovered and felt God’s love.” Love freely given to each of us in and through Jesus our Messiah. Love that produces repentance in us is certainly Good News for us all! Amen.
2 Fred B. Craddock, edited by Mike Graves & Richard F. Ward, Craddock Stories (St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 23-24.