Sunday, December 10, 2006

Is It Worth It?

Second Sunday Advent
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Luke 3:1-20

Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas. Some heavy hitters. And not exactly what we would call Christian rulers. Throughout history pagan rulers have sought glory for themselves, and when a guy in camel’s hair comes on to the scene we might wonder how much of a difference could really be made. Especially when you consider his message. Repentance? Are you kidding me? Live it up. Go for the glory. Indulge. Do what’s good for you. Don’t settle for having to live like you’re in a monastery.

And the talk about sins goes right along with it. Why do we always want to bring up our sins? And that we sin. Who wants to hear a message like that? Is it worth it? Does it make sense to call people’s attention to their sinfulness and need for repentance? We know what happened to those who did to the powers that be: they got thrown into prison or beheaded. So it is worth it?

Is it worth it if it’s going to offend people? If they’ll turn away because you are “judging” them? If they end up feeling worse about themselves than they already do? It is worth it if people will think that you’re being negative, or judgmental, or holier-than-thou?

But John had a call. He had a task laid on him, as Luke says it is written in the Book of Isaiah:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. 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.

John coming into the wilderness proclaiming a Baptism of repentance was fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. John wasn’t spouting off his own opinions. He was proclaiming the very message of God. He was preparing the way for the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

He might have endeared himself to the crowds had he taken some time to schmooze it up. Maybe tell a few jokes, get them in a good mood. Build some rapport with them. But he doesn’t mince any words, he goes straight for the jugular:

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.

Was this worth it? For the crowds to come out to be Baptized by John, only to get blown out of the water by this radical prophet who looked like he might be getting weary of the locusts and wild honey that passed for his daily meals? Was John the Baptist just an over zealous preacher that most people would just as soon not have to endure?

And many people don’t believe it’s worth it. When they are called on the carpet for their lying, gossiping, taking advantage of others, complaining, envy, greed, and any other thing they do that they consider to be nobody else’s business; they say, It’s not worth it. I don’t need this.

But those who recognize that there is truth in what John is proclaiming; who realize that deep in their heart is filth and corruption; that their thoughts are not always pure and inclined toward the good of others—they are convicted. They realize they are brought to account. It may not seem worth it, but they will despair if there is no hope. “What shall we do?” they ask.

He struck a chord with them, so he answers their plea:
“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be Baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Now we might rebel against such restrictions. There are things precious to us that others might consider to be sin but that we look at as harmless characteristics. Why should I give away something that’s mine just because a person isn’t willing to do what he needs to to provide for his needs? Why shouldn’t I be entitled to a little extra as long as it’s not harming anybody? Why shouldn’t I be entitled to more than I’m given when what I have isn’t enough? Everybody fudges. Nobody’s perfect. Who are you to tell me that what I’m doing is wrong and I have to live differently, when you are imperfect yourself? And as far as that goes, is it really worth it to try to make all those changes when we know we can never be good enough or try hard enough?

It’s true we can’t achieve perfection. We can’t be who God wants us to be. But we need to look at the proclamation of John for what it is: it is the message of God to people who are sinners in need of salvation. We must live this way. We have no choice. Do you think you can be a Christian and live any old way you want? Do you think that you can continue to sin just by rationalizing it away, that God is merciful and will forgive you and so you can go ahead and do it? We must treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We must be a servant to others. No, we can’t be a Christian and live as though we are not a Christian.

But is this where we’re left? Is this the great message God sent His prophet John to proclaim? You must do this and you must not do that. Is that all there is? Yes, that is the answer to “What must we do?” But there is more. Not more for us to do. More to the story. John doesn’t leave them in this state of moralism, that as long as they’re good boys and girls God will be pleased with them.

As much as we need to hear this, what we must do and not do, that always ends up leaving us falling short. So while we should try to do better—love people selflessly, give of our money and possessions rather than seek more for ourselves, speak well of people rather than complaining about their deficiencies—at the same time we will find that we will continue to fall short of God’s holy expectations.

This ultimately brings us to the question of salvation. But not just being saved. Having new life and living that new life. In other words, living in the way described, as God desires for us to live. Where will we find our help and hope for salvation and in how we should live as a Christian? Our Savior. Is it any wonder that as John was preaching to them that “the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ”?

Salvation, and also our godly living, are always found in Jesus Christ. So John answered them:
I Baptize you with water, but He Who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of Whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
At first blush we might be tempted to say to this, is this worth it? That doesn’t sound like salvation at all, but severe judgment. And it is that. For the one who loves his life more than the Lord, he will receive not salvation but eternal judgment.

But notice what John points us to when he points the way to the Savior: His Baptism. It is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is new life and in order for new life to come into being the old must be done away with. He separates the chaff from the wheat. For the chaff this is judgment. For the wheat, sweet Gospel.

Is it worth it, to rely on something like that, our being Baptized? Is it worth it to strip off all notions that we must somehow build up ourselves in order to please God? To go against the grain and believe that God’s mighty power of repentance, of our lives being turned around, from self-centeredness to selflessness, is found in something as simple as Baptism?

It doesn’t seem so. It really doesn’t seem worth it to rely on something so simple. We think that there has to be more, that it can’t be that simple. But it is worth it. We know this because the Baptism that Christ Baptizes us with is the Baptism in which He gives us Himself. Him giving us Himself means all that is entailed in what He has accomplished for us. When He was led to the cross, do you think He wondered whether it was worth it? Certainly the temptation came His way.

But He kept His focus on the cross. He kept His focus on you and me and every sinner. It was more worth it for Him than we can ever imagine because He came not simply to point out our wretched state, but to save us from it. The price we have been bought with is greater than all the gold or silver in the world. It is the very blood of Christ, shed for you. To Him, you are worth it. Amen.

No comments: