Shaking the Foundations

A Sermon for 13 December 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent

A reading from the gospel of Luke 3:7-18. Listen for God’s word to us.

“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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 granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


I wonder if you have anyone in your life like my friend Rita. She’s a dear ole soul and I love her immensely. She’s an amazing listener really and always wants to know the most up-to-date goings on in my life. In some ways she’s like my Tennessee momma, because she’s my parents’ age and has that way of wanting to know all the kinds of things really nurturing mommas want to know. Rita’s great fun! But she’s got this one thing about her that I don’t always appreciate. She knows. Rita, in her own words, loves to slap ya’ up. She never does it literally, just figuratively when she senses you’re wallowing in your own pity party, or caught up in your own stuff, or not quite being the well-mannered person she believes we all need to be. She’s got no problem calling out your foibles – which she does for the sake of love, I know. I like when she wants to slap up others in my life who really need it because of their bad behavior but I never seem to have the guts to do it myself. She always volunteers. I just don’t always appreciate Rita stepping in to slap me up when I might really need it, but certainly don’t want it! She’s like the ever-nurturing mother who suddenly can turn stern to let you know it’s time you change your ways. And off she goes with her good ole’ fashion slapping! Really, do you have anyone in your life like this? Someone who knows you well enough and someone you know who loves you deeply – warts and all – so that they’re able to speak the truth you need to hear now and again when you wander off the path?

Maybe because the lectionary fears not enough of us have Ritas in our lives who will slap us up when necessary, we get John the Baptist each Advent. Crying out in the wilderness to get ready to walk in the ways of the Lord! Sometimes I just can’t believe the way he talked to his listeners and got away with it! “You brood of vipers,” he starts out. Name-calling: children of slithering snakes! . . . These people came to him to be baptized – they wanted to do something and he talks to them like that?! I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it, say if Christmas Eve, one of our favorite worship services of the year, the preacher got up here to tell us all: “You little snakes! Who warned you to flee from a horrible end?” . . . The thing that is absolutely amazing is that they listen! The wildman in the wilderness tells them that nothing they relied upon before is enough and they listen!?! They beg to know what they need to do.

If only it would be that easy. That we could be bullied and terrified into an open stance so that we really would cry out: tell us then what we should do! I mean, we know, don’t we? One commentator writes of our annual Advent visit from John the Baptist that “there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness calling us to repentance. . . . Trying to avoid or sugarcoat John’s words is just not possible. Faithful and fruitful arrival at the manger will be possible only after the careful self-examination and recommitment called for by John” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol, 1; Kathy Beach-Verhey, p. 69). We know we have to make our hearts ready if we want to stand in Bethlehem with any sense of wonder, gratitude, and joy. But as we’re just a dozen shopping days shy of Christmas Eve, who really has the time? Here alone this week we have the Christmas Joy lunch right after this, followed by a session meeting for some of us, and assembling care gifts for our homebound members this afternoon too. Then getting ready for Wednesday’s Christmas cookie exchange, and an end of the year Dinner Club party next Saturday. If you’re in the choir, you’ve got notes to get right for your upcoming pieces next Sunday and Christmas Eve too. And that’s just here! Hopefully you’re almost ready at home! If you don’t have your packages shipped soon, you know delivery by Christmas Eve cannot be guaranteed. And while all of it can be great fun and very meaningful to participate in the wonderful traditions of Christmas in the church and in our individual lives, we’re right here hearing from John the Baptist to change our ways! With his crowds, we might be wondering: “What should we do?” Focus, of course, on the love of God and the love and care of neighbors because nothing else is enough!

It’s Advent, but today John takes us back to our baptisms. He reminds us that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We made promises – or had them made for us as children and confirmed them later for ourselves – that Jesus Christ is the One we follow. He’s all that can save us – not our own efforts to make the most perfect Christmas or any other day of the year. We promised we would turn from the ways of the world (renouncing evil and its power in this world) and turn to the Way of the One who lived simply among us — embracing life as the most precious gift to be savored as we seek connection with God and each other. We promised, in our baptisms and confirmations, that we would “be Christ’s faithful disciples, obeying his Word and showing his love” as The PCSUA Book of Common Worship’s baptismal vows go (1993, p. 407, #1). Which means that even in these final Advent days, we will put first Christ’s call to follow in the footsteps of his self-emptying love for the sake of Life in this world – for the sake of those who experience little love in this world and need the reminder that Light always outshines any darkness. All is well because God-in-flesh has come to dwell with us! And God, in the Holy Spirit will keep on working in us until all that is unfaithful in us is blown away in the same way chaff is parted from the wheat in winnowing to leave the wholesome grain. . . .

Something I read this week suggested we actually include a renewal of our baptismal vows in worship today – not only to satisfy John the Baptist’s insistent instruction, but also to align ourselves more firmly during this time of the year which is ours – which belongs to Christ Jesus our Lord, but has become so incredibly consumed by the societal pressure to buy and sell and get ready to get instead. . . . If we were to do so, I’d go over by this baptismal font and ask you to respond to these questions: “trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting alone in his grace and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” (The PCSUA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 407, #1.) Because especially at this time of the year our families and friends and neighborhoods and countries need to see something else in the midst of these busy holidays. They need to see the kind of generosity we see in the face of a newborn child being swaddled by his willing mother in a cave out back because there was no other place for them. They need to see the kind of awe the angels observed on the faces of simple shepherds who were overcome that they too would have a role to play in the drama of God’s grace. They need to see peace that resides in each one of us because the Light broke into this world that cold, dark night to let us know that God’s final word to us is love: good will; for the favor of God rests upon us all! We need to re-commit ourselves these very days to the vows of our baptisms so that the whole world can see that God’s endeavor to live among us anew was not in vain. Our lives are the proof! . . . What then should we do? Once again, say yes! Say yes! Say yes; then go forth faithfully to love and serve the LORD! Children of the covenant; followers of the Way!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN 2015  (All rights reserved.)

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