Advent 3C, December 17, 2006 Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
As we meet John the Baptist in today's gospel, we can hear echoes of an earlier prophet. John sounds surprised by the size of the crowds which were flocking to the banks of the Jordan River and almost disappointed by their repentance. You may remember how Jonah preached “Repent!” to the wicked city of Nineveh and then took a seat on a nearby hill so he would have a good view of the heavenly fireworks that would burn that great city to the ground. When the people did repent and God spared them, Jonah was mighty disappointed. Listen again to how John greeted the crowd: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Of course it was John himself who had warned them. He had exposed their sins. He had been warning the guilty to avoid God's wrath, but he expected to be ignored-- just as the former prophets had been. However, his speeches of fire and brimstone disturbed the self-satisfied. They recognized the truth in John's words. Many had been content to live as they pleased with an occasional sacrifice in the Temple to make sure God wasn't too angry at them. John showed them the error of their ways—Temple sacrifices were not get out of jail free cards that allowed a person to ignore God's commandments. God wanted them to treat one another honestly and compassionately. God expected right conduct on a daily basis.
So, day after day the crowds came to see this prophet down by the river. They listened and they asked questions. After many were baptized, they went home and told their friends. “Have you heard about that John fellow down by the Jordan? He scared me, but he makes a lot of sense. He says that soon God is going to settle the score with all the greedy cheats and thieves who don't shape up. He told the tax collectors to stop overcharging. He told the rich to share with the poor. He even told me to stop putting my thumb on the scale when customers buy at my shop. Maybe you ought to go down there too. I know you are no better than I am.” And the crowds continued to come.
As we look around our communities today, we do not see crowds gathered around a prophet down by the Delaware. Most of the crowds this week will be gathered in the parking lots, aisles and checkout lines of countless stores who preach a different sort of guilt than John did. They suggest that all the wrong things you have done and all the people you have neglected -- all can be forgiven and forgotten IF you spend enough money and IF you buy the products offered in their store. Commercials have implied that although a few experiences may be priceless, for the rest of life Mastercard is there to grease the way. Show the depth of your love by the size of the debt you carry into February, March and beyond.
But there are other crowds and other voices this week. Christmas pageants, cantatas and Christmas eve services will fill these pews and the pews in many other churches. Some people will travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to return to a home, a family and often a church family to maintain a tradition. They want to preserve a golden moment of peace on earth which they remember. And woe to anyone who dares change the sacred rituals of Christmas eve which were commanded by Jesus himself. “It's just the way I remember it” is the highest possible praise for some that night. For almost all of us it is a chance to return for just a moment to a time of innocence or simplicity, a place where we were cared for and where we can forget the problems and struggles of our normal day. For an hour or two we can imagine the possibility of peace on earth. For a week or two or three we can witness an outpouring of generosity toward the poor and the stranger in our midst. For a week or two the homeless are fed, shivering children are clothed, needy tots receive toys and strangers smile as they pass one another. That's what God wants, isn't it?
Looking back at Luke's gospel, we see that John's instructions for ethical behavior don't end the passage. People still have questions and John denies having all the answers—but on one point he is crystal clear: he is NOT the Messiah. Another is coming, someone more powerful, someone whose authority and baptism are fundamentally different from John's. John baptized with water, but the one to come would baptize with the Spirit and with fire.To help understand the difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus, I invite you to look at this glass. Over time this glass can become dirty in many ways—fingerprints, dried milk, lipstick, even hard water deposits. It might be used to scoop potting soil or dog food. It could become so filthy that it was no longer transparent and would certainly be unfit for its intended purpose. But water is capable of dissolving and removing most types of dirt. Water can restore this glass to its original condition and prepare it to be used again as its designer intended. The effects on people of John's baptism with water were similar to water's effect on this glass. The people who came to the Jordan to see John returned home to their former lives. Through his baptism their repentance was recognized, their sins were forgiven. Their guilt and shame were washed away. Their relationships with God and neighbor were restored. The tax collector returned to collect the proper tax amount. Soldiers returned to their assigned duties, not to extortion, bribery and thuggery. Common people returned to their common ordinary lives.
Now let us consider the effects of fire on this glass. A hot enough flame will cause this glass to melt, to become partially liquid. In that condition it can be molded---reshaped---transformed. A drinking glass could come out of the fire and be changed into a bud vase or a candy dish or a glass chalice. A new shape leads to new function, new purpose. And during that process many dirt particles and other impurities are destroyed and removed from the glass just as completely as the water had done. The baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and fire can certainly cleanse our lives from the sins and impurities we accumulate as we live our lives. But that baptism can do so much more. That baptism transformed simple first century fisherman and tax collectors into apostles and evangelists. That baptism continues to transform each of us throughout our lives. That baptism of fire can lead us into ways of ministry that we never expected. Just ask our church school coordinator or our Children's Chapel teacher or the cabaret singer in Sitgreaves coffeehouse or the sewer of the St. Nicholas bags if they imagined such a ministry for themselves. For that matter, ask yourself if you imagined your current ministry and ask whether you can believe a new ministry might lie in your future. By changing each of us, that baptism molds and reshapes this parish to prepare it for the future to which God calls it.
In this Advent season we see the Light of the World drawing near to us. It is easy to doubt its power. It is easy to be skeptical like John and think the world and the people in it will never change—that we cannot change. It is tempting to hold on to the status quo. But God has a better idea. He sent his Son to show us the way. Let us welcome the light, let be open to the Spirit. Let us face God's fire without fear. Let us trust that he will shape each of us in the months ahead so we are well suited to the form of service that awaits us. Let us be alert to the all the opportunities for ministry God places before us. Let us sing aloud and rejoice, for the Lord our God is in our midst, and he will renew us in his love. Amen.