Sermon Briefs: Luke 3:1-6
Elizabeth Achtemeier, who teaches homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, has a hard-hitting sermon on John the Baptist for the Second Sunday in Advent with the title Of Repentance and Captivity.1
She begins by suggesting that John the Baptist is a very unsettling figure for our Christmas celebrations, but "in order to get to Bethlehem, we have to get past John the Baptist." In her hands what could be a fairly conventional sermon about being forerunners of the Christ becomes a devastating condemnation: In John's terms, we have no right to Christmas except for the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
John is a barrier on our way to Bethlehem, because he demands that we live lives of righteousness and justice and truth, and we don't. We cannot get there on our own merits, nor on the merits of others, i.e., "our pride in our religious heritage or our manipulation of the church's life." We have no way to be there for "we are captives to the power of sin," and John's message is "the announcement of our certain condemnation."
So what is John's good news? It consists "not so much in what he was announcing as in whom he was pointing to." In Jesus, instead of seeing John's Lord of judgment, we see "a good shepherd of a hundred sheep, looking for the one that was lost." No wonder John sent disciples to Jesus asking if he was the one who was to come or should they look for another.
Achtemeier then takes Jesus' Nazareth sermon of Luke 4, so beloved by social activists today, to make the point that we are the poor captives and the blind beggars "who have not a ghost of a chance of deserving to be at Bethlehem" who "are surrounded by the mercy that receives us as beloved children into the presence and realm of God our Father." We have a Savior who comes at Christmas precisely because we need to be saved.
John Baillie has a very different sermon on this passage. The title is Tiberius and John, and it was preached some time in the 1950s.2 Baillie's theme is the significance of Jesus in history based on the fact that the mention of Tiberius in this passage enables us to date our Lord's ministry at a particular point in time. Baillie says that this was just what Luke intended to do with his catalogue of names in vv. 1-2: Place John and Jesus in history. Then the preacher moves quickly from John to Jesus and believes he has John's own warrant for doing so.
Baillie probably would be surprised that forty years after he preached this sermon it would be fashionable even among some Christian scholars to drop the "a.d." way of marking time in favor of "b.c.e." ("before the current or common era.") Reckoning current time from the birth of Jesus is an important part of this sermon. Yet even if the illustration has lost some of its force, the point is still valid, that from the Christian point of view history is like an hour-glass and Advent is the neck "through which all the sand of history must pass if mankind is to find the release that our Lord came to bestow." Further, "the most significant fact about your life and mine today is the relation in which it stands to the advent of Jesus Christ."
Baillie concludes by asking his hearers to put to themselves these two questions: What is there in my life that would not have been there if I were not a Christian? What in my deeds or words or thoughts have I refrained from doing because I am a Christian? These questions come to us because Jesus entered into history in the reign of Tiberius.
William R. Leety dealt with this text in 1985 on a Sunday when they were baptizing infants in that church. The sermon is called The Pace of Grace.3
Leety begins the sermon by repeating several times with further explanation "Advent judges us." Obviously, this note grows out of John's message. Advent judges us, because it does not come up to our expectations. So much is promised. Our lives deliver so little. Even the hopeful note in John's message about valleys being exalted and mountains made low rings hollow in the face of reality.
Yet this Advent judgment need not drive us down, because it reminds us of the vast promises of God that were not meant to discourage us but to lift us up, to energize us, to give us power to change ourselves and change the world. These promises are signified in the water of baptism and the bread of the Lord's Supper. This is the pace of grace. In Jesus this pace "was not the dance step of the Christmas party, but the walk with the people in darkness; the pace of grace was not the goose step of domination, but the slow turning of a great tide; the pace of grace in him was not the jumping when we say JUMP, but the assurance of a craftsman with a hammer and saw capentering a new people."
Tom A. Cutting begins his sermon on this passage by saying that "the best way to reach Christmas is through Advent."4 Advent is preparation for Christmas; and from John we learn where to prepare and how to prepare.
"Where we prepare" is in the midst of history, in a broken world, in a less-than-perfect church and not as cloistered saints but as regular people. "We prepare as we are, where we are."
"How we prepare" is through repentance, which means having "the courage to cut some habit that's hurting you, some way of behaving that's damaging your relationships with those you love, some way of thinking that's keeping you from God." Courage to do this comes from God, when you trust God.
George Laird Hunt
1. From Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching as Theology and Art, Abingdon, pp. 72-81. This sermon also deals with the Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday in Advent. 2. John Baillie, A Reasoned Faith (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), pp. 131-137. These addresses were assembled for this book by his wife after his death. She says they were written over a large number of years for a variety of occasions and not with a view toward publication. 3. Received by request. 4. Received by request.