Rev Anita Venter (Bethlehem Bible College)
Sunday 16th of December 2018
Prepare the way
John must be having a terrible day, because what kind of sermon introduction starts with “You brood of snakes!”? He would definitely not win any preaching contests or be voted for to serve on any church counsel. I would not want to sit beside him in any pastoral care session. John is such a fascinating man to be chosen as the one to prepare the way for God’s entrance into the world. What was God thinking?
It is hard to find any trace of grace in John’s harsh announcement of judgment as he spits venom that frightens and shocks and bites and maybe even kills. As he is tired of the self the serving spirituality of the people who are not engaged with the widows, the sick, the orphans the poor and the bullied of the world, his words are in the line with a fire and brimstone preaching. This man is not concerned to gain spiritual admirers nor is he paid to preach. John does not show much love when he brings this tough word, but he sure tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the gospel.
He is this weirdo in the wilderness but he has a word from the Lord. A word that both slays and saves. It makes you cringe in pain, but it also makes you say ‘amen.’ Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, his introduction gets the crowds attention and ours too. John wants his listeners to know that this is serious. That if they miss his message, they miss the whole point of following God and preparing the way of the Lord.
How do we prepare the way of the Lord in this season of advent, as we anticipate the coming of God? According to John, to prepare the way of the Lord, repentance for the forgiveness of sin is vital. We repent and God forgives. But it is not that easy.
John calls for something that will last. Something that is concrete. So he takes it a little bit further. He links repentance to action, to bear fruits worthy of repentance. The crowds come out to be baptized, but he tells them that this ceremony of cleansing, purification and repentance, is securely linked to a righteous ethic. He does not preach cheap grace—say a prayer of confession, receive forgiveness and then go home to watch a movie. Rather, John suggests that true repentance is when a repentant life, is a changed life, a life that is green and blossoming, a life that reveals itself through right living and action.
Living a life of repentance without prayerful action is the source of anorexic faith. Doing nothing in your Christian life that helps someone else will make you spiritually thin and eventually will lead to death. John confirms that with raining down a fire of judgment on do-nothing Christians when he warns that a life that resembles dead wood is worthless and would end up in the fire. “
But that does not mean that people are not doing anything. Maybe we are doing the wrong thing, bearing bad rotten fruit for the whole world to see.
The type of fruit that causes people to play God with guns by shooting fellow human beings whenever they want,
the type of fruit that causes people to step on others to gain power and wealth,
they type of fruit that bullies others just because they are different,
the type of fruit that denies humans their rights and dignity,
the type of fruit that builds visible and invisible walls with the aim of keeping people of other religions out causing Christianity to be equated with hatred and not with the inclusive love of God,
the type of fruit that is hiding behind a hypocritical Christianity that does and says one thing in the pulpit and another thing in everyday life.
There is only one gospel of Jesus Christ and it cannot be divided into to sections. It cannot be divided into God’s will and ours. It cannot be segregated into our own image and liking. The gospel of Christ merges heaven and earth. God wears the clothes of humanity so that the gospel can be touched and heard, smelled, tasted and seen.
Being passionate to prepare the way for the Lord, for this to happen John strives for Christian integrity by linking repentance with social responsibility. The crowd gets it when they ask “What should we do?”.
Sad thing is that I am not sure if we professional Christians always do. We want to be Christians, but we do not want to do Christianity. The crowd reveals that Christian discipleship requires something from us. Sincere repentance takes us inward yet it compels us and guides us outward into action.
John’s answers given in today’s text are down to earth responses, Christianity in the flesh, in the world, in the hands, in the mouths, in the pockets of real people.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” No more extortion — collect no more than what is required by law.”
no blackmail—and be content with what you have thus no more greed.” John only mentioned a few examples, but I am sure he would love to expand this list. In other words, whoever we are, whatever we do should not reflect our rotten human spirit, we should reflect the light, the character and the love of Christ.
In essence what John is saying is that being baptized into the body of Christ is not just a sprinkling of water, or a full immersion into water, but baptism is being plunged into a whole new way of living the ethics of Christ. It converts and literally turns you to God. And your turn to God is also a turn to your neighbor, a turn to your enemy. We are baptized to be a blessing to someone else. Any lack or hardship of our neighbor is a sign of our failure to take our baptism seriously.
The endless wars and loss of human life, the cruel oppression of the other, the hunger and struggle of humanity is the advent tension between the promise and fulfillment that causes a deeper sense of longing for the coming of Christ. A longing for a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more pain, no more suffering and no more tears. No senseless shooting, no more death as death will be no more because all things will be made new.
John has every reason to be mad. He sees the loss of our Christian witness, he sees the disintegration of our world. He is serious in his call for us to do something in this sin-sick world. His advent message aims to afflict those who are sitting in their comfort zone. May our repentance not be ruined by our inactivity but be blooming and expressed through our actions.
“What should we do?” is a serious call for Christian integrity this advent season and way beyond. The gospel requires an ethical performance that aims to end injustices and inequities in our society.
May we all take this call seriously in this season of waiting. May we truly repent and live a life that reflects every aspect of the love, the mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A road is paved brick by brick. Let us pave to way for the second coming of Christ step by step … little act by little act … reach out this season as we are awaiting the birth of Christ … touch a heart, fill a little tummy, clothe a body, encourage a disheartened, comfort one who mourns, help someone in trouble, embrace, love …. prepare the way for the Lord to come!!!