Sermon On Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" It's Advent. Cut down the tree with an axe. Bring out the winnowing fork. John Bar Zachariah, whom we call John the Baptist, is on fire.
John, convinced that his generation was living at a very significant moment in history, is the medium for a message that is stark and urgent.
There is no figure quite like John on the gospel landscape. John is different...a "throw-back" to another time. Even Luke's perfect Greek cannot smooth the rough edges off this character. John was the last of his kind, the end of the line of ancient Hebrew prophets. Like Jeremiah, John has fire in his bones. Like Isaiah, John would warm himself at the fire that consumes the people's idols. Like a comet, John blazes out of the wilderness with words that set the world on fire...to prepare the way of the Lord.
John compels us to follow him into a stark and strange landscape, a place of abandonment, of emptiness waiting to be filled; nakedness, waiting to be clothed...by the One who is to come.
The figure of John the Baptist is so strongly drawn, so fierce and fiery that it is perhaps not surprising that the people wondered if John might be the Christ. But John was not a Savior, John's task was to call us to acknowledge a longing so deep that only God can fill it. Emptiness cannot deliver, but it can open us up to receive the One who can!
It is dangerous to confuse fire and water. "I baptize you with water; but there is another who comes after me who is mightier than I, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
The path must be plowed up before the valleys can be filled and the crooked made straight: John plows by preaching. His speech comes out in capital letters, untamed and burning with passion. John holds a plumb line to which we all look crooked.
The Baptizer sounded the trumpet of warning to all God's enemies to stand clear. The Lion of Judah has teeth! The Kingdom of God is at hand! Get ready. John had one note to play and he played it well! But John had not yet heard all the other parts that were to be played in God's great symphony of salvation. Repentance is not an end, but a beginning. The trumpet's call is a prelude to Doxology!
The refrain that recurs throughout scripture is to become the melody of Jesus' life. We hear it today in the reading from Zephaniah. From it we understand why God is angry.
"The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival."
The Lord, our God, is a jealous God! It is a passion that frightens us. God tells us, "I have graven you on the palms of my hands!" (Is 49:16). "The mountains may depart, the hills be removed; but my steadfast love shall not depart from you" (Is 54:10). "When you call, I will answer; when you cry, I will say, 'Here I am'" (Is 58:9). God's love affair with humanity is "a romance that was doomed from the beginning and destined to last forever."
We despair of such love. We flee from it, as we would flee from God's wrath. We hide. We quarrel over it, but we do not accept it. We are embarrassed by our woundedness, our sinfulness. We are reduced to forgetfulness. Yet we cannot receive God's promises, if we stand outside the door God holds open for us. The love we yearn for is given, unearned and undeserved. The Kingdom God prepares for us lies waiting until our need is great enough to receive it as a gift.
We've always been reluctant to believe God's persistent love for us because we are prone to forget that unworthy as we may be, "beauty is in the eyes of the Beholder." God who believes in us, looks at us and loves what he sees. We are precious in God's sight. We are the object of God's desire.
John came to show us how to find our way back to that Love. John helped build a highway, but it was to take a different direction than he could have ever imagined. It's a road that leads us home. It leads us out of the past, but it does not return there. It is the road to discovering something new.
John's mission was to remind God's people that God's Kingdom of love is about to be fulfilled. John stands in the canon of Scripture as a reminder that Christians risk to their peril any view of God that is only romantic and idealistic. God's love for humanity is a tough, pragmatic love...full of life and truth. Its symbols are found in the Babe of Bethlehem; but also in the One who brings fire to the earth. It's a love whose passion led to the Cross.
If the church is to be prophetic in this post-modern world it must speak the folly of the Cross to a world that increasingly believes the future, whatever it may be, is fundamentally malignant. Today the world is a smaller place, neighbors are closer together; but more alienated than ever. It's a lost and lonely world.
But it is not without hope. In the shadows of today's reading from Luke stands One whom John refers to only as "he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." These are the feet that shook the earth, and brought down fire from heaven. The Kingdom of God is among us. The highway is open. God's reconciling love and healing power are waiting to receive the prodigal's return. It is the prophet's role to show them the way to go Home.
Rev. Joycelyn Degener