"Decision Time"
Scripture - Luke 3:7-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, December 14, 2014

My sixth grade science teacher, Mr. Smith, was by far my oldest teacher. He was ancient - probably around 50 years old. To a sixth grader, he was nearing the age of Methuselah!

Occasionally, Mr. Smith would show a film. YOUNG PEOPLE: this was before YouTube, before DVDs and before videotapes. These were old black-and-white films on large reels that ran through projectors that were so noisy, in order to hear the commentary, you had to crank up the volume to the decibel level of a jack hammer.

I do not know who created those films, but I suspect they were produced by people who hated science and hated sixth graders. These lackluster films were a thinly disguised form of abuse. They were dull and plodding and lacking any hint of thrilling discoveries. We had to muster a Herculean effort just to stay awake, much less learn anything.

Looking back, I feel sorry for Mr. Smith. When these dreadfully boring films finally ended, he would flip on the lights start rewinding the film and try to convince us that science was actually a fascinating subject. At that point, it was an impossible task.

However, one day Mr. Smith did something different. Rather than flipping on the lights at the end of the film, he turned a knob on the projector and began running the film in reverse. We loved it!

The liquid that had been carefully poured out of the test tube began flowing up into air and back into the small glass tube. People walked backwards on sidewalks, an enormous pile of rubble quickly reassembled creating a building, a great fire raging out of control retracted as if it were being sucked in, until it became only a small flame. Seeing it in reverse was riveting!

Have you ever wished you could rewind the footage of your life? Have you pondered how your life would be today, if you could return to an earlier time and change something so that your life would turn out differently?

Some regret having chosen the wrong profession. Some wish they would have raised their children differently. Some lament the way they treated their parents. Some kick themselves for pursuing the wrong values for too long.

It might be intriguing to imagine a better today if you had made a different choice yesterday. But you really must stop punishing yourself over a poor choice you made years ago. Instead, focus on the decisions you make today, because these will shape your tomorrow.

Enter John the Baptist. This brash prophet warns us to take stock of who we are and where we are heading. John the Baptist is a "No excuse" kind of character. He is the barrel-chested drill sergeant barking commands to people who cower in his presence. He addresses his audience as "Snakes" and warns them not to whine about a privileged position because Abraham is in their DNA. John threatens that he has his eye on a finely sharpened axe which could quickly turn them into kindling.

In the church today, we have Pentecost Sunday, Trinity Sunday and All Saints' Sunday. We have Sundays of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. But, for John the Baptist, every Sunday is "No Excuse Sunday."

John cries out for people to take account of their lives. He says, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." Empathy is definitely not one of his spiritual gifts.

The job of John the Baptist is to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. His method is to provoke an existential crisis. He wants to jar us into thinking seriously about how we are living.

If John wandered in from the wilderness and preached to us today, can you imagine what he would say? Here is a snippet of what I think he would say: "Stop torturing people or you will lose not only your voice of moral authority, but you will lose your humanity. Stop judging people by the color of their skin. Racism will destroy your system of justice and corrupt your soul. Stop blaming the victims of poverty, rape and oppression, and focus your efforts on justice and mercy."

John would talk to us about repentance, but he would not simply highlight guilt and wrongdoing. He would zoom in on the major changes that need to occur in our lives.

In the Scriptures, we find two chief meanings of the word "repentance." In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often means to turn and go in a different direction. It derives from the experience of nomadic people. As they travel across the arid wilderness, "they reach a point of repentance. This is the point beyond which they will perish if they do not have adequate supplies of food and water to complete their journey. The point of repentance is where they check their supplies. If they have enough, they proceed.

However, if not, they repent, or go in a new direction where they can find new supplies. To repent is to change your direction toward life."1

In the New Testament, the Greek word for repentance is similar. It is not just feeling sorry. It places the accent on going beyond your current way of thinking. It is what the Apostle Paul means when he says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Repentance means to see things "in a new way - not the way shaped by the values of society, but the way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus."2

When John the Baptist preached fire and brimstone to those who came to the Jordan River to hear him, what did those people think? They were riveted by his words. John did not deliver long-winded highbrow sermons. He spoke to their hearts. His words rang like church bells in their souls.

They knew they needed a makeover, so people asked John, "What should we do?" He replied with down-to-earth advice. "If you have two coats, share one of them with the person who has none." If you are a tax collector, do not skim any extra." "If you have authority over others, do not abuse your power."

John's calling was to prepare the way for the Messiah and if we want Christ to come into our lives, John says, "This is how you do it: live an ethical life." For John, an ethical life is not a lofty, abstract concept. It is simple and straightforward. It is how you treat your neighbor. Specifically, John says it is how you use your wealth, how you use your position and how you use your power to help others.

This time of year, many people become anxious about Christmas. We decorate our home so it will be warm and festive. We search through stores and the internet to buy each person the perfect gift. We hope and we pray that the family will get along with each other. We want love to flow between us and we want to experience the joy of deep bonds. It is all part of the beauty of Christmas.

But John reminds us that there is more. If Christ is to enter our lives, we must broaden our horizon beyond our loved ones. That is why it is important to pack Christmas boxes for people we do not know and to contribute to the Christmas offering that empowers people to improve their lives. It is why we support feeding and housing ministries, visit people who are ill or lonely, drive someone to a doctor's appointment, buy a water filter for a family in Guatemala, and bring together Jewish, Christian and Muslim children to make music together.

While many are focused on the coming of Santa, John the Baptist marches into the sanctuary and challenges us to get ready for the coming of Christ by taking a very close look at our lives. Because there is no way to find the babe in Bethlehem without living justly and generously.

NOTES

  1. Mark E. Diehl, "The Unwelcome Advent Guest," December 8, 2013.
  2. Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p.159.