SCRIPTURE – Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
The Grinch Who Saved Christmas
Dec. 9, 2012
As some of you may know, in my former life I was a journalist, and one of my writing gigs was reviewing movies for the Louisville Courier-Journal. You know, it was a tough job watching one or two movies each week, but people gave their lives so that we could enjoy freedom of the press, and I figured it was my civic duty to exercise that freedom. Plus, I like popcorn.
One of the things I liked about watching movies was the previews. I was always interested to see what was coming out next. The previews were fast-paced, action-packed, and often more entertaining than the movie I was about to watch. They all followed a similar formula. It started with a dramatic voice-over: “In a world where evil reigns…” Then there was a punch, a kiss, an explosion, and then the credits. “Coming soon!” By the time they showed all the previews I was primed and ready for the feature presentation, expect they were so long I usually had eaten all my popcorn before the actual movie started.
What we have in today’s passage is the biblical form of a movie preview. John the Baptist is not the feature presentation, and he’s quick to tell us so. He is only the trailer, giving us glimpses of what the real thing will be like. In a world where evil reigns, John the Baptist says that “one more powerful than I” is coming soon.
Based on this scripture, I’m not sure I want to see the feature presentation. John doesn’t come across as very enticing, unless you enjoy being called a brood of vipers by a wild-eyed guy who eats locusts. In fact, I feel like I owe you an apology. This probably isn’t what you came to hear today. It’s Dec. 9, for goodness sakes! You come expecting to hear about Baby Jesus, and instead you get talk of winnowing forks and threshing floors. You come expecting to hear “God bless us, everyone,” and instead you get Scrooge. You come expecting a heaping plate of roast beast and choruses of “Ya Hoo Lor Rey,” and instead you get the Grinch. “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Merry stinkin’ Christmas!
And yet, every Advent we run across John the Baptist. From the church’s standpoint, John is as integral a part of the preparation for Advent as candles and carols. That’s what Advent is about, right? Preparation. “Let every heart prepare him room.” How do we prepare for Christ’s coming each year? We decorate our sanctuary. We put up Christmas trees and lights. We buy presents and attend parties. That may prepare us for Christmas, but does it prepare us for Christ? Is that all we need to do to prepare him room in our hearts, or is there something more?
John is talking about a different kind of preparation. The crowds were coming to be baptized because John was gaining in popularity, and being baptized by him was becoming the “in” thing to do. But he recognized the people were not prepared; he saw in their way of living they weren’t showing signs that they were getting the message.
So after getting their attention by calling them a brood of vipers, he exhorts them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” That’s an interesting word, “repentance.” We often associate it with the season of Lent, don’t we? We repent of our sins so we can be prepared for the glory of Easter morning. And yet, repentance is also a theme for Advent. The color purple, which is used for both Advent and Lent, is not only a color of royalty, but also the color of repentance. And John tells us that part of preparing ourselves to receive the gift of Christ is repentance, clearing out the junk in our hearts to make room.
One year when we put up our Christmas tree, we decided to put it in a new spot in our family room. Making it fit meant moving some furniture around. When we moved my beloved recliner, I noticed that it was a little dirty under there: candy wrappers, tissues, a coupon that expired six years earlier, a lot of stale popcorn. So to make room for this new arrangement we had to do a little cleaning.
What needs to be cleaned out to make room for Christ this Christmas? Like the situation with my recliner, I wonder if it’s been awhile since we’ve looked inside to see what’s been collecting there. John doubted that his audience had done much soul-searching; he knew that they felt their faith was clean simply by virtue of their birthright. The Israelites believed that if you were a Jew, a child of Abraham, then you were secure, regardless of how you lived your life.
But John brings a more disturbing message. “Just because you’re a child of Abraham doesn’t mean you are producing fruits.” To translate it for us, just because you were born in a Christian country, grew up in a Christian home and go to a Christian church doesn’t make you a Christian. What makes us Christian, John says, is acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, genuine repentance of our sins, and then living a life that shows evidence of this change.
That’s a part of maturing in faith, which we all must do in order to grow closer to God. Many of us grew up in a Christian environment, so we most likely inherited the faith of our parents or grandparents. But at some point in our lives, we have to step out from under their spiritual shadow and being to discover for ourselves what we believe. John is saying that we don’t inherit faith like we inherit hair color or personality traits. “Aw look, she’s got her father’s eyes and her mother’s spirituality.” John is saying that preparing our hearts to receive the Messiah means working to figure out what we believe, and then committing to be the person God has created us to be by cleaning out of our hearts all the things the impede us from a genuine relationship with Christ.
That’s what John is encouraging here. To make room for Christ in our hearts, we have to clear out the things that are taking up room right now. What are those things? John doesn’t get all theological on us here; he’s a very hands-on guy. When the crowd asks him what they should do, he doesn’t launch into some discourse on spiritual disciplines; he says, “Clean out your selfishness. If you have two coats, give one away.”
John drew the kind of crowd that had some cleaning to do. He’s approached by a tax collector, one of the most hated people in Jewish society. These folks were often Jews who had gone to work for the Roman government, and they earned their living by applying large fees to the taxes and keeping the fees for themselves. So when the tax collector asks John what he needed to do, John says, “Clean out your greed. Don’t collect any more than is required of you.”
Soldiers also came to see John. These were probably not Roman soldiers, but Jewish soldiers working for the Roman government. Like the tax collectors, they had a privileged position over the common folk, and often used that power to take advantage of other people, like extorting money from them. When the soldiers ask John what needs to be done, he says, “Clean out your deceit. Treat people fairly, and be happy with what you have.”
You hear the justice in there, right? Give away coats and food, treat others fairly, don’t extort from or take advantage of others. Let’s not forget the original Christmas story isn’t all cuddly and warm and fuzzy. The coming of the Christ child was revolutionary – why else would Herod want him killed? The birth of Jesus challenged people to give their hearts and their commitments to a different king than the earthly one. The cleaning out we do in order to make room for Jesus must include the sweeping away of prejudices, entitlements, and anything else that adds to the injustices in our world. Loving Jesus means loving others. Period. That’s an essential part of the good news we proclaim about Jesus’ coming.
So what about us? What might need to be cleaned out in order to make room for Jesus? Maybe we need to clean out our feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness to do God’s work. Maybe we need to sweep away the thoughts that before we help others, they need to earn our trust or compassion. Maybe we need to purge ourselves of the belief that we come first and everyone else comes second. Whatever it is, each of us has some cleaning to do.
John closes this passage with a word of warning: those who don’t bear fruit will be separated like wheat from chaff, the outer shell of the grain. Once the outer shell is removed, it is gathered and burned. John compares fruitless believers with chaff, who might look good on the outside but who never seek to clean out the inside. John says those who don’t do the work of making room for Christ will suffer the consequences.
That feels like a pretty Grinchy message, doesn’t it? Not much joy in John’s words. And yet, as I talked about last week, if we move right to the joy of Christmas without doing the hard work of waiting during Advent, of preparing our hearts and lives for Christ to come again, then we lose what Christmas is all about. John the Grinch is trying to save Christmas by reminding us that we have work to do as we get ready. We need to do some cleaning out. We have to be prepared. Only then will we truly understanding the joy and meaning of what’s about to happen.
Are you prepared? I’m not asking if you’ve finished your Christmas shopping or baked all your cookies. I’m asking if you’re prepared. Christ is coming once again, bringing a message of hope and love and justice. There’s so much in our world demanding a place in our hearts. “Let every heart prepare him room.” Is there room?