Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?
We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!
And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.
First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.
Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.
Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.
It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.
When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.
And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!
When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.
May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy. Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.