Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:7-18 Part 2
In Karl Barth's study in Basel, Switzerland, there hung a picture of The Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altar, Colmar, by Matthias Grünewald which Barth constantly had before him as he worked. In the picture Jesus hangs on a cross while figures weep. Down in the corner John the Baptist stands, a lone finger pointing to the crucified Christ. Barth found this figure instructive as John continually bears witness to the Christ.
In the lessons for today we seem to be met with a very odd sandwich indeed, a helping of dread served up between two slices of rejoicing. How to make good news out of this? However, in the midst of words of judgment and repentance maybe there is some good news for the expectant congregation this Advent.
At first pass we may not think of this as good news, repentance and judgment seldom are. But in context it reveals quite a turn. The Jewish apocalypticism that made the terms "Messiah" and "Son of Man" so pregnant with meaning to John's hearers had a long and complex history in the theology of Israel. There was some tension because of different images. The idea of the Messiah as a great and future monarch who would reverse Israel's fortunes and reign politically was held in some contradistinction with the Son of Man as a heavenly figure who comes to inaugurate God's reign for eternity.
The society that Jesus and John entered certainly had no lack of theological concepts to draw upon from the history of Israel. Certainly the Gospels reveal the tensions in how God's reign was to be understood in the messianic age. Would this be a private event, taking place within the confines of the human heart, or would it be a spectacular moment, eagerly anticipated, where all things would find their proper place? Zephaniah seems to indicate this day will be one where disaster is removed, and the Lord will take away judgment. We can hardly fault John for not being sure himself what to expect.
In the midst of all these ideas our passages today do share a sense that the eschatological expectation of faith is one that should work to change attitudes within this present world. This opens up some interesting ground for the plow. What are the notions of baptism, repentance, and judgment that confront us in the figure of John, and what dimensions do they assume in human life?
In the Gospel lesson for today baptism does not function the way it does for the later traditions of Christianity. It does not automatically save a person, nor wash away the taint of original sin. Being encompassed in the original family of the covenant does not seem to be a big help either. Rather it is repentance which offers the primary orientation for receptiveness for the coming Messiah. A complete change in attitude is called for in view of God's impending eschatological intervention (Luke even has John address certain groups about the specific attitude that needs to be changed).
One of the themes that I have worked into these theological explorations over Advent is the one that theology sets the parameters for human response to God's call. Luke's theological perspective causes him to construe John's preaching in a particular way and has formed the foundation for some of the Church's understanding of baptism.
Not that the Church has always spoken with one voice about baptism and its impact on life. Baptism may function as a symbol with John, but later, baptism is seen in different ways. The Church has struggled with the notions of baptism as sacrament or symbol, whether adults or infants should be baptized, what happens when you sin after baptism? The early church fought many battles over what to do with the lapsed believers, and, more importantly, in the Donatist controversy it struggled with the moral life of those who performed it, and the spiritual life of those who received it from those of questionable character and judgment. Luther could say it was the entrance into a life long journey of repentance, but be ready to cut off anyone (like Anabaptists for instance), who disagreed with him.
Down to the present moment we still discuss, debate, and yes, fight about the act of baptism. But how often do we put it into the context of this passage? Baptism as a penitent response to the coming judgment of God? Not often (except for those churches that still hold rigorously to the glorious heritage of the Reformation Anabaptists), I suspect. We are far happier with the images of parents and family gathered around an altar with an adoring community ready to ogle the infants. Responding to the impending presence of the Messiah? Nope, more like the couple who once said to me, "Preacher, we want to get our baby done." It took me just a few minutes to figure it out.
But what does all this have to do with Advent? Only this, Barth, whatever his faults, kept before him an image that revealed the judgment of God. It portrayed a faith that called for an overturning of life and a new orientation in response to this judgment. But it also witnessed as to who our judge really is, the one who was born and suffered with and for us that we may find joy on an Advent morning.
Jeffrey C. Pugh