Presented to University Baptist Church, Starkville, MS on December 16, 2012 TEXT: Luke 3:7-18 (click here to read it in the NRSV)

Hear the Gospel According to Luke, from Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Translation:

Here's what (John) was saying to the crowds who were coming out to get dipped by him: “You sons of snakes, who put the heat on you to run from the fury about to break over your heads? You must give some proof that you've had a change of heart. And don't start patting one another on the back with that 'we-good-people' stuff, because I'm telling you that if God wants to, he can make white-folks out of this pile of rocks. Already the axe is lying at the taproot of the trees, and every tree that doesn't perform some worthwhile function is chopped down and burned up.”

 

And the crowds were asking him, “Then what shall we do about these problems?” (John) answered, “Let him who has two suits share with him who has none; and let him who has food do the same thing.”

 

Then the politicians came out to join up, and they asked, “Honorable Teacher, what shall we do?” (John) said to them, “Cut out your (unfair and probably illegal monetary gain) and bribes.”

 

The service men too were asking, “Now how about us? What shall we do?” (John) told them, “Don't ever use violence on anyone, and don't take advantage of native people – be satisfied with only your government check.”

 

Now the people were very excited, and were really searching their hearts about all that John was saying. Some were wondering if perhaps he were the long-awaited Leader. John put a stop to it, saying, “It's true I'm dipping you in water; but somebody is coming who is much stronger than I, whose shoes I'm not worthy to shine. He shall dip you in Holy Spirit and fire! He's getting ready to thresh the wheat, and he'll store the grain in the barn and burn up the chaff.”

 

With a lot of other sermons like this (John) was pushing his evangelistic crusade.

 

Today's Advent message was to be about joy. It was supposed to be, for this Third Sunday in Advent, an Ode to Joy!

But like everyone else, it's been very difficult to reflect prayerfully on joy with the real life events in Newtown, Connecticut, calling our attention to the very real horrors in our world. Instead of hearing the lyrics declaring “Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!,” I've had a line from an old poem haunting me: “But there is no joy in Mudville” …

“In Newtown, Connecticut, a real town with real people, there is no joy this morning,” writes Kentucky pastor Michael Duncan. “A town and its people mourn the deaths of 20 elementary-age children, six of their teachers, and a young killer and his mother.  While some rush to use the tragedy to push their agendas for better mental health services and stricter gun controls, families and friends mourn.  With life suddenly taken away from 28 people, the future of families, a town, a state, a nation, and a world has been forever altered.  What might have been will never be.”

One of the news reports I watched late Friday afternoon interviewed a man who was talking about how everyone in the area was leaving everything they were doing behind; how they were all coming to the scene to volunteer to do whatever they could for the children remaining in the school, to help provide care, food, hugs, clean clothing, a calm presence, whatever, to panicking parents while police moved through the scene; etc. The man being interviewed said that this is who “we” are – in times of crisis we come together and will share freely of our resources with one another to help each other through the darkness.

In his reflection “Human Compassion” (click here to read), posted by theFaithLab Friday morning, Rabbi Seth Oppenheimer reminds us that it is in our ability to embody empathy and compassion that distinguishes from all other creatures; in fact, referring to the teachings of another rabbi before him, Rabbi Oppenheimer posits “It is in our compassion that we are created in the likeness of (God).”

Today's Lectionary text – Luke 3:7-18 – has been tossed around countless times since Friday's tragic events began unfolding. Pastors everywhere were emailing and texting each other: Are you sticking with this John the Baptist story? Are you sticking with the Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love?

A fellow minister from California called me late last night, and we talked about various Scriptures we might use to offer hope, comfort, and encourage perseverence. This sermon you're hearing has been revised, trashed, retrieved, rewritten, and trashed and retrieved again – all in the last twenty-four hours.

I know that even this morning there were still a few of us ministers asking, “What shall we say?” and, “What shall we do?”

“What shall we do?”

This Lucan text kept calling me back.

This third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptizer is preaching to us!

You sons of snakes! You must give some proof that you've had a change of heart... Don't start patting yourselves on your backs with that “we good American Christians” junk! I'm telling you if God wants to He could make better Christians out of this pile of rubble!

And the crowds of people are gathering around today and asking, “What shall WE do about our problems?”

And John the Baptizer is answering today, Let all of you who have closets full of clothes share with anyone who may not even have an extra set of clothes to change into.

And the politicians are gathering around and asking, “OK, Preacher, what shall WE do?”

And John the Baptizer is answering, Stop all your corrupt bribery and stop selling your souls and your votes to special interest groups, and stop making a cozy living by cheating the people you are supposedly serving.

And we are all searching our hearts about what John is saying …

What shall we do?

Everything compassionate that we always do for each other during any crisis.

What shall we do?

Expand our compassion and our care for each other to reach into normal, routine, everyday events.

What shall we do?

Live everyday with the spirit of empathy and compassion that leads us to share, to cooperate, to comfort, to protect, and to look out for each others' welfare!

What shall we do?

Stop doing anything that allows us to grossly benefit from denying needed resources to others!

What shall we do?

Take care of each other in good times, not just in times of crisis!

What shall we do?

Do justice! Love mercy! Walk humbly with our God!

What shall we do?

Do to everyone around us – and even those far away from us – the very things we would want them to be doing to us if you were standing in their shoes!

What shall we do?

Keep praying the Advent prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

For the message of Advent still rings true: In Jesus we find Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!

May Christ our Lord fill us with the courage to live out justice, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, hope, peace, joy, and love in times like these, and in all times to come.

Amen.

 

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