Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:16 Part 6
Given his unwavering, blunt message that did not flatter his audience, it is surprising that John the Baptist attracted large crowds. Some may have come merely out of curiosity, though a camel's hair coat on a hermit was likely a more common sight then than now. Undoubtedly, sprinkled among the crowds was a fair number of hecklers who accepted neither messenger nor message but enjoyed a break in the ordinary activities of the day.
To others, John's words were the answer to a long-cherished hope. These were the faithful whose number was slowly dwindling because each passing day made it harder to believe that those ancient promises of a coming Messiah would ever be fulfilled. Humans can live with waiting a "reasonable" time—a segment that for a child is much shorter than for an adult—but it usually doesn't take long for the expectations to become tainted by doubt. When surgery takes far longer than the surgeon said, tension in the waiting room rises to an almost palpable level. Often those waiting imagine something has gone badly awry. Instead of eagerly looking forward to the surgeon's appearance, they feel a sense of dread and foreboding. If one cannot depend on the surgeon's promises, does it make sense to expect much of the surgeon's skills?
As Jordan's banks echo with those quotations from Isaiah that had brought comfort to generations of believers, John's rapt audience must have felt the tingling of strong emotions and the resurgence of trust in God. At last the wait is over, God is faithful to those ancient promises after all, Messiah is almost here. It is time to get ready, time to prepare the way of the Lord, time to change the landscape.
John's hearers may not have been quite prepared for the scope of the task. If only getting ready for God's anointed were a matter of leveling a hill or two. With considerable effort they could have managed that in their day; we of the earth mover generation can do it far more easily. John is not talking about getting out the shovels, however. An inner change is needed far more desperately than an interchange. It is one thing to make it possible for the Lord to get here safely, but what do you do, what do you say, when he gets here? To use the words of the old hymn, "O Lord, how shall I meet You, How welcome you aright?" That question affects the people of the twentieth century as much as those of the first. John's answer is blunt and to the point, "Repent!"
Truth be told, without repentance no one is fit to approach God. Of all tasks facing humans, repentance is one of the toughest because it demands a fundamental change in character. On the one hand, repentance requires a confession that our past attitudes and behaviors were wrong. If it is agonizing to wait for good news you desperately want to hear, it is more difficult to face your friends and say, "I was wrong." It is nearly impossible to use that archaic word sin. We equate such a confession with losing face, with being diminished in the opinion of our friends. We tend to gloss over the issues and rather speak of inadvertent mistakes or oversights. We much rather speak about God as being loving and forgiving than about ourselves as having lived contrary to God's will and needing forgiveness. It takes courage to confess sin, hold nothing back, make no excuses.
Having done that, we face the harder part of repentance, to turn away from the bad behavioral patterns of the past and adopt wholesome ones. Old habits are hard to break, as anyone knows who has made New Year's resolutions. It requires determination, integrity and a total commitment to a new goal or a new person. Like substance abusers who can only stay "clean" with the help of a twelve-step program, we may have to develop a support group of devoted persons who will not hesitate to call us to task when we falter. While the local congregation can perhaps serve that purpose, an additional small group that focuses on the specific habit we are trying to control may be more effective.
For those not yet baptized, baptism can be a meaningful ceremony to symbolize not only the inner change that is taking place in the person, but the certainty that God forgives and cleanses all who sincerely repent. For those already baptized, knowing that God claimed us as children before we were ready to accept responsibility can be a powerful motivator. "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."
Worth noting, finally, is the place where John's call to repentance occurred. Though he was close enough to the Jordan River to baptize those who repented from past sins and committed themselves to a better way, the place is nonetheless called a wilderness. John the hermit feels at home here, his audience presumably less so, away as they are from their homes and villages and the comforts of civilization. Most repentances still occur in the context of people finding themselves in a wilderness where the comforts of their routine lives have been shattered, the tranquillity of their spirits turned into turmoil, and a powerful prophet stands ready to give them direction. May the right prophet be present at the right time to turn those searchers in the direction where they may find God.
Christ Hospital and Medical Center
Oak Lawn, IL