Monday, December 21, 2015

Sermon on Luke 1:39-45, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Faith is not opposed to waiting"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In today’s Gospel reading, we have two remarkable women, Elizabeth and Mary, waiting with contentment and great joy, for the fulfillment of God’s promises, and for the birth of their two special sons—John the Baptist and Jesus. Advent is a time of waiting, and for us the wait is nearly over, as Christmas comes this Friday. So much of life is filled with waiting. Today we’ll see in our reading what the gift of faith is, and learn how faith is not opposed to waiting. Faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it’s not just a gift for the old and patient (or more patient), but equally the Spirit’s gift for the young and eager.
Young children are often opposed to waiting. Christmas and gift opening has to be NOW—as soon as I see that present! Young adults are often opposed to waiting—wanting to immediately have that thing I want—car, clothing, jewelry, girlfriend or boyfriend, paycheck, graduation. Older adults are often opposed to waiting—the child, the job offer, the house, the upgraded car, the vacation. Regardless of age, we all wait for different things. The waiting is filled with different kinds of emotions, positive or negative, but time seems to pay no attention. Slowly as we age and mature, we may no longer feel the same urgency to rush time—we may even begin to enjoy waiting. But old or young, waiting is an inevitable fact of life.
One pastor shared the story of how excited his children were to plant strawberry seeds, and imagine the lush sweet strawberries they would get to eat. Yet after several days of waiting for the seedling to sprout, and then many weeks of watching the tiny plant grow, still far from maturity, they quickly lost interest. It would take months to get to enjoy the fruit. Consider the time for a Christmas tree to grow from the planting of the seed till it gets to be enjoyed by a family for Christmas. Or consider the 30 years or so that Mary and others would have to wait while Jesus grew and matured. To see what He would do to save the world, and teach the people, and die on the cross on Good Friday, and rise from the dead on Easter, would be a long way away. Given Elizabeth’s advanced age, she may not have lived to see Jesus’ adult ministry at all. And on the day we meet them in our reading, Elizabeth and Mary were still waiting for these two boys to be born—they were still in their mother’s wombs.
But they were not wasted years or wasted time in God’s eyes. The waiting is not opposed to the promise, and faith is not opposed to waiting. Romans 8:24-25 tells us: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Faith and hope both anticipate and look toward unseen realities. They live in the promise and expectation of what is to come. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance and conviction of hope. It’s the confident trust that what is promised will come to pass. While waiting and patience can be so difficult for us, whether because we are young and restless, or old and impatient, the Bible celebrates and praises this confident waiting on the Lord. God commends those who wait for things, and may not even receive them in their natural life time (Heb. 11:39).
So faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to old and young alike. When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and greeted her, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and overflowed with a joyous shout: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Do you see that Elizabeth, and her child John, still in the womb, were filled with the same joy? And if we read back in Luke chapter 1, we see that this leaping for joy of baby John, was because of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit! In Luke 1:15, the Angel Gabriel prophesied of John, that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” The same Spirit, faith, and joy, filled tiny, unborn John, and also filled his aged mother Elizabeth. Old, or still growing in his mother’s womb, they are both vessels of the Holy Spirit and recipients of the Spirit’s gifts.
But the joy and faith that filled them both, was for the same reason—the anticipation of Jesus Christ! With amazing faith, Elizabeth calls Mary, the mother of my Lord! No doubt by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she realized that God’s ancient promises to send a Savior, a Messiah to save the world, were coming true in the virgin conception of Mary. The promised Lord—her Lord, was now growing inside Mary’s womb! And both she, and John in her womb, perceived this with joy, by the Holy Spirit. It’s amazing and wonderful to realize that even in the shelter of the mother’s womb, God can work the miracle of faith, and fill a developing child with the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, should we be amazed that God, who made Adam and Eve in His own image, fully intends for all human beings to be in perfect, pure communion with Him? It is only the terrible fall into sin that had driven a wedge between us and God, and ruined that perfect fellowship. But for the very purpose of restoring that fellowship, God sent His Messiah, Jesus, into the world.
While Elizabeth and Mary were uniquely involved in the unfolding of God’s promise, in a way that we can never duplicate—we are, nevertheless, able to share in the same promise and blessing through faith. When Elizabeth blesses Mary, she first blesses her as a woman, then blesses her son Jesus, who is going to be born—then she closes by blessing Mary for believing in the fulfillment of God’s promise, spoken to her. In other words, Elizabeth blessed her for her faith. Some 30 or so years later, when Jesus was an adult, and teaching the people, an anonymous woman echoes Elizabeth’s words of blessing—and then Jesus completes and elevates the blessing—in a way that is parallel to Elizabeth’s original words. The anonymous woman says of Mary and Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed! But [Jesus] said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Mothering Jesus was a unique blessing, that none of us will share. But discipleship—hearing the word of God and keeping it—is a blessing that we all can share! Believing like Mary, in the word and promise of God, and living with hope and faith, is a blessing we all can share.
Jesus echoed Elizabeth, and both teach us that believing God’s Word and promise is a blessing for us all. God’s promises unfold in time. They are extraordinary, world-changing promises, and they are delivered according to God’s perfect timetable. But unfolding in ordinary human time. With days, weeks, months and years to wait and to pass. Not useless time, or wasted time, but time to be lived in faith, hope, and joy. Time of growth, time to enjoy and celebrate God’s gifts, time to serve God and our neighbor through love and faithfulness in our life. Faith is not opposed to waiting. Faith can celebrate and enjoy the wait.
Hear a few words from the Psalms, that speak of this hopeful waiting: “Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame”… “you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long” (Ps. 25:3,5); “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14); “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (Ps. 38:15); “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning” (Ps. 130:5-6). These verses echo the same truth, that there is blessedness in waiting, in calling out to the Lord in prayer, in waiting for His salvation and in hoping in the word of the Lord. Just like Mary, just like Elizabeth. The delayed anticipation is building to something far greater—toward a great gift and joy—which sustains us during that time of longing.
We already said that Advent and Christmas are about waiting, and how children especially find it hard to wait. But Christmas is most certainly for children—from the children yet born, jumping for joy in the mother’s womb, to the 90+ year-old children, still filled with childlike joy at Christmas. The joy and hope of waiting is part of that gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s God’s gift to you, whether still in the womb, waiting to experience life in the world, or whether life in the world is drawing to its natural close. Wherever and whenever you are waiting, wait for the Lord, and hope in His Word! However young or old you are, you are still a child of God, and Christmas is for you, because Jesus is for you!
Jesus is the object of our faith, hope, joy, and waiting. It all centers and radiates outward from Him. From the joy of Elizabeth at greeting the mother of her Lord, to your joy this Christmas, greeting and celebrating the birthday of our Lord Jesus, to the everyday joy of waiting for His return—Jesus is the object of that joy and faith. He was the promised Lord, sent into the world to redeem us from sin, to heal the terrible damage of sin and death that have so pervasively infected God’s creation. But He comes to heal that divide between God and man, to bring the hope and salvation God had so long promise. And for this, Jesus is our joy. He is the reason that faith is not opposed to waiting, but faith can confidently and eagerly remember what God has done, and look forward to those promises God is still yet to fulfill in Jesus Christ. A blessed wait for all who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to you from the Lord! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The preborn sons of Elizabeth and Mary would change the world. Who were they, and what difference did they make? What was miraculous about the conception of each child? What was different?
2.      In Luke 1:41, the word for “baby” is brephos in the Greek. It’s a word used for a child, either growing in the mother’s womb, or a born infant, still nursing. What happens to John, this preborn child, when Mary greets Elizabeth? How does she describe what is happening? Luke 1:44.
3.      Earlier in Luke 1:15, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, John’s father, that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”. What does this important phrase, along with Luke 1:44, tell us about how God is able to work, even in a preborn child? As far as God is concerned, is an infant, even in the womb, a vessel for His Holy Spirit? Psalm 22:9-10; 71:6. Contrast Psalm 58:3, of the wicked.
4.      Elizabeth blesses Mary, in Luke 1:42-42. What blessings does she speak upon Mary? In verse 45, what is the reason for this great blessing upon Mary?
5.      How does Elizabeth’s blessing compare to the blessing spoken by an anonymous woman in Luke 11:27, and Jesus’ description of a higher blessing in verse 28?
6.      While the unique blessings of childbearing John the Baptist and Jesus were unique to Elizabeth and Mary alone, how do we share in the blessings of their offspring, and the blessings of discipleship (Luke 11:28)? Cf. Genesis 22:18
7.      Why is faith not opposed to waiting? What are the blessings of waiting in faith/hope? Romans 8:24-25; Hebrews 11:1-2, 13, 39-40.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sermon on Philippians 4:4-7, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Calm, Cool, and Collected"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, the theme of the day is “Joy”—marked by the lighting of the pink candle on the wreath, and heard in our Old Testament and Epistle lessons. Joy certainly fits the seasons of Advent and Christmas, as we wait and expect the coming of Jesus. However, many people wonder or fear whether joy can be real, or whether Christians can still have reason to rejoice, when there is so much evil on the loose in this world. The Roman Catholic Pope even made world headlines recently, for preaching after the Paris terror attacks, that this year’s celebration of Christmas would just be a “charade” because of the worldwide war, violence, and hatred that is consuming humanity. Can joy really be authentic and genuine this season, or in the midst of so many troubles, from our world news, down to our national, local, congregational, family, and even personal circumstances? Must the troubles and “bad news” of the world, crowd out the good news and the joy of Advent and Christmas?
Many of us can look back and remember particular years when clouds of fear and grief threatened to overshadow Christmas joy—whether it was something in our personal or family life, or tragedies in the forefront of our national life. The Paris and San Bernadino terror attacks this year, or the Sandy Hook school shooting around Christmas a few years before, or perhaps in the more distant past, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Maybe a loved one died near the holidays. Maybe the holidays were exceptionally lonely because of family strife. A German Lutheran pastor, Herman Sasse, lived through the horrors of World War II, and was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. He said about the place of Christian joy: “We need this joy now more than ever. The world needs it, and Christendom needs it. If ever this joyful news was necessary for the world, then [it is] in our century of great wars and mass death. But how should we, servants of the Gospel, announce this joy to the world if we ourselves do not have it?”
As Christians, who celebrate Advent and Christmas this year, we must believe in a joy that is greater than the sorrows, fears, and sadness of this world. And we do believe in a higher joy, a deeper joy, a more enduring joy than all the things that will continue to assault our Christian joy. We believe in the joy that Jesus gave to His disciples, as He was preparing to die. The joy He said would lift their sorrows when He returned to them. The joy of His resurrection, the joy of His presence and promised Spirit, and the joy of knowing He hears our prayers. This deep, secure, and foundational joy is a gift of Jesus, and goes hand-in-hand with His peace—Jesus told His disciples: “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
There, Jesus said it! His peace, and the Christian’s confidence, is not in the world—which gives us tribulation or suffering—but Jesus’ peace is in Him and His victory over the world. Christian joy flows from the knowledge that however horrendous the headlines may become—however dark the days of tribulation to come may be—those clouds will never cause the Light of God’s SON to stop shining. We must never surrender to despair, or refuse to believe that the SON shines above those clouds, and that the rays of God’s Light will continue to pierce and shatter the darkness of this world. We must always remember that the joy of the Christian is in the Lord Jesus. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Don’t search for that joy in the world—find that joy in the Lord…always! At every time—in times of trouble and in times of quiet.
I mentioned that the joy and the peace of the Lord go hand in hand, as gifts of Jesus. They also make a profound difference in the lives of Christians, and our reading says others should be able to see this. You ever heard of someone described as “calm, cool, and collected?” Maybe someone who just doesn’t “get rattled” or “unnerved” by surprises, difficulties, or challenges. They seem to have it “together”; or are prepared for whatever comes their way. Well most Christians would probably never try to boast about having “it all together”—but is the Christian Paul describes in our reading, “cool, calm, and collected” somehow?
Verse 5 says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” What does it mean that Christians should be known for being “reasonable?” The couple of other places where this word shows up in the NT help us understand. When Paul is speaking about the qualifications of serving in ministry, the same word “reasonableness” gets translated as “gentle.” We should not be violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome (1 Tim. 3:3). In his general instructions for Christians, he says in Titus 3:2 that we should “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people”. In James 3:17, the word shows up again, as James says the “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.” The theme that emerges from these verses is that Christians are to be reasonable and gentle, in contrast to being quarrelsome, rude, or irrational. We should be thoughtful, respectful, and kind. You might say that we should be “calm.” This gentleness and reasonableness is a reflection of our self-control, our speech, and conduct.
How then, should Christian’s be “cool?” Certainly not by imitating the trends of the day—but Christians can be “cool” by not being anxious or worried about anything, as in Paul’s next word of instruction. “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…” Anxiety or worry threatens our trust in God. It’s a nervous temptation to rely on ourselves or our own means to find some control of our circumstances. It’s an uncertainty that God can really handle what’s going on with all the trouble and trials in the world. As common as anxiousness is to us as Christians, so often does God have to tell us to let it go. “Humble yourselves therefore, under God’s mighty hand, so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all you anxieties on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). So often we would like to hang on to our worries and dwell on them, but God calls us to constantly cast them onto Him and let Him care for us. The way for a Christian to be “cool” is to stop worrying about tomorrow, and let God take care of our troubles and concerns.
Now if I can put a twist on the word “collected”—you’ll see how we can be “cool, calm, and collected.” Paul goes on in verse six, to say, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” What does the regular Christian habit of prayer have to do with being “calm, cool, and collected”? In our Sunday bulletin insert, there is always a “collect” or prayer of the day. In prayer, we “collect” our thanksgivings, requests, needs, and praises, and lift them up before God. The “collected” Christian can pull together all the worries, concerns, requests—with thanksgiving, and bring them up to God, who has promised to hear and to care about us.
Our prayers should always rise “with thanksgiving” because, just like the command to “rejoice always”—thanksgiving and joyful praise turn our eyes back, again and again, to God’s blessings. Thanksgiving reminds us of all that we have received from God’s generous hands. It teaches us to count our blessings, especially in times of difficulty or grief or fear, when we may think that our blessings are too few. Praise and thanksgiving remind us to celebrate all that God has done, and to go beyond just the mere physical blessings we have experienced, but also to thank Him for His spiritual gifts and salvation. A “collected” Christian doesn’t necessarily “have it all together”— but they bring all those thanksgivings, prayers, worries and requests before God. And the Holy Spirit lifts up and completes our prayers as we are unable to do, with groanings too deep for words to express (Romans 8:26-27).
Calm, cool, and collected. Does that describe you? Are you known for your reasonableness? For your freedom from worry, or devoted life of prayer? Or does the thought make you shrink in your seat? Perhaps the Holy Spirit has His work cut out for Him? Thanks be to God, that He doesn’t give up on “hard cases” like us! When Paul confessed his own wretched condition before God, and he asked, “who can deliver me from this body of death?”, his answer came back with all the boldness of a true Christian joy and peace: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). A wretched man, or wretched woman is not a lost cause in God’s eyes—they are the very object of Jesus’ rescue and victory! We must turn over our attitude, our worry, and our weakness in prayer to Him.
God is at work in you, through the victory of Jesus Christ. He is creating Christian character in you, not through your own efforts, but through the gift of Jesus’ peace and joy. A joy and a good news that is better and bigger than this bad news world—whether on a global or a personal level. How can that be? Jesus has given us the peace that the world cannot give, when He died on the cross to forgive us our sins. Jesus has taken away our shame before God, so that we may no longer be “wretched”, but can with confidence praise and give thanks for His victory. Jesus has given us His joy, so that we might take heart and know that He has overcome the world. It is the peace and joy of Jesus that shapes and feeds your Christian life, as He transforms you into the reasonable and gentle Christian who others can see turning your worries over to God, and lifting them with thanksgivings up to Him in prayer.
Is it a mystery? Is it something you or even the angels in heaven could explain? Paul ends our reading with these familiar words, that often end our sermons: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” It’s God’s peace, that goes beyond what we can understand or explain—God’s peace that is greater than all this world’s troubles and evils—it is God’s peace that is the guardian of your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus. So know that God’s peace is doing just that—guarding your hearts and minds.  Don’t be anxious about how you can become the Christian who has it “all-together”. Turn it over to God, who has promised to bring to completion the good work He has begun in you. Don’t be anxious about how God’s joy and peace can triumph over the evil of this world—take it on Christ’s own Word that He has already done so, and will bring His victory to completion when He returns on the Last Day. Having let go of all else, receive anew the gift of Jesus’ joy and His peace—He will guard and keep your hearts and minds. He will work His work of transformation in you. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice!” Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      On the 3rd Sunday of Advent, marked by the pink candle on the wreath, we reflect on “Joy.” Philippians 4:4-7 opens with the words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Where or in whom, does this tell us, true Joy is found? When can we find and experience joy?
2.      How is joy deeper and more profound than mere “happiness”? How can we experience joy, even in the midst of trials and crosses? John 16:19-24. What is the relationship between joy and peace? John 16:33.
3.      In Philippians 4:5, Paul says that a quality that Christians should be known by is their “reasonableness.” This same word is sometimes translated “gentleness” and appears in 1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:2, James 3:17. Describe what this quality means, and how it contrasts to negative qualities we should not have.
4.      Philippians 4:6 shows that we should not worry or be anxious, because the Lord is near. How do we commit our worries to God, so they do not burden or discourage us? 1 Peter 5:6-7; Matthew 6:25-34; 11:28-30.
5.      How does “collecting” our thanksgivings and praises to God in prayer help to create Christian joyfulness? How does it refocus our attention from our troubles? Why would neglect of thanksgiving and praise potentially lead us to lose our joyfulness?
6.      When Philippians 4:7 says that the peace of God surpasses all understanding, does that include the understanding of angels as well as mankind? What does 1 Peter 1:10-12 tell us about the curiosity of angels and prophets? What is the joy of confessing the mystery and greatness of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus?
7.      Summarize how joy and peace surround and create the Christian life, and how they come as gifts from God in Christ Jesus.

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?