Monday, December 07, 2015

Sermon on Luke 3:1-14, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "God's Calling in our Baptism"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. With its rugged, rocky terrain, deep gorges, and steep mountain ridges, the island of Maui might reflect some of the same engineering challenges pictured in the words of the prophet Isaiah, in today’s reading. We read about John the Baptist: Luke 3:3–5 “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”. Minus our luscious green plant life, our Maui landscape gives a pretty good picture of the same challenges of making straight and level roads, filling valleys and gorges, lowering mountains and hills in the Judean wilderness—if the prophet had meant a literal earth-moving project. To tackle a project that size today, we would think of sending in heavy earth-moving equipment. Bulldozers, dump trucks, diggers, etc.
John the Baptist was sent by God to tackle the enormous project the prophet describes—not so much an engineering challenge as a spiritual one. He wasn’t literally moving mountains and filling valleys—pushing dirt—but he was sent by God to move hearts and clear a path for Jesus to enter in. His enormous task was to enter unfriendly, unyielding ground, and prepare it to receive the Lord Jesus. John the Baptist was doing the heavy moving, so that hearts would be open to Jesus’ coming kingdom, and become fruitful, living branches.
Baptism and preaching were the two tools in John’s belt, calling people to repentance from their sins, and to be washed in baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. These were his pick and spade, to clear the rocky pathways, and level the ground for Christ’s coming. And people came pouring out of the towns and cities nearby to hear him and to be baptized by him. A prophet from the Lord had not been seen or heard of in some 4 centuries, in the land of Israel. God was suddenly speaking to His people again, through a prophet, and their attention was riveted.
We might expect that John would eagerly welcome those who came to him for baptism. But instead, he rebukes them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John clearly perceived hypocrisy as a major problem in the crowds that sought baptism. Matthew tells us this was particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees that John was addressing. By calling them the offspring of snakes, he was clearly attacking any idea of pretended spirituality. Baptism was not to be an outward disguise for inward corruption and evil.
Bear fruits in keeping with repentance, means that their life was to show the genuine signs of repenting, or turning from sin. His instructions later to the crowd, will reveal what those signs of repentance might specifically look like. But the key idea, is that continuing in sin with no intent to change, is the problem of the human heart. He short-circuits their first anticipated defense: “We have Abraham as our father.” You can’t cite your religious pedigree or ancestry as a proof of your genuine faith or spirituality. If I’m a sixth generation rabbi or a sixth generation pastor (which I’m not), that gives me no special “in” with God. God sees us according to our heart, not according to the amount of family tradition, titles, or religious importance we claim. God can always make new children of Abraham, as the true children of Abraham are those born of God’s promise (Rom. 9:7-8). True children of Abraham are born by faith in God’s Word, not from human ancestry.
John ends by warning them of impending judgment—that if they don’t bear good fruit, they’ll be thrown into the fire. John must have struck a nerve in that crowd. But surprisingly, many responded in humility, “What then shall we do?” I wonder how I would have responded. I’m no sixth-generation pastor, and no Israelite, but I was raised from childhood in the Lutheran faith. I have much to thank my parents and pastors and teachers in the faith for. But hopefully I wouldn’t claim that as my grounds for right standing before God, or consider myself more privileged than a tax collector, soldier, or any new believer in the crowd. What then shall I do?—is the right question to be asking. Am I looking for God’s stamp of approval on my spiritual life, that I’m already pretty self-confident and proud of? Or do I need some self-examination, to see if my heart and motives are right with God? Am I intent on keeping my sin, but hiding in a religious disguise? What then shall we do? Repent and bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Turn from sin, and Jesus, the Lord, will make His way into our lives, to bear good fruit.
What are the specifics, of what those fruits of repentance look like? John tells the crowds what they should do—share their extra clothing and food, with those who have none. Charity, caring for the poor, is one of the first marks of faith that John names. We as Christians, must always keep the needs of the poor in the forefront of our minds. Food and clothing are among the barest essentials of human life. Some Christians carry food cards, granola bars, or bottled water to share with those who might ask for food. Our support of the food pantry is one small way to help. The need here on Maui is great.
The next two examples are job-specific. Tax collectors came to be baptized, and asked, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Tax collectors were despised for taking a much bigger cut than the government had authorized them to collect. John doesn’t tell them to quit the profession—for it can actually be an honest one—but he tells them they much stop skimming off the top, or abusing their position to make themselves rich.
Likewise, John sends the soldiers who came for baptism, back to the honest profession of keeping peace and national and civil order. But “do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Soldiers too, had the temptation of abusing their position and authority for financial gain and power. The common people were victims to such abuse and corruption. When we look to our own lives, and the jobs or positions to which we have been called, what abuses of power or financial gain would tempt us? How might we misuse our authority, or threaten or bully? What is the spiritual danger of being discontented with our wages?
John urges his newly baptized disciples to head back into their regular life with changed intentions and changed actions. They were to commit to honest and faithful work—to serve and carry out their duty with integrity. The baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of our sins, is to bring about the same change in us. We are sent as disciples of Jesus, back into our daily callings, with a new sense of purpose and action. Our hearts and hands are to become God’s instruments in bearing good fruit. And that can look surprisingly ordinary—doing your job with duty and integrity, instead of for selfish and personal gain.
For this, John was sent on his spiritual bulldozing mission—leveling mountains and filling in gorges. To prepare the way of the Lord Jesus. Because on the level path cleared by repentance, Jesus enters into receptive hearts, and He works a life-giving change. Fruit doesn’t grow from dead trees. Dry branches don’t become fruitful by hanging fruit baskets from them. They become fruitful by having the life-giving sap, water, and nutrients running from root to branch. And Jesus very clearly tells us in John 15, that He is the Vine, and that we are the branches, and that we cannot bear fruit unless we abide in Him. He is the Living Water, the nourishment and source of life for all His fruitful branches. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. But in Him, we can bear abundant fruit—and He will even prune and trim us to bear fruit more abundantly. But dead branches that don’t remain in Him are thrown away, they wither and are burned in the fire. Jesus desires a living faith, that bears fruit because we are joined to Him.
Baptism is still the Holy Spirit’s tool, to join, to unite us to Jesus Christ, so that we bear abundant fruit. It’s also the means by which He drowns our old sinful desires by repentance, and crucifies it with Jesus Christ, and raises us up to walk in forgiveness and newness of life. God still works for you and in you, in your baptism, so that you might die and rise anew with Jesus Christ. Though John the Baptist has long since joined the heavenly crowd of martyrs, the prophet’s ministry of clearing the pathways of our heart to receive Jesus, is every bit as alive and well, as the Holy Spirit humbles us, convicts us of sin, and gives Jesus entrance to our hearts. And Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our forgiveness on the cross, is actively delivering His forgiveness to all who confess their sins to Him. And Jesus is at work in your life, to bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
Consider your position in life—are you a father, mother, son, daughter, student, teacher, nurse, analyst, farmer, clerk, or businessman? Are you a church leader or a volunteer? A citizen or a ruler? An aunt, a grandparent, or a concerned friend? What responsibilities and relationship have you been given in life? How is Jesus at work bearing fruit in your life, to live in these callings faithfully, honestly, and with integrity? Whom has Jesus given you to love and serve? In baptism, God calls us to serve Him faithfully in all good and honest occupations, responsibilities and relationships. And as often as we daily sin and fall short, so often do we repent and turn back to Jesus. Because in Him, we will bear much fruit.
Jesus stood under judgment, to bear our sins, and to make our Christian calling a joyous one of faithful and free service. Jesus lived the righteous life that is approved by God, and He gave His life, so that as He enters our hearts, all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The salvation of God came when Jesus bore all sin on the cross, and rose from the dead in victory. Salvation is Jesus’ costly rescue, given freely to you. We can truly be thankful for the outcome of His rescue—for though the bulldozing of our hearts to lead us to repentance may be painful, Jesus promises to bear much good fruit in our branches, as we remain in Him. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Luke 3:1-2 sets down the historical circumstances and date of John the Baptist’s start of ministry. Why is it important to have this reference to well-known historical figures of that era? What does it show about the events of the Gospel? In comparison to the people named in verse 1-2, how does John the Baptist measure up? Yet to whom did God send His Word, and to begin the proclamation of the kingdom of God?
2.      John the Baptist came fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:3-5). What does the preparation of highways and paths, mountains and valleys mean? Is this talking about “earth-moving” or something spiritual? (Luke 3:3; 7-14).
3.      What was John’s baptism for? Luke 3:3. What revealed that not all who came to be baptized were sincere? Vs. 7-8. What is the proper approach to baptism?
4.      John is asked for specific advice about how to “bear fruits of repentance” by the crowds, the tax collectors, and soldiers. What is the basic theme of his answers? How are they supposed to live and work?
5.      How do our jobs or callings give us an opportunity to obey our greater calling to love God and serve our neighbor? How is being a tax collector or soldier, a way to faithfully serve God? What are the various ways God has given you to serve Him and your neighbor?
6.      What is the importance of honesty and integrity in your work? Where are there temptations to abuse your power or go beyond what is your responsibility to do? What does John’s answer teach about contentment?
7.      John prepared the way for Jesus. What does Jesus accomplish for baptized sinners? What does He accomplish as He enters the “level roads” prepared in our hearts by humility and repentance?

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