Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming but not at Sandy Hook School or Newtown Connecticut – they, who planned to celebrate the coming of the Christ child, rather bury their hopes. It is cold & now bitter.
Bryan Fischer, American Family Association said two days ago that, “God could have protected those children in Newtown but he didn’t because he doesn’t go where he is not wanted.”
Jeremiah 31:15 Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
I say to you this morning that God has always gone where He wasn’t wanted, what Christmas but God is sending his own son where he was not wanted or expected into risk & ultimate death for our sakes. Never forget that in the middle of the Christmas story, Herod murdered the children of Bethlehem, all younger than 2.
What do we do? What do we do in the face of such violence? What do we do with the anxiety that rises in our souls? I’ll tell you what we do, we work on ourselves, calming ourselves down and growing up so that we will be ready when we are called on.
This is the message of John the Baptizer
John the Baptizer was what the folks I grew up with in the country would call a “hell-fire and brimstone” preacher. That was his theme and he preached it every time. John did not pull punches, He said to those who came to hear him, “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flew from the wrath to come,” as if they were snakes fleeing a burning building. And he told them not to tell him who their daddy was or how they were descended from Abraham, ‘cause God could raise up children to Abraham from the rocks on the riverbank. “The chain saw is at the root of the tree”, he railed, “and those trees that bears rotten fruit will be slashed and burned.”
In today’s Gospel reading we learn that John attracted an enormous crowd. This is one of those rare passages where we have an extra-biblical document, which throws light on the scriptural story, namely Josephus. He writes in The Antiquities of the Jews, “Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seems ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause …”.
Luke gives us insight into Herod’s anxiety by telling us that the crowds consisted of three groups: the ordinary folks/the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers. John Meier writes in, A Marginal Jew, “The two great props of any regime are the military and the financial institutions. If these not especially religious Jews are flocking to John and hanging on his words, the power of the state might be undermined. So Herod moved against John.
But for the time being John worked along the Jordan River, preaching repentance.”
I. Repentance is a word that has become very negative in our culture. I suspect that the reason for that is that repentance usually comes after someone has been caught in something and that something has been proven beyond any doubt. Repentance has become what celebrities do on talk shows to repair their image. That is less about forgiveness and reconciliation than damage control. Frederick Buechner writes in Theological ABC’s, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry, than to the future and saying “Wow!”
That was what happened in the Jordan valley. People were coming to their senses; people you would never have dreamed would, people you would have rather did not were waking up, coming to their sense: tax collecting scalawags and cutthroat mercenaries. Repentance is that moment when we stop looking around us to see what mischief others are doing and look at ourselves at our own errors and sins. We begin to sing that old southern spiritual, “it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. It’s not the soldier, It’s not the tax collector, it’s not the (insert favorite sinner here), It’s me, it’s me O Lord standing in the need of prayer.”
An essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been very important in my thinking over the years of my ministry. It is entitled, “Repentance and Self-limitation in the life of nations.” In it he writes, “It is the gift of repentance which perhaps more than anything else distinguishes man from the animal world. Throughout history we have paid dearly for the fact that we have all throughout the ages preferred to censure, denounce and hate others, instead of censuring, denouncing and hating ourselves. The line between good and evil cuts not between peoples and nations and individuals, but through them . … It divides the heart of every man.”
I. Repentance: The process of Repentance begins when we wake up. We wake up to the good news of God in Christ Jesus. We wake up to our contribution to the brokenness in us and around us. Waking up is just clearing the ground, making a clean basis for spiritual growth. Feeling momentarily sorry and then continuing on our way won’t do it. Waking up and repenting begins the process, but that is not the end.
The crowds asked John, “What then shall we do?”
1. Those who have two coats — share one.
2. Those who have food —- share what you have.
3. Tax collectors —- collect only the amount prescribed.
4. Soldiers – do not extort money, be satisfied with your wage.
Solzhenitsyn describes the process that comes after repentance.
II. Renounce the use of force———do not extort.
Give up force and choose not to expand in every direction. Force is not just holding up someone with a gun. It is the abuse of power because we have it and someone else does not. We are taught to do what we want because we can. We eat more, drink more, and consume more we can. It is as if we thing that because we can therefore we must. We are called to inner development rather than outward expansion. This is a useful thought in this the most excessive time of the year.
III. Self-limitation —————— share, be satisfied with your wage.
Solzhenitsyn, “The definition of freedom for a Christian is self limitation for the sake of others.” Limitation of others is an idea we entertain regularly. “Why does this person not give it a rest,” we say. Our stomach tells the story when certain people call or come by. Some people do not visit they invade our lives. They often preface all this by saying they are only trying to help and are doing it for our own good. We all know them. They pinch our cheeks when we were little and press our boundaries when we are adults.
Of course the truth is they are us. To have our boundaries respected we have to respect the boundaries of others. To leave room around us for breathing and loving is a gift we give others and ourselves. This will be particularly welcome to those closest to us. Freedom requires courage and sacrifice.
Advent is about waking up. Really, waking up and saying WOW!
We are free not to extort.
We are free not to take from other people.
We are free to share our spare coat.
We are free to share our food.
We are free to limit ourselves for the sake of others.
John the Baptizer validated his message by practicing what he preached. The crowds admired John and said, “Is he Messiah, the one who is to come?” John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John modeled repentance, renunciation of force and self-limitation. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) in one of his essays calls John the Baptizer, the paranymphias (aranymphias) ofan supports the bridegroom. He stands by to give assistance in whatever is needed best man. The role of the best man is unique in our culture. The best m Nothing is too trivial or menial for him to do if his friend needs it. He participates in the joy of his great friend. Out of love for his friend he joyfully takes the role of servant. The joy of the friend of the Bridegroom is the joy of every soul at the approach of Christ. The attitude of John the best man is the posture of our souls on our way to Christ; repentance renunciation of force and self-limiting love is the posture proper to the friend of the bridegroom.
John the Baptizer is a sign to us of hope. He preached and lived out a life of repentance.
Advent is about the good news of repentance.
Let us repent, renounce force and limit ourselves that we may with joy greet the coming of the Bridegroom, Jesus the Christ, our Lord and our Friend.