Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-20 - December 10, 2006

In the Name of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
1. Advent is a season of ...... what? Our old nature has quite a different answer than our new, Christ-like nature when it comes to answering that question. Even for those who consider themselves Christians Advent is the object of more and more apathy. "Why do we have these restrained weeks before Christmas? Why can't we just get on with the fun and merry-making?" The temptation for any one of us is to give in to the world's approach to December 25th.
2. And what is the world's understanding of the next two weeks? Basically, it's "fourteen more shopping days before Christmas." Hurry and feast and celebrate and consume until the credit cards just can't take any more! The world has made Christmas "Gift-mas," and it's all beginning way before the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. (Just think of the first days you started hearing "Deck the Halls" and see the Christmas displays in the stores this year.) It is weeks and weeks and weeks of buying and selling and empty promises with the stolen tunes from the Church's Christmas hymns to hawk everything from kitchen blenders to snow tires.
3. Advent is such an odd season of the church year because it's prophet is so odd. If the three wise men are the poster-boys for the Epiphany season that immediately follows the 12 days of Christmas, John the Baptist has been ordained to be the official spokesperson for the weeks leading up to Jesus' birth.
4. The most strange and neglected guy of the entire Advent/Christmas season? John. If we took the baby Jesus out of the nativity set or the stained glass window, someone would call the police, but if we took John the Baptist out of the nativity set, no one would notice. John the Baptist has been orphaned. He's not on any Christmas card. He's not included on anyone's front lawn or roof. John the Baptist is not depicted on any of our tree ornaments. He's not part of any of our Christmas plays or Hallmark holiday specials. Burl Ives never donned a camel hair garment and ate locusts and wild honey for any of his Christmas specials, and Andy Williams never dressed up like John the Baptist to sing, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
5. John was such an odd duck because he had one foot in the Old Testament and one foot in the New. Jesus himself acknowledged John as a prophet in the line of the Old Testament prophets that were sent before him. But something was different about John. He was called the fulfillment of not only the ministry of Elijah but the fulfillment of all the prophets -- the greatest of those given the honor of pointing God's people to the One that would surely come and take away their sins, the sting of Satan's accusations, and give the promise of the resurrection of the dead and life eternal in heaven.
6. Advent is such an odd season because it's message is so odd.
"A voice in the wilderness, crying (out)." But what is he crying out? It's something very different than "Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry." Everyone wants the Christian Church and its pastors to be more prophetic these days, but what should they cry out as prophets? "The word of the Lord came ..." It came to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel and then John. The message: God will come to condemn all doubt and rebellion and give the gift of faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of his one-and-only Son. The last of the prophets cries out: "Allow God to prepare you for his unexpected coming! Allow him to create and sustain faith in Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension in your place."
7. Being prepared for something to come can be a good thing. In a world of instant gratification, waiting for anything has become a curse. "Dear God: I want patience -- and I want it now." It all began when we began asking our parents if we could open just one present before Christmas Day. We knew that if they'd give in to the opening of one gift, we had 'em right where we wanted them. Learning how to wait went all down the drain from there on out -- and our inner child has never looked back. The gap between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New is a time of waiting for the forerunner of the Messiah. The last chapter of the Old Testament (Malachi 3) and the first verses of Luke 3 have the same object and the purpose.
8. Christmas Fire and Christmas Flood and the Great, Redeeming Exchange. There's fire and flood in preparation for the coming of the Savior. John the Baptist announces that the saving Kingdom of God will come with water and with fire. It will come with the faithful heeding the cry for repentance and cleansing; it will come with the unbelieving receiving the same judgment as the unbelievers in Noah's day, with water and the fire of God's wrath. But for all who say amen to the call of this roughly-clad, locust and honey eating prophet, a great exchange awaits. The fire reserved for them is exchanged for another fire that purifies and makes us acceptable before a holy and righteous God. For it is this child, whose birth is proclaimed by the prophets, that takes upon himself the fire and hell of an entire rebel race. Through his baptism by water and his baptism by blood, Jesus brings peace and joy to Christmas Day through, of all things, his Cross. December 25th is the feast of God coming in human flesh to pour out his own life-blood in order to make an everlasting satisfaction for every one of our sins.
9. John's cry is God's cry -- and God's cry is Jesus' cry and the cry of his Church. "The Redeeming Savior is near! He is coming soon! His road-straightening work in our hearts brings forth the fruits of faith: repentance, expectation, alertness and joy. We are given the privilege of being voices announcing in the wilderness within our families, within our workplaces, within our neighborhoods: "Allow God to do his prepatory work in your heart through his life-changing Word. Repent. Turn back to God and his gracious Word with water. Turn back to God and his merciful Word in, with, and under bread and wine. In repentance and faith, return to the Lord and receive forgiveness. Be prepared for the coming of the Christ child, born to save." This is the message all year long at services and in Bible studies and in Sunday School -- and even Christmas concerts.
10. The world's version of Christmas will continue to be: a big birthday party for Jesus. It's all been twisted into a holiday that revolves around the shepherds bringing cake and ice cream and the wise men bringing gift cards, while balloon-bearing angels sing "Happy Birthday Jesus." This is why there's no place for John the Baptist two weeks before the Feast of the Incarnation. As far as the world's concerned, there's not only no room in the inn for Jesus, but no room in the Christmas season for the one God has sent to get us ready for the Christ child and all the gracious gifts he brings.
11. But if there's no John, there may very well be no Jesus. John the Baptist and his cry is more indispensable to Christmas morning than any tree or eggnog or mistletoe or yule log (whatever that is). How did we ever think that the baby Jesus would come without a proper introduction? Christ deserves an introduction commensurate with the greatness of his person and the work he has come to accomplish.
12. Whoever rejected the divine work of John the Baptist rejected the work of the One he came to announce. Not everyone went out to the Jordan to submit to the Word of God announced by John. "Repent and allow God to cleanse you in preparation for the advent of his Son!" Some thought they didn't need to repent and be cleansed. Some were doing just fine without John (or Jesus). "I'm already God's child. I'm a leader of God's people. I've racked up numerous points by doing so much for God's church. And I have a Bible displayed on my coffee table and my great-great grandfather on my mother's side was a Lutheran pastor in Copenhagen. And, besides, I memorized something from Luther's Small Catechism when I was fifteen.
13. We don't know just what to do with John the Baptist. We don't mind hearing about him one Sunday of the Church Year, but we don't think we'd be very comfortable if he suddenly came and sat next to us in the pew. We wouldn't mind getting a Christmas card from him (after going over it with a disinfectant wipe) but what would we do if he suddenly showed up for Christmas dinner? John is about the most misunderstood and under-understood person in the entire season of Advent and Christmas. And the danger is: as goes the introducer, so goes the greater one who is being introduced. That's the way it was with John and all the prophets. Because they were called to be bearers of the Word of God, they were mishandled and mistreated and wound up sawn in half and stoned and dropped in cisterns in the ground and left for dead. John was silenced because he looked for the One to come. We don't know just what to do with John the Baptist -- but God does. He sent him to get us ready for our redemption and the wold's redemption.
14. John the Baptist heralded the Incarnation. Pastor Harold Seinkbeil tells the story of a little girl was jarred awake suddenly one night by loud crashes of thunder and the bright flashes of the accompanying lightning. She cried out for her father, who came into her room several times to comfort her, only to hear her call out again as the thunder drew closer. "Don't you know God is with you?" he asked her. "Yes, Daddy, I know that God is with me," the little girl replied. "But I'd rather have someone with skin on." John the Baptist announced someone coming after him who was not only mightier than a thunderstorm, but someone who had skin on. Taking our human flesh, Christ has come to embrace our sin and death and all the consequences of our rebellion. He is Immanuel: God with us. He knows our distress and carries all our sorrows. He comes among us in his Gospel preached and his Sacraments administered -- to silence troubled hearts and grant us peace.
15. And with John the Baptist and all the prophets we pray in these strange days of Advent: "Stir up our hearts, O Lord, and make ready the way of your coming Son, even Jesus Christ."

It's Not Easy Being a Christmas Tree

Kermit the frog is not the only one who quickly found out that it's not easy being green. I'm a standout among trees just for that very reason. While other trees have lost their leaves and meet the winter winds completely exposed, I'm most often referred to as an evergreen. That's a position of honor, but that's why, weeks before December 25th, the woodsmen sneak up and chop me down and leave behind the seemingly mighty (but dead-looking) oak.
They just jump out of nowhere and start sawing your roots off. No apologies, no anesthesia. And that's only the beginning. After the chopping work is complete, it's a real drag -- all the way to the bailing machine, where they feed me in trunk first, wind up all my branches with bailing twine and they shoot me through to the next humiliating station: where I'm either drilled at the now bleeding base of my trunk, or nailed with wooden slats that will later keep me from completely tipping over.
Now that the prisoner is completely immobilized and unable to put up any kind of resistance, next they throw you either on the top of a car or on the flatbed of a truck to begin a journey to who-knows-where. And as your taking a final look at the little neighborhood where you grew up from a little seedling, you know deep in the heart of your trunk that you'll never see the likes of your own home again.
The next thing I remember after coming out of a fairly comatose state is having fake snow sprayed all over me and a screw twisted into my trunk immediately followed by a bath into hot water. You wouldn't believe what they put into that hot water either: everything from aspirin to brown sugar to mineral oil. Just think what that does to your system! Then comes the chopping off of my top. Inevitably, whoever purchases me remembers the height of their ceiling to be a half a foot higher than it really is. The result? I get my top chopped off. How humiliating. All this is to prepare me for the strings of lights applied to me with pinching clips and the itchiest tinsel you can imagine. And the end result of all this torture? My needles dry out, fall off, and then I'm quickly carted off to the nearest dumpster. The end. Take my word for it. You put up with a lot of stuff if you're a Christmas tree.
But, you know what? Despite all the sacrifice and suffering, it's actually kind of good to be a Christmas tree.
People give me the best place in their homes, in the heart of their living room because I hold gifts freely given and freely received with thanksgiving. Gracious gifts, even for those who have been less than perfect that year, even for those who have been downright bad that year.
I'm allowed to be a constant reminder during the Christmas season that there is one great Christmas Gift that all others point to: the Gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. As my branches point all to heaven, I remind people of the place that Christ left to live a life of humiliation in our place. It is our Savior who left all the glories of heaven to be surprised and arrested, tied up and put on trial, only to be nailed to pieces of wood and displayed to an entire world on Good Friday. It was his head that was laid low with not only a crown of thorns but with the weight of our sins. He was covered with the rebellion of all fallen children of Adam and Eve, and by his suffering and death we are covered with the white brightness of his righteousness. The water that helps keep me green and alive reminds people of the saving waters of Holy Baptism that gives the promise of eternal life to all who would receive it with the empty hands of faith.
Whenever I think about how tough it is being a Christmas tree, I remind myself about how much tougher it is being the Christ Child, the only-begotten Son of God who lived and died and was raised up again to redeem you. He did everything, gave everything, suffered everything, put up with everything, that you might sing God's praises, not only on Christmas Day, but forever in heaven.
It's tough being a Christmas tree, but, now that I think of it, I wouldn't change that for anything.