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John's Tough Love
based on Luke 3:7-18
Rev. Karen A. Goltz

Some children were asked to explain what love is.  The responses were rather interesting and quite instructive for us adults.  One said, "Love is when my mommy makes a cup of coffee for my daddy and takes a little taste before she gives it to him, to make sure it tastes okay."  Another said, "Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you've left him alone all day."  Another response was, "You really shouldn't say, 'I love you' unless you really mean it, but if you mean it you should say it a lot, because people forget."  One boy said, "When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know that your name is safe in their mouth."  And finally seven-year-old Bobby said, "Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

Yes, Christmas is the time when we think a lot about love.   And it's also what motivated John's conversation with the crowds he encountered at the Jordan.  It might not sound much like love, but it is nonetheless, because John knew that to announce the coming of the Savior would take a lot of pointed confrontation about sin, repentance, and the fruit of repentance.  He knew that most people don't want to acknowledge their guilt before one another and before God.  He knew that most of us have a lot to be guilty about, and that we all deserve condemnation for our sins.  And he knew that the only way we can receive the true Savior is to recognize our sin, repent of that sin, and turn to a new life offered by the Lord, who went to the cross to pay the penalty for our guilt.

Christmas, with all its trappings of lights, bows, pretty wrappings, and decorations, seems like a time when the evil of the world is being hidden from view.  And for some, that is exactly how they deal with Christmas.  They put on their finest clothes, they clean up their houses, they decorate their lives with false kindness, and they act so sweetly, even towards people they don't like.  Some families spend the whole rest of the year bickering and arguing over petty jealousies and hurts, and yet at Christmas they hide all that under shiny wrappings and curly bows, and treat each other with smiles and hugs and kisses, but only for a day or two.  After the Christmas presents are opened and the decorations come down, they go back to being at each other's throats.  That's not what John wanted Christmas to become.  John wanted the joy and the love of Christ to influence the whole year, every day, every believer, and every church.

Listen to what John says today: "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."  John is speaking to the inner man and woman within each of our hearts.  John knows that we are trying hard to hide our evil intentions and desires.  John calls his listeners vipers, because their evil hearts have made them deceivers of the highest order.  They follow their own desires easier than they follow God, because since the first sin of Adam our own selfish will has been our master.  John is wrestling with the evil in each one of his hearers' hearts.  It's a fierce struggle he's fighting.  He must speak harshly or we will not listen.  He must shake us free from the polite and non-offensive words we are so used to hearing, so that we might hear and respond to the tough but loving message he brings.

John's words must have had an impact on those who were there by the Jordan on that day.  The crowd must have heard his message, because they began to ask him what his tough love message of doom without repentance really meant.  They must have begun to worry about their eternal state of affairs.  Maybe we should worry more about that, rather than worry about what we're going to buy for Aunt Esther, or what we're going to get from mom and dad this Christmas.  If we really hear God's Word and sincerely repent, perhaps we would ask the same questions as the crowd.  Sometimes it seems that with our Lutheran understanding of salvation freely given by God's grace through faith for Christ's sake, we forget to ask how we are to respond to that grace, how we are to live out our faith, what Jesus would have us do to show the fruit of that faith we have by God's Word and sacraments.  Christmas is a fitting time to ask these kinds of questions, because this is the time of year when we tend to pay a little more attention to the situations of our neighbors in need.

Hear what the people ask and how John responds.  "What then should we do?" the crowd asks.  John answers, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  Even tax collectors come to be baptized. "Teacher," they ask, "What should we do?"  He tells them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."  Then some soldiers ask him, "And we, what should we do?"  John replies, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."  The crowd wants to know what John means by producing fruit of repentance.  I wonder if they asked him thinking he wouldn't know what to say.  Kind of like a pastor who preaches a truly effective sermon.  Afterwards she is surrounded by people asking what they can do in service to the church.  Not having expected such a response she stammers for a moment and then says, "Well, I'm not sure we can use 150 ushers."

John wasn't like that pastor; John had an answer to their questions.  To the crowd in general he knew no better response than for them to share what they had with those who didn't.  Giving is an especially evident fruit of repentance.  It shows that we understand who has really given to us, and what we have been given.  It shows that we know God gave his one and only son to be born into our world of sin.  It shows our understanding that the Son of God gave his own life on the cross, so that the penalty for our sin would be paid in exchange for our very lives. Giving is God's way, and it is the way that our fruit of repentance can also be manifested.

John has some specific questions from at least two groups in the crowd.  Tax collectors were especially heinous sinners according the masses of Israel.  They were hired by the Roman authorities to collect the taxes for Caesar from the Jews, and anything they collected above what was due to the Romans, they were allowed to keep.  So they not only represented the occupying enemy forces, they also had a tendency to grossly inflate the bills in order to make themselves rich, and they didn't always use the most respectable means to get what they wanted.

But John doesn't tell them to quit their profession and become monks.  He only instructs them that they keep their profession free from greed and self-gratification.  Do the work assigned, collect the correct amount, but no more.  Treat the people with respect and don't seek to line your own pockets.

And to the soldiers who asked him John is also realistic.  He doesn't tell them to leave their bloody work, but to do it with dignity and integrity.  Soldiers were notorious for using their brute force to advance their own salaries and their commanders' power.  But John wanted the soldiers to remember that God was the one in charge, and that his commands are more important than those of their own sinful hearts, or of their evil earthly commanders.

In today's world, especially as we approach the warm-fuzzy season of Christmas, John's message is as necessary for us as it was for the crowds of his day.  We're preparing to celebrate the coming of God's Son, Emmanuel, God With Us, into our world, coming to free us from our sin.  We're preparing to celebrate the coming of the one who gave us the greatest gift we could ever possibly receive, the one who gave us the gift of life eternal, and who paid for that gift with the giving of his own life.  We have received that gift; we have received that grace.  Sure, we still have our sinful hearts, and we are constantly tempted to obey our own wills, rather than look to God's Word for guidance.  But we no longer need to be slaves to our own desires.  Through the gift of God's grace, we can daily seek forgiveness, and continually turn from our sin, and seek God instead.  Because that's all that repenting is: it's a turning away from sin.  It's something we can do as we relate to our families, to our friends, to our co-workers.  We don't have to quit our jobs and go to seminary in order to live our lives as Christians called to repentance.  In all that we say and in all that we do, we can let the sovereignty of Christ shine in our lives and rule in our hearts.  In this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, I pray that we may keep on bearing fruit worthy of our repentance from sin.  By doing so, Christmas will continue for the whole year and throughout every year, rather than just for the next few weeks of December, 2012.  Amen!