Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018
John the Baptist
Malachi 3:1-4 Luke 3:1-18
Well, It doesn’t sound like good news, does it? No wonder the prophet Malachi asks of this messenger: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” For John has arrived in exactly the mode described by Malachi. He yells at us: “You brood of vipers!” He threatens us with images of chopping and burning, of axes and unquenchable fire. And then, our text concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed good news! … What?! This is how John proclaims good news? His message doesn’t sound like the kind of news we want to hear!
John is an uncomfortable guest this time of year, entirely out of sync with the comfy and cozy, merry and bright themes our culture promotes to get us to buy things. And it is tempting to want to settle for just a bit of escape from the onslaught of bad news in the world and challenges in our lives. Don’t we deserve just a little respite from reality this time of year? But if we wrestle with John’s message, we discover he does offer good news worth embracing. Because we are hurting and hungry people, full of longing. We yearn for so much more than mere surface cheer.
But to receive John’s message as good news, we do have to endure his coming. Even if at first he’s unwelcome. Someone long ago, I forget when and where, referred to John as a rude kind of guest who invades our space and goes where he shouldn’t. It rings true for me.
It’s as if we prepare for John’s visit by sprucing up the front entrance. We sweep the walk and light candles in the windows. The Christmas tree glows with colored lights. Guests who come in the front door of our lives will see the beautiful face we’ve prepared to present to the world. But to our chagrin, John the Baptist goes to the back and comes in through the basement door. He walks through all our accumulated trash and broken junk. He sees the dirty laundry piled next to the washer. The discarded toaster and old dishes waiting to be given away. The projects we meant to finish but never did. As he steps carefully through the clutter, we see he’s looked around and taken it all in. We feel exposed.
We thought we’d kept our mess carefully hidden away. But now we wonder. Has he seen the troubled relationships stuffed in the cabinet? Has he noticed the bitterness we’ve hung on to, so we can haul it out from time to time? Has he heard the hurtful things we’ve said? Seen the suffering people we’ve ignored? Does he look right into the empty barrels of good intentions that we were going to fill with acts of justice and mercy — some day? Does he know about the selfishness hidden in the attic, as we’ve prepared the public rooms of our house for his visit? We want to get rid of him fast, and slam the door behind him.
But we can’t really solve anything by getting rid of John. He’s just a messenger. He knows he’s not the main thing. He’s been sent ahead to help us prepare for the main thing. To help us see how to get ready for the One he identifies as “The one who is coming”. So John asks us to assess what we want to hold on to and what we need to let go. He asks us to consider in light of the big questions:
Who and What are we preparing for? Are we preparing to be filled with the fullness of life? Or preparing just to settle for life as usual? If we really long for a deeper, fuller, more joyful and just life, for ourselves and for all people, then we may receive John’s message as Good News!
We start with admitting the truth that in this life we experience brokenness. We struggle, all of us, with broken relationships, broken promises, broken intentions, broken hopes and dreams, broken spirits. All the kinds of brokenness arising from the ways we have caused harm, and the ways we have been harmed. Including the fact that we are tangled in larger systems in which some people are crushed while others thrive, maybe including us. We know our brokenness. And it includes both choices we are responsible for, but also patterns so complicated we don’t know how to begin to unravel them. John knows our brokenness and speaks to it. But notice: that we all hear John’s message together, as part of a gathered community. Just as the crowds rushing out to hear John’s message heard him together. That’s important. The fact that we listen to John in the context of human community reveals this piece of good news: We are not alone in our struggle with brokenness.
The brokenness that we experience is one we share, originating deep down in human existence. So we do not have to hide from one another or struggle alone. We don’t have to drown in the mire of shame. We all share the experience of sorrow and struggle, and we can share in the healing as well. The first good news is who we are preparing with! We have companions! We are all in this together! We prepare together for the more abundant life that’s on the horizon, and we support one another as we go. Taking turns carrying one another when needed.
John proclaims a second word of good news: We are not stuck in this, our human predicament of brokenness. There’s a way for us to move forward, toward healing and wholeness, for ourselves and others and the creation itself. John calls it repentance. Repentance is not mere regret or remorse. Repentance means turning in another direction and walking another path. When we turn and walk another way, we work to let go our preoccupation with self: trying to prove we’re right, trying to get noticed, trying to get what we want, or being resentful when things don’t go our way. We work to let go both our pride or our self-despising. Doing so — making this turn — frees up time and space in our lives so can listen deeply to God and to others and to our deep inner self, and so we have energy to engage more fully in actions that are compassionate and just. In our text, three different groups of people, all wanting to turn and walk into this new life, ask John, what then shall we DO? He gives specific answers tailored to each of them, but they include being just and fair and kind and honest. At any point in our life, we can answer the call to turn and walk toward new life. It’s never a bad time! And it’s never too late.
So, what helps us turn toward this more abundant life? It’s not really the fiery threats that turn us in a new direction, though they got our attention. It’s the promise of hope and joy that lures us. All this straightening crooked paths, and smoothing out what’s rough, and burning the chaff of our lives is for the joyful purpose that all flesh shall see God’s salvation! We are spurred on by the vision of the life we are moving towards! Knowing we both receive it as a gift and are also summoned to prepare for it, to help bring it into being. It’s about the fullness of life for all!
Luke, our gospel writer, tells us in more detail what that fullness entails, within he larger narrative in which our small passage is embedded. So a quick peek backward to chapter 1 and forward to chapter 4 helps fill in some details. Because it’s all one connected story! Remember Mary breaking into song as she visits her relative Elizabeth? She praises a God who is strong and merciful! A God who brings down the powerful but lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. And remember John’s own father, the priest Zechariah? “By the tender mercy of our God,” he proclaims, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Then a bit later in the story, as Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”
Think about the scope of all these promises of abundant life, fullness of life! It’s huge! The hungry filled, captives released, freedom for the oppressed, good news to the poor, light for all of those in darkness and the shadow of death, guidance into the way of peace — what more could we ask for?? Glorious promises of the life for which we have been longing and toward which we are heading. So John urges us to repent, to turn and orient ourselves in this direction — to join in preparing for these things to come about! For this wonderful vision of God’s reign is both received as a gift from on high, but also given as a call to participate in making it present now, in every way we can.
So John invites us to participate in this work of making these promises reality. We can begin to participate now in this new reality that is on the horizon, and we can do so while being filled with fullness ourselves! For one is coming into the world whom John later calls simply, “The One Who Is To Come.” And Colossians tells us, “This one, the Christ, is the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” But that’s not all. The Gospel of John proclaims “And from Christ’s fullness, we have all received fullness, grace upon grace.” And Ephesians tells us that we all may partake of that same fullness in the church, in this community of beloved brothers and sisters, “for the church is Christ’s body; it is the fullness of the one who fills all in all!” Finally, there’s a prayer for us, for each of us and all of us: That we may “comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth and to KNOW the love of Christ…so that WE may be filled with all the fullness of God!” These are breathtaking promises! The one who is coming will show us the way to fullness of life, and we ourselves can partake of that fullness and share it with others! Each of us and all of us.
No wonder people hurried to hear John for themselves! They were hungry and hurting, like us, and he filled them with hope. They yearned for the kind of life he was foretelling, and we do too! And not just for ourselves. Once we get in touch with our longing for fullness, and glimpse what it means — then we want that fullness for everyone! Especially those Mary and Zechariah and Jesus named: the hungry, the poor, the captives, those facing darkness or death. We want that fullness for the immigrant who has left everything behind to start over in a brand new country. We want that fullness for the person struggling with addiction. We want that fullness for the person in prison and the one in despair. We want that fullness for the starving infant in Yemen. We want that fullness for the people of Congo suffering both from the massive humanitarian crisis and now from the deadly Ebola virus too. We want that fullness for every beloved child and youth in our church — and for every beloved person of any age. We even want that fullness for our enemy, who if they and we were both immersed in this fullness would no longer BE enemies but beloved human companions. There is no end to who we want to be blessed with this fullness!
The good news of John’s message for Advent is that fullness of life is not limited,. It’s for everyone! And he calls us to get on board both working for it and being ready to receive it as a gift. For in the end, as Isaiah promises, We shall all see the salvation of God! Great good news! That’s where we’re headed and we’re on the way.
Still, we know we do not yet live in this fullness all the time. But we have glimpsed this fullness; we have experienced it in crucial moments. Some years ago Mark and I stayed a short time with Church of the Savior in one of the poorest areas of Washington DC. One of their ministries is Christ House, is a place where homeless men with acute medical conditions can come to heal. Outside, a life size statue of Jesus in blue jeans kneels with a basin in one hand, the other outstretched in love, ready to wash your feet. Inside, a community of doctors and nurses has followed Christ by moving into the building as their own home to live as one community along with the men they serve. On Thursday nights the whole community gathers for a service of communion woven into the dinner meal, around the tables.
When we joined them one Thursday night, we began by singing a lament of brokenness: “I’ve been rebuked and I’ve been scorned; there’s trouble all over this world, children; there’s trouble all all over this world.” But the mood began to shift to eager anticipation as a loaf of communion bread was brought to each table. Next to me, Darryl, a resident who had learned the ritual, took the basket and began. He held the bread out to me, looked into my eyes, and said the words they use every single week: “God wants YOU to have this bread. God wants YOU to have this BREAD, the bread of life.” I turned to my neighbor with the same words, and then all around the table we all offered the same. Critically ill men from the streets, doctors, nurses, church members, visitors — living, all of us, with heartaches, with illnesses, with burdens and brokenness — nevertheless, we received this bread from God and from one another, the bread of LIFE. It was one of those moments of fullness for me. For a flash, we had a foretaste of God’s glorious future. For a moment we experienced fullness of life, right here and now.
You too have had those glimpses! Or you wouldn’t be here.
God wants you to have the bread of life, this foretaste of God’s future reign in fullness for all. And you are called to join in the preparations. This is why John preaches Good News! This is why crowds left the comfort of the cities to rush into the desert to hear him. And it’s why we too join in the work of preparing for, and participating in, the coming realm of God in all its fullness. Alleluia. Amen.