The promise of Christmas

Good morning, Friends!

Believe it or not, we are in fact slowly moving in the direction of Christmas!

Every year we read some of the same sections of the Bible during the Christmas season. We read about Mary and Joseph. We read about the birth of Jesus.

Last week, we read about the hopes and dreams people had for generations before Jesus was born. Later this month, we’ll read about how Jesus was born in a stable, because there was no room for him at the inn.

One of the readings we listen to every year may seem like a strange one. We always read about John the Baptist.

And it’s strange because the events in reading we always listen to actually take place many years after Jesus was born.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. His mother Elizabeth was the cousin of Jesus’ mother Mary. So I guess that makes John and Jesus second cousins.

They were born six months apart. There’s a long story in the gospels about how John the Baptist was conceived and born. An angel came to visit his father Zechariah, when he was leading worship in the Temple. Zechariah always wanted to be a daddy, but nothing had happened yet, and he and his wife were getting along up in years.

Long story short – the angel told Zechariah to forget about filing for Social Security. He should sign up for Lamaze classes instead. Zechariah talked back to the angel, and the angel said, “SHUT UP!” The angel said it so loud that Zechariah really did shut up – he couldn’t speak for nine long months, till the baby was born.

So, John and Jesus get born, they grow up, and John gets to be the most famous preacher of his day.

Thousands of people are coming to hear John, and he tells them all about the Savior who’s coming soon.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 3:1-18

John the Baptist is a really interesting character. People liked him, but they were also afraid of him.

They liked him, because he was exciting, and he stood up to people. He told it like it is. He called a spade a spade, no matter who it offended.

But people were afraid of John, because he told them that they had it coming, too.

It says that John came out of the wilderness. Before John started preaching, he spent a lot of time by himself with God, way out in the desert.

He stayed up late, watching the stars. He spent a lot of time praying and listening out there in the deep, endless quiet, listening for God to speak to him in his heart.

John turned his back on human society. He stopped going to the grocery store. He got by on whatever he could find out there in the desert, which it says included eating locusts and wild honey.

The honey part sounds OK to us, but the locusts feel a little creepy.

His clothes got all ragged and worn out. He didn’t look like a priest or a TV preacher. He looked like a wild man, like a street person who’d gone off to live in the desert for a few years.

But when John spoke, you just had to listen.

The reading starts out with a list of all the famous politicians and famous generals who were in power at the time. That’s how people usually kept track of dates back then. The beginning of one administration. The end of another.

But whoever wrote down the gospel was also making a contrast for us to study. On the one hand, you’ve got all these famous kings and governors and generals. On the other hand you’ve got – what? A ragged man from the desert, who’s been listening to God for a while.

Which side are you going to listen to? Whose advice are you going to follow?

Tiberius and Pilate and Herod and all the others have been dead and gone for a long time now. John’s name will live forever. Those other guys had almost unlimited power back in the day. John is the one we remember.

People back then had wise saying – Sic transit gloria mundi. Translated from Latin, it means, “How quickly passes the glory of this world.” It means that kings and politicians – they come and go. The king you grew up with isn’t here any more. The one people cheered for a few years ago, will be gone tomorrow. And the one who takes their place – well, they’ll be gone some day, too. Sic transit gloria mundi.

John said he was the advance man for someone who was coming after him. John said the one coming after him was the Savior, the Messiah who God had promised so long ago.

People listened to John, because he didn’t say, “Well, this is my idea that I just kind of came up with.” He said, “This is the word of the Lord, that came to me during years of prayer!”

John said that his job was the clear the way for Jesus, to prepare people to hear the good news that Jesus was going to bring. John said, “I’m a road builder for God! Stake out the route! Forget the zoning! Bulldoze the mountains! Fill in the valleys! Prepare the way of the Lord!”

John said the preparation has to take place in our hearts and in our lives. The mountains and valleys are the things we do and the things we think and hang on to, which block God and make the pathway crooked instead of straight.

What John promised, and what Jesus taught, was a simple, straightforward path to God, one that even ordinary people could follow. John talked about a royal highway, a magnificent road that kings could ride along.

But he also talked about changing our lives. He told people to share whatever they had. “If you’ve got two coats, and your neighbor has none, then share. If your pantry is full and your neighbor is hungry, then share.”

It says that even corrupt officials were coming to John, and they asked, “What do we need to do?”

John said, “Stop putting your hand in other people’s pockets. Get your face out of the trough.”

Even Roman soldiers came to listen to John – soldiers from the occupying army! They asked, “Teacher, what should we do?”

John said, “Give up violence. Don’t make false accusations. Don’t threaten people. Don’t grind people into the dirt.”

John actually sounds pretty up-to-date, doesn’t he?

John said, “This generation is like a nest full of copperhead snakes! Who are you running from?”

He said, “Don’t try to tell God who your ancestors were. Sure, God made a lot of promises to your ancestors – but God can raise up a whole new generation of people to listen to him. If you don’t listen, then somebody else will for sure!”

Talk about laying it on the line. Talk about telling it like it is. John did not mince words.

He said, “You hear that noise over yonder? You know what that noise is? That’s the sound of a chain saw warming up. You take a look around you. The trees that are good and fruitful, God’s going to keep. The trees that are useless – they’re going to be firewood. You make your choice!”

Just so we’re all clear what John and Jesus were saying, they were talking about the Ten Commandments. But not just the letter of the Ten Commandments. They were talking about the spirit behind them.

Jesus said, “It’s not enough for you to say “Do not kill’. I’m telling you, you need to get the anger and hate out of your hearts. You need to stop insulting people, and respect each other instead. If you call someone a fool or give them the finger, that’s going to come back on you!”

The same with all the other commandments. “Before you pray in church, go and make peace with your brother or sister.”

“It isn’t enough not to sleep with your neighbor’s husband or wife. The scheming is in your heart, long before you ever get into bed with them.”

“Tell the truth because truth is holy. Don’t stretch it. Don’t fake it. Don’t swear by God or by heaven or by the hair on your head. A lie doesn’t turn black, white, or white, black. Every form of evil is founded on lies. So, tell the truth.” [see Matthew chapter 5]

This business of being fruitful is at the heart of what John and Jesus were talking about. Fruit is the evidence that God is really within us.

A fruitful life, a Spirit-filled life, is filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If those things are showing on the outside, then the Spirit for sure is on the inside.

The opposite is also true. The signs of an empty life, a non-Spirit life, are obvious to everyone. Cheating, poisonous behavior, worshiping fake gods, hatred, divisiveness, jealousy, rage, murder, addiction, out-of-control lifestyle.

When you see those – in yourself or anywhere else – the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit is not there. [see Galatians 5:22-24, 19-21)

But John didn’t just scold people. He said we could turn our lives around. And that’s why people loved John. He told them God gives us another chance, an opportunity to change our hearts and our lives.

The outward symbol, for John, was baptism – taking a bath in the River Jordan, which had a tremendous historic importance for Jewish people at that time.

But John said that when Jesus came along, that baptism in water wouldn’t matter any more. Jesus would give us a second chance, too. But Jesus would have us be washed in the Holy Spirit, and our lives would be set on fire.

John was a great man. The greatest preacher of his generation. The greatest prophet the world have ever known up to that time.

But John said, right out front, “The Savior who’s coming after me, is so much greater than me – I’m not worthy to untie his shoes. I’m just the forerunner. I’m just announcing that the Savior is on the way.”

Prepare the way. Make a straight path in your hearts. The Lord is coming!

As we get ready for Christmas, think about all the different ways that different people have responded to the Christmas story – the prophets like John, the people who hoped and prayed, the people who welcomed Jesus and cared for him, the people like us who know the stories and want them to come to life and be fresh in our hearts.

Joy to the world – the Lord is come!

Amen.

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