Lesson: Luke 3:7-18
Today is Gaudete Sunday, which is from the Latin to “rejoice.” We are to rejoice and look up because our salvation draweth nigh.
Also today is part two of Yosemite the Baptist’s sermon and it is a scorcher. Not many preachers start their sermons with “You brood of vipers….” But before we write him off as a religious fanatic we need to remember what Jesus said about him. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist….” That is high praise indeed and it certainly gives us reason to heed John’s words.
I think it is important for us to realize that John has not shifted his sermon from a call to repentance last week to a call to social justice this week. Rather this week’s sermon is a continuation of a call to repentance and it instructs us further about the nature of repentance. It shows us that true repentance is far more than simply telling God that we are sorry. In this sermon we can see two realizations a person needs to move them to repentance and then two qualities of a person who is truly repentant.
The first realization that moves us to repentance is when it dawns on us that we have been resting on our laurels. That realization is what the people lacked that John rebuked. It’s not that John did not want them to flee from the wrath to come rather he wanted them to do so God’s way and not their way.
What was their way? They thought that they were right with God simply because they were descendants of Abraham, but salvation does not work that way. Pedigrees don’t work with God because, to paraphrase St. Paul, “all of us are mutts and have fallen short of the glory of God.” If you were to ask me if I was going to heaven and my answer was “Of course, I am priest ordained in apostolic succession” you would have some danger bells go off, right? John had those same bells go off with his crowd.
But it is when by the grace of God you realize that you cannot claim righteousness based on your family or your upbringing or your denomination or your knowledge or even your piety, it is then that you move toward God in repentance.
Dr. James Bryan Smith describes a dangerous false narrative in the Church today and it is believing that what matters is having faith in Jesus rather than an ongoing relationship with Him. This is a dangerous narrative because it is all too easy to end up having faith in your faith rather than abiding in Jesus who is the Vine and apart from whom we can do nothing. We must not rest on our laurels because in reality we don’t have any.
The second realization that moves us toward repentance is awareness, as John puts it, that “the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” We need to be careful here because fear is not a good motive for repentance. The Bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4). But we also must not be naïve and fail to understand that we will be held accountable for what we have done with this life that God has given us.
Remember Jesus’ parable of the talents. It was the guy who was afraid that buried his talent and ended up being rebuked and losing what he had. But the other two guys understood that there would be a day of reckoning and so cognizant of the fact they wisely invested their talents and were able to return to the Master what He gave to them and more. So the realization that there will be a day of reckoning should make us not fearful but wise and lead us to repentance.
Next John describes what a repentant person looks like. They are those who, as he says, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and he illustrates what that means by telling them to share food and clothing with those in need and he tells tax collectors to not collect more than they should and he tells soldiers to not abuse their authority.
I want to come back to his advice but first I want to address this idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance. I have learned that theology that is done in reaction is far more vulnerable to distortion than theology that comes from illumination of the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit. I am thinking of parts of the Continental Reformation that led to what scholars call the Radical Reformation. These guys so reacted against the Roman Catholic Church that they not only threw out the baby with the bathwater, they threw out the bathtub just in case.
In particular they rejected the Sacraments as means of grace and they distorted the idea salvation by faith. They so removed faith from works that they ignored St. James’ admonition in his epistle that faith without works is dead. This thinking took root in parts of Protestantism and so to this day people have a knee jerk reaction against any idea of doing good works, fearing it as some form of works righteousness heresy. But in fact everything that John tells his listeners complies with the teaching of St. James. John is not calling on them to save themselves by doing good works. Rather what he is telling them is very muck like I heard a country preacher say one time, “If you’re saved you ought to act like it.”
You have probably either read the book or seen the play or movie Les Miserables. As you recall, Jean Valjean is the lead character that was sent to prison for stealing bread for his sister’s starving children. After being released he has difficulty finding a place to stay. The local bishop takes him in but Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver is caught by the police. The bishop however tells him that he forgot the silver candlesticks and has him released, treating it as a gift rather than stolen property. The bishop tells Jean Valjean that God has spared his life for a reason and that he is to use the silver to make an honest man of himself. Jean Valjean does so and becomes a very wealthy man who helps the poor and goes on to save several lives including the life of his archenemy, the rigid policeman Jarvet.
Jean Valjean is an icon of how we should live out our faith. We have been forgiven much so we should forgive much. We have been loved so we should love. We have received compassion so we should give compassion. And we do this not out of fear of what God would do to us if we don’t, nor in an attempt to earn spiritual merit badges. We live out our faith in this manner because it flows naturally from a life of gratitude for grace received.
So when the people ask John what they should do, John points out a couple of things that should flow naturally from someone who is repentant. The first is compassion. If you have two coats, share with those who don’t have one. If you have extra food, share it with those who don’t have any. Compassion. I heard a comedian who claimed to be agnostic say, “If you are an atheist, until there are atheist soup kitchens, you just need to shut up.”
Compassion is not just a mark of repentance it is a hallmark of our faith and what a powerful hallmark it is. Wherever Christianity spread it was a natural consequence to build hospitals and orphanages, to visit the prisoner, to care for the widows. Some of the ministries of compassion came at great personal expense. Families had to be left behind and diseases and enemies took the lives of very faithful servants of God. I read of English missionaries to Africa who packed their belongings in their own coffins because they knew that their life expectancy at the time was less than two years.
We are doing some good things here at St. Patrick’s with our care for the Burmese Refugees and Charter Group providing housing for the disabled. We support the local Food Bank and our offerings to Food for the Poor and the Anglican Relief and Development Fund make our help go international. I am grateful for all of these but I also believe that God wants to do even more through us to impact more lives in our community. The Vestry has been praying and trying to discern what else the Lord is calling us to do in His Name. Someone once said that you don’t ask God to bless your programs, you find out what God is doing and join Him. I ask you to pray with us to discern what God is doing and to let us know what you hear.
The other thing to which John calls those who are to bring forth fruit of repentance is integrity. Isn’t it interesting that he spoke to these two groups in particular, to tax collectors and soldiers? Tax collectors were hated because they were seen as agents of Rome and the soldiers were likely Jewish and Gentile mercenaries who also were not on the top of invitation lists to dinner parties. We can tell by John’s answer that the soldiers were even used to extorting money by force. So it is fascinating that John did not tell them to quit their jobs, rather he called on them to act with integrity within their jobs.
I mentioned last week that true repentance involves amendment of life and this call to integrity certainly fits that bill. I read a quote, “Wisdom is knowing the right path to take. Integrity is taking it.” And I would add, “no matter the cost.” As a nation we used to uphold the virtue of honesty such that we had a story of George Washington not telling a lie about the cherry tree. And yet today we no longer have any expectation at all of our leaders being honest with us. They don’t even tell the truth when they appear before their own committees. But we must not allow this loss of integrity in our nation to invade the Church.
Part of our call as people who live in the kingdom of God is to be salt and light. And one way of doing that, as Jesus taught, is to be people of our word. He said that our “yes” needs to be “yes” and our “no” needs to be “no” Integrity is when there does not need to be some external force like a vow or a contract to make it so. We are to have an inner moral compass that is informed by the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and not be driven by feelings and circumstances. When situational ethics is the rule of the day, we are to be led by truth. We cannot accept ever that the ends justify the means. Ex 23:2 says “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong…” and it is integrity that gives us the strength to stand up to the crowd and take the path less traveled.
It is also noteworthy that when compassion and integrity are yoked together that it creates a wonderful balance. Compassion without integrity can end up doing more harm than good. It can be paternalistic, it can be motivated by guilt, and it can enable rather than empower the person that you are trying to help. Compassion without integrity can create some very unhealthy relationships.
But integrity without compassion is also problematic. Back to Les Miserables. This was the problem that Jarvet, the rigid policeman, encountered. He had a very high view of the law but he didn’t have a heart. After Jean Valjean saved Jarvet’s life an untenable conflict arose within him. He knew that he should arrest Jean Valjean for a petty crime done years ago, but it was also obvious that Jean Valjean was a reformed man who, as John the Baptist would say, brought forth the fruit of repentance. This high sense of duty but his lack of compassion resulted in an internal conflict so great that Jarvet killed himself by jumping into the river. Having both integrity and compassion means that we will do the right thing and we do it with love.
I love how this Gospel lesson ends. Even as John points the crowd to Jesus, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire, he paints a picture of Jesus as a harvester with a winnowing fork in his hand, clearing the threshing floor and putting wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire. This is not exactly a picture of Jesus that you want to put in a Sunday School classroom is it? And yet the text says, “So with these and many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.” He starts out by calling them snakes and he ends up talking about burning in an unquenchable fire and yet Luke calls this “good news”. Surely this is another example of how His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.
Perhaps the problem here is that we have not fully understood the Gospel. The modern Church has made the Gospel about being inclusive and having everyone feel accepted or promising that life will be unicorns and rainbows if we have enough faith. And yet St. Matthew and St. Mark both record that Jesus’ first sermon was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This puts Him right in line with John the Baptist does it not?
The Gospel is that the kingdom of God is breaking into human history and we need to repent and get on board. The Gospel is that the King has come and we are being called to align our lives under His rule and will. The Gospel is that He divides the people into two groups, those who are His subjects and those that are in rebellion against Him. We are either wheat or chaff. The Gospel is that through repentance we get on the right side. The Gospel is God telling us what we need to hear and not always what we want to hear. So as harsh as John the Baptist and even Jesus may sound to us we can know that the motive here is the love of the Father who did not spare His only Son for us. It is this love that calls us to repentance. It is this love that calls us to be people of compassion and integrity. It is this love in which we rejoice on this Gaudete Sunday. Amen.