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a sermon based on Luke 3:7-18
by Rev. Rick Thompson

      And so John the Baptist "proclaimed the good news to the people."

      "Brood of snakes!" Eugene Peterson translates part of John's message.  "What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskin is going to deflect God's judgment?  It's your life that must change, not your skin!"

     Good news?

     It doesn't matter what we've done in the past-how long we've been a church member, how much we gave last year, what we did to serve God yesterday.  Because, after all, God can raise up children of Abraham from stones in the desert.  What God is interested in is how we are living out our relationship with God right now!

     Good news?

     "Change your lives!" John thunders.  Share what you have.  Stop cheating and taking advantage of others.  Be fair and just in all your dealings-even if "everyone else is doing it" the old way.[i]

     Good news?

     A powerful one coming.  Coming with fire.  Bringing God's judgment.  With his axe already poised to chop down the tree of your life. 

     Good news?

     It sounds more like old-fashioned fire and brimstone preaching than good news.  Get your life in order-or else!-John seems to be saying. 

     Where's the good news?

     Yet Luke tells us there were crowds of people coming out to hear John preach in the wilderness.  And Luke tells us that the people were excited.  They were "full of expectation".  Something new seemed to be happening!  Like children counting down the days to Christmas, and getting more excited as the day draws near, people sensed there was something in the air!  God seemed to be doing SOMETHING!  What WAS it? 

      Was John some kind of prophet?  He sounded like one of the prophets of old, with his call to repentance and his warning of coming judgment.  How long had it been-how many centuries-since they'd heard a prophetic voice?  Something was going on here!

     They even began to wonder: Could John BE the one they were waiting for?  Could JOHN be God's Messiah, the one who would deliver them from all their enemies and bring them the elusive kingdom of justice and peace?


     John speaks again.  "It's not about me!" he wants them to know.  (He's already been described as "a voice in the wilderness"-not the Messiah himself!)  John is just a messenger, and makes it clear that his role is secondary.  "I baptize you with water," he declares, "but One is coming who will baptized you with fire, with the Holy Spirit!  He is bringing God's judgment.  His axe is already ready.  He's like a lumberjack, poised and ready to chop.   And, unless you repent, he will do just that!  He's like a farmer, separating wheat from chaff, ready to burn the chaff, burn what's useless.  And, unless you repent, he will do just that to you! "

     Good news?

     What is John expecting?  Clearly, something is in the air-something big!-and the people are full of expectation for good reason!  Surely, God is up to something!

     "Yes, God is up to something!" John announces.  "Messiah is coming!  I'm not Messiah, but Messiah is coming!  And, when he does, God is going to make things right.  So wake up, and get ready!"

     John wants people to know that Messiah is coming.  John wants people to know that, when Messiah comes, there will be change-dramatic, overwhelming change.  John wants people to know that Jesus is going to shake things up; but it will be good, because it's a shaking –up that comes from God!

     In C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia books-now also being produced as movies-the central character is a powerful and mysterious lion named Aslan.  Clearly Aslan is intended to be a Christ figure.

     Four human siblings are magically transported from earth to the kingdom of Narnia, where Aslan rules.  One by one, the four children are invited and challenged to follow Aslan.  Early on, two of them become Aslan's followers.  The others aren't so sure about it all, and one of them asks a sibling, "Why should we follow Asan?  Is he safe?" 

     And the reply comes, "No, Aslan's not safe-but he's good!"

     Doesn't the preaching of John the Baptist tell us the same thing about Jesus-he's not safe-but he is good!"

     Is that what you're expecting this Advent?  Are you expecting Jesus?  Are you just expecting Jesus to wave a magic wand and make everything right?  Or are you expecting Jesus to shake things up-to change the world, maybe even change you? 

     John makes it clear that Jesus is going to make some changes-and those changes will begin with us.  Because, like Aslan, Jesus is good-but he's not safe!  Especially for those who are complacent, those who rest on our laurels, those do not take seriously the call to repentance-Jesus is NOT safe!

     "What should we do?" the people plead with John, after he announces it's time to repent. 

     And here's where it gets dangerous:  "You might have to change your lives!" John responds.  Share with others.  Treat others fairly.  Don't exploit them.  Don't take advantage of them.  Be content with what you have.

     Not safe-but good.

     Good, because it's a change that will make goodness possible in us.  God is doing something new, and it will be good-but the old has got to go!

     In the old movie The High and the Mighty, a plane is over the ocean when the pilot announces, "There is a problem.  We cannot correct it.  We are not going to make it.  I want you to know, so you can prepare for the inevitable."

    An elegantly dressed woman begins to remove the diamond broach from her neck, and a large, expensive right from her finger.  She peels off her false eyelashes, and takes off her make-up-revealing an old scar on her forehead, previously hidden by the make-up.  She is preparing herself for the end, and will go there as she really is.

     Unexpectedly-but, of course, this is a movie-the flight is saved, and lands at the airport.  But the woman has changed.  She had an opportunity to be honest about herself, and she took it. [ii]

     That's how it is with repentance.  That's how it is when we expect Jesus to come.  We're invited to be honest about ourselves.  We're warned that he comes in judgment.  But we're also told that his ultimate purpose is to forgive our sins, to save us, and to heal the creation.

     No, he's not safe.  But, yes, Jesus is good!

     That's why preacher and Bible scholar Fred Craddock says of John's preaching, "When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is good news.  The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff."

     Not safe, but good.

     And that's why preacher and author Walt Wangerin tells the story of a dream he once had.

     "In my dream, a friend was coming to see me, and I was excited!  I didn't know who the friend was…but the anticipation and certainty of my friend's coming occupied me.

     "As the time of arrival drew nearer and nearer, my excitement increased.  I felt more and more like a child….Laughter fell from me like rain.  I wanted to stand on the porch and bellow to the neighborhood, 'My friend is coming!'  Joy became a sort of swelling in my chest, and all my flesh began to tingle.

     "A wild kind of music attended my waiting.  And the closer my friend came, the more exquisite grew the music-high violins rising higher by the sweetest, tightest, most piercing dissonance, reaching for, weeping for, the final resolve of his appearing.

     "And when the music had ascended to nearly impossible chords of wailing little noises…and when excitement had squeezed the breath from my lungs, I started to cry.

     "And my friend came….then I put my hands to my cheeks and cried and laughed at once.

     "He was looking directly at me, with affection-and I grew so strong within his gaze.  And I knew at once who it was.

     "It was Jesus."[iii]

     Is that what you're expecting this Christmas-Jesus?  Jesus, not safe, but good?  Jesus, the one who comes in judgment?  Jesus, the one whose ultimate purpose is to save the world and forgive sins?

     There's some sort of excitement in the air.  People seem full of expectation.

     And what are we expecting?  What are we waiting for?  Are we waiting for Jesus?


[i] The Message.

[ii] Source unknown.

[iii] Wangerin, Walter in Eifrig, ed., "Waiting for a Friend to Arrive," Measuring the Days: Daily Reflections with Walter Wanterin, Jr., pp. 326-7.