Sermon – December 13, 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent
Good News

I should let you stand up here sometimes and look out at your responses to some of what is read from our lessons.  This “brood of vipers” talk elicited a few frowns, and I noticed that some of you raised your eyebrows at the end of the lesson, “so with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”   Maybe we, like the crowd that John spoke to that day, can find the good news in this story.  It’s not self-evident.

Let’s say we give that a try this morning, huh?  Well, to do so we have to deal first off with this business about the brood of vipers and the ax at the root of the tree.   And to that we have to undo something of which we have become so fond.   In the church we love to say, like John the Baptist, “Jesus has come and is coming again.”  Good so far, but then we add this notion that “he’s coming to turn things upside down, he’s going to turn the world upside down.”  We’re wrong on that.   I used to buy that, but that gives our current trajectory too much credit.  That would mean that we were right side up in the 1st place.   Jesus has come, and comes again, to turn the world right side up.  You see, God got it right the first time.  Jesus has come to turn the upside down world right side up.   So, when John calls the people, ‘you brood of vipers’ and admonishes them with the threat that the ax is at the foot of the tree,” he is saying, right now you are caught up in the old order.  Jesus is coming and the old order is coming undone, things are going to be turned right side up.  So pay attention, prepare to change.  Jesus is come to turn things right side up, to bring the promise and covenant of God to fruition in a new and eternal way through his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection.  He is come to undermine the powers that have turned the world upside down, and who are still at work, just look at the news– the powers that shake down the poor and turn away the different, and take whatever they want justifying it by their might, their fear and their ability to do so.

Jesus has come to take down, tear apart such a world order.  That is the urgency of John’s voice.   The present order is being undone and you are part of that old order if live and act in complicity with it.  That makes more sense doesn’t it, can we get now to the good news?

Yikes, they said.  They understood.  They heard from across the ages the echoes of the prophets in John’s voice.  Maybe they heard in John the voice of Zephaniah that we heard this morning, where God promises a laundry list of redemption and blessings to a suffering people, “the Lord has taken away judgments,  . .  turned away enemies, . .  God in your midst . . . he will rejoice over you . . .renew you. .  .exult over you . .  remove disaster .. . .deal with your oppressors . . . save the lame . . . gather the outcast. . . change shame to praise . . . gather you . . . make you renowned . . . restore your fortunes . . . .and bring you home.    Maybe the people hadn’t forgotten.  But it had been so long since one had spoken so.

It has been so long since Isaiah had been invoked, declaring the coming of the Messiah, for whom every valley shall be raised and every mountain brought down.  They recognized such a voice.   This is good news.   So they didn’t have to ask, what shall we confess, or to whom shall we pay homage, whom shall we overcome.  No.  they said, “What shall we do?” What shall we do?   How shall we live?   What shall characterize our lives?  What in this new order is vital, important, expected?  What is being made new as the old is undone?

And John continues to speak to them as he spoke in our lesson last week, change, turn, go another way.  Last week he talked about repentance.  Here he is giving concrete examples.  To the people of means, share with those who have nothing.   To the tax collectors, be fair.  To the soldiers, be just.  That, folks, is a glimpse of Christ’s kingdom,  . . . the poor are remembered and justice and fairness characterize our work and relationships because Jesus is turning the world right side up where the kingdom of God is anchored in God’s love for all and our love of our neighbors.    In the social justice that we practice, in the obedience to the right side up kingdom path.  Now what is so radical about these things?  Well, to share with another, poorer person is to value them is such a way that we sacrifice for them, that we change our lives as we endeavor to change theirs. That’s Christlike language. To do one’s work fairly, as the tax collector was admonished, was to defy a corrupt and greed-based Roman system of taxation that encouraged and even institutionalized exploitation.  Be fair.  There will always be difficult and easily compromised dimensions to the jobs we do.  Keep your values intact.  Be ruled by compassion and not greed, earmarks of the right side up kingdom path.   “What shall we do?” asked the soldiers.  Be just, he told the soldiers.  These soldiers were apparently given free reign to abuse the citizenry to supplement their lousy wages.  They had power, abused power.   Be just, don’t take things through intimidation and fear.  Paul later reminded us that the Gentiles “lord it over” the weak, but it is not so among you, not so in the right side up kingdom.

To those who had been exploited, intimidated, set aside, this would have sounded like good news.  And to the oppressor and the intimidator and the exploiter, it is good news because John, like any prophet worth his salt, tells them that God does not leave them in their sinfulness, but gives them a way out, a place to turn, an new value system, a home,  through the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.

The change had come, anchored in this very community, where the Messiah would come among them to baptize, cleanse, make new and call to his way, the kingdom way.

Good news.  Can we understand that this morning?  Can we understand that we live in an upside down world, but that when we confess the name of Jesus, and act in accord with his commands, with his direction, if we act in his name on behalf of our neighbors with justice and forgiveness and hope, that the world turns, the world moves toward balance. It is how we find our own, hearts, and meaning and joy.   There are no small acts in this kingdom, no small acts of justice or forgiveness, or compassion or peace.  All are called, all are welcome.  All of these things contribute to the weight of righteousness and change that Christ has ushered in.  In that is good news.

Now, we can be undone by our own sinfulness, our own failures.  Look at what I have done.  I have contributed to this old order, this imbalance.   I have hurt the people that I love, shamed my community, defied my God.   In that reality John’s words may sound harsh in our ears, “you brood of vipers’ , but he does not leave us there.  “But you can change.  Here is an open door.  It is the way of Christ, the way of the right side up kingdom.  Is it good news to you today to hear a clear call that says, I know of your sinfulness, but I proclaim your forgiveness?  Isn’t it good news to know that God does not give us what we deserve, but instead sends us his own son so that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life?

Isn’t it good news that Christ will make us new again, and as he does, calls us to begin to help to change the world?   So love your family and your children, seek forgiveness, mend the broken heart, make restitution for the wrong, do your work with integrity, and speak for peace.  Turn your back on the old way, and to find the strength to do this turn to the one whom John declares, who sees us as we are and loves us, who turned his life upside down, going from manger to cross for our sake, so that as he rises, our lives could be made right side up.

As the community of Christ, we are called and remade in the right side up kingdom.  Because of that through these challenging things, difficult as they might be, we may hear good news.  And even further, then, we might respond to this good news with rejoicing.

Do you hear them so today?   Paul says, all things in the right side up kingdom are in God’s hands, so rejoice.  He is near.  Seek God in all things.  Even your own faith is in God’s hands, so rejoice, and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Now there’s some good news.

Thanks be to God