I am not one to normally post my sermons online. It kind of makes me nervous. But I got a lot of response from this one that I preached this morning. And so I thought maybe if it could be a blessing to others, then I'd go ahead and post it on my blog.
The texts for today (that I use for this sermon)are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18
At least when we read the Gospel for today, we get some reassurance that we aren’t the only ones who get it wrong.
John the Baptist was quite a guy. He dressed in camel hair, his diet consisted of bugs and honey, and he lived out in the desert by himself. He was a fiery and passionate man who wasn’t afraid to speak out and make a scene. He saw the injustice of the Roman empire, he witnessed what he believed to be spiritual weakness among the people who he was baptizing, and he was not afraid to call them out.
So in today’s Gospel, he’s preaching at the people gathered and he’s really kind of giving them the business. I mean he starts by comparing the people there to a bunch of poisonous snakes. Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t take that as a compliment. Then he tells that that just because they say that they belong to Abraham, just because they claim to be a part of that promise that God made to Abraham way back in the book of Genesis, that won’t be enough to save them.
He says that the ax is laying at the foot of the tree and any one that doesn’t bear good fruit will get cut down and tossed into the fire. He’s telling those people that they are one step away from being punished. They had better get their act together or, like that tree, they are going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
And if they think he’s bad then they’ve got another thing coming. John starts to warn them of one who is coming who will be even tougher than he is. John tells them he just baptizes them with water, but there is one who is coming who will baptize them with fire. John compares the one who is to come like someone who works in a granary separating the chafe from the wheat, separating the worthless part of the plant from the important grain. He tells the people that this one who is coming will take those who are the grain, the ones who are considered important, and will gather them to himself. But those who are the chafe, those who are worthless and unimportant, will be tossed into unquenchable fire.
John is expecting the coming Messiah to be a take no prisoners kind of guy. Either you are good and important and worth keeping, or you are bad and unimportant and you’re gonna burn. John was definitely not expecting the kind of Messiah that we got.
Jesus was not born to powerful and important people. Jesus was born to a poor, young couple who could only find a barn for shelter. The only people who showed up for his arrival were dirty shepherds and wise men from a faraway land who would have been considered unbelievers.
And then, when Jesus and John meet for the first time, Jesus wants John to baptize him. John tries to say it should be the other way around, but Jesus persists, and so John, who claimed he wouldn’t even be worthy enough to tie the sandals of the coming Messiah ends up baptizing him in the river.
But John is excited, and he thinks that now that Jesus is around things are going to start happening. So John goes after King Herod, who was not a good king. He was too close with the oppressive Roman army. King Herod was benefitting from the oppression of his own people and John is sure that now that Jesus is around, it’s gonna stop. John goes after Herod and ends up getting arrested, and he realizes that Jesus isn’t fighting back. Jesus wasn’t there to back him up, he didn’t come as reinforcements. So John has to send a couple of his followers to Jesus to ask him if he really is the Messiah. Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, they ask. Or should we wait for another?
But Jesus was the Messiah. He just wasn’t the kind of Messiah that people were expecting. He came to save his people, but not with a winnowing fork like John said. He didn’t come to gather some people up but send the rest off to be condemned. Jesus came so that no one would need to be condemned. He took the punishment that was meant for us. Jesus took our sins and died on the cross for us, so that we might escape the unquenchable fire. Our Messiah came not to save some and condemn the rest, but he came to be condemned so that the rest of us might be saved.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of hope and of expectation. It’s a time where we remember how the people long ago hoped for and expected the promised Messiah to come and save them. And it’s also a time when we hope and expect for Jesus to come again. But Advent is also a time of surprise. Because the people long ago were surprised by the Messiah that they got. Just like John, the people were expecting someone different. So when the Messiah showed up, and he didn’t look or act like they were expecting, they were shocked and surprised.
As we journey through Advent and wait for the big Christmas celebration, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I think we’d be shocked and surprised at how many times we come across Jesus and don’t recognize him.
You see, it’s because we’re like John. We expect Jesus to be like us, to look like us and to act like us. Of course he will like the same things and the same people that we like, and of course he won’t like the same things and the same people that we don’t like. We expect Jesus to believe the same things we believe, to support the same causes that we support, and to make us feel comfortable and safe and warm and fuzzy.
But the truth is, more often than not, Jesus looks like the people we would least expect. He looks like a homeless person on the street begging for money, or a teenager with strange hair and facial piercings. He looks like a single mother in the welfare line, or a gay man dying of AIDS. He looks like a gang member, or an Arab, or a starving child, or an elderly person suffering from dementia. He comes to us as an abused woman, or a man suffering from addiction. He comes to us with tattoos and a big beard and riding on a motorcycle. He comes to us with skin that is a different color than ours, speaking a language other than English.
These are ways that Jesus comes to us. And more often than not, these are times we ignore him because he’s not what we were expecting. We get so caught up in who we think Jesus ought to be that we miss him when he is right next to us. We get so caught up in what we think Jesus ought to say that we fail to hear him when he is speaking right to us. And we get so caught up in what we think Jesus ought to do that we miss all the wonderful things that he is doing around us and through us.
Advent is a time of hope and expectation. But it is also a time of surprise. Our God is a God who surprises us, who comes to us unexpectedly, who is revealed in ways we would not expect, and loves us in ways we could never deserve. Our God is a God who is coming to gather us all together, not like John proclaimed where some were saved and others sent to the fire, but our God will gather us together the way that the prophet Zephaniah proclaimed in the Old Testament reading, where God will gather us all together, every one of us, including the lame and the outcast, and God will change our shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
This is the God who is coming for us, and this is the God we wait for during Advent, and this is the God who is revealed to us every day. Amen.