A Homily for Advent IV
December 22, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Luke 3:1-17
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I found my mind wandering to the seconding coming this past week, I have a friend who works with those who are in the worst estate, primarily in Africa, but also victims of violence in America. He talks often of longing for Christ’s return. Usually, I have a hard time sympathizing with him, I have goals, and hopes, and dreams, after all, and I want them to come true. But something about this week made that whole perspective shift.
I think it was the juxtaposition between the glorious evening we had Wednesday, filled with beautiful worship, seeing the story of our salvation spelled out, and then wonderful fellowship, filled with laughter, games, and merriment and then in the following day when the realities of the world seemed so overwhelming.
I think we tend to cling too tightly to this world. In our social media age, many younger people live with this symptom often described as the “fear of missing out.” Cooler people than me call it “FOMO.” The fear is that if we don’t experience everything there is to experience, then we are some how missing out, some how experiencing less of life. I have heard that this fear has even lead to high levels of anxiety with those who tend to over use social media.
We want to experience all life has to offer, we want it cheap, we want it easy, we want it now. But, this life is only a taste of eternity, if we chose to live a life defined by sin, our eternity will be filled with sin, filled with our self-centeredness, and our depravity. If we live for Christ, we will experience Christ glory, and we will see the re-creation how it was meant to be before the fall.
My thoughts this week went something like this – and I hope I can do them justice – After our Christmas party, I felt so rich, my heart was glad how full the stepping stones box was with slippers, for how well lessons and carols seemed to go, for the laughter and love we shared Wednesday night. Then reality struck on Thursday as I saw sickness and sin up close and personal in people who I love. Then Friday I went for a walk, and as I looked over the green valley and our beautiful city I was filled with awe again.
On Thursday and again on Friday my mind went here – my longing for that second coming of Christ was magnified – was brought deeper. Our joy – our fellowship will be without sin, our worship will never be tiring and always life giving – and even nature will be redeemed, the beauty we experience now when we hike will be magnified. St. Paul writes that even creation groans for the coming, even creation has been affected by the fall of Adam. Can you imagine – the beauty of the new creation? If this world is corrupted by sin, what was it meant to look like? Can you imagine life without our bodies falling apart? Life without the sin that separates us from each other and from God?
Friends, let us not cling to tightly to this world, and to this age – for in the age to come pain, and tears, and sorrow will all be whipped away.
And what has this to do with John the Baptist? Advent is the season of preparing – we are preparing to celebrate the incarnation, we are remembering, and continually renewing the coming of Christ into our lives, and we are preparing for Christ’s return. In the passage we read this morning we read of the Baptist preparing the way for Christ. The reality is, John is preaching to us, for in many ways the current cultural milieu of America reflects that of Christ’s time. We are becoming more secular, and pluralistic, and often cultural, moralistic and relativistic religion is more prevalent than a heartfelt religion of conversion, and the circumcised hearts. Yet in this, we are called to be a people whose lives are being changed by knowing Christ.
As we open up this passage we find this long scheme of dating, the initial statement “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” was a fairly common way to date manuscripts. Much like we might write “it was late May, in 2018, when I first set eyes upon her.” It provided for the reader an explicit sense of when this was taking place.
The remaining points of reference including who the high-priests were at the time seem at first glance to be a bit extraneous. These probably served two purposes: First it further backed up St. Luke’s desire to make it imminently clear – this really happened, and this is when it was. But it also provided the early reader with a picture of the political milieu of the day. We do this as well, “remember so and so was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and so and so was president,” and for most of us this two people provides a pretty clear understanding of what was going on.
For the modern reader – a lot of this is lost, but we do know a little of Herod, whose family was known for lavish and decadent life styles, of Pontius Palate who tended to over react to political uprisings, and would eventually be removed from his office because of a massacre he’d later commit and we read of the high priests actions at the judgment of Christ. So, we understand how fragile the political and religious ecosystem was at that point and it is into that scene in which this man came “proclaiming the baptism of repentance.”
John is prompted by the coming of the word of God to him. Here we do not want to get confused by John the Evangelist who called Jesus the Logos – or THE Word, but rather, the Baptist was most likely prompted by the Holy Spirit or the coming of an angel and therefore he knew that it was time to start his outward ministry.
We want to be careful not to always expect that the Lord will explicitly tell us what to do. It would be nice if we always heard an audible voice saying “do this,” or “don’t do this,” but the most sure-fire way to know the will of the Lord is to be enriched constantly in God’s word, to surround yourself with Christian brothers and sisters, to develop a good and sound conscience, and to live a life pleasing to God. Out of that, we can proceed with confidence that God will prevent, or open the doors which he desires us. We do not need to be constantly concerned that we audible hear a word from God, but rather every time we crack our Bible we read His words that we may be filled and encouraged.
For John something prompted him and he knew it was time to start preach to a baptism of repentance. This mission was twofold – the Semitic understanding of repentance was a complete turning away from ones actions, a complete turning away from our sins. A life in Christ, a life emboldened by the Holy Spirit demands and gives us the opportunity and the ability to turn away from sins. Yes, some sins may be a struggle, some may find themselves wrapped deeply around our heart and hard to shake off, but that is why we are giving Christian fellowship, why we are given pastors and priests and friends to walk with us through that, that we may be freed from those sins that haunt us.
Baptism for John is a ceremonial washing clean it is a marking of this turning away from the sins of the world. For the Christian it marks the entrance into God’s covenant community, it is a mark of the beginning of that journey of discipleship. We notice when we read the great commission that we are called to baptize and make disciples. Our process of discipleship takes time, but when someone enters into the community, we do not expect perfection – for the new convert, we expect a desire to grow in Christ, and for the child we expect parents who will raise them to know and love Christ.
Baptism marks the beginning of a life of repentance, a continual renewing of the soul and mind by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is an outward washing that signifies the promise of all present that we will seek to glorify God in all we do and that we will flee our sins and flee towards God.
And this mission of John is the beginning of the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah. John is the voice crying in the wilderness. I remember driving through the Judean wilderness earlier this year. Having now lived in an arid place for a little over two years, and having seen that wilderness, the Biblical idea of wilderness takes on greater significance.
Maine as you know is not arid but there are plenty of wild areas, but in Maine’s wilderness there are streams, and trees, and lots of cute wild animals. The Palestinian wilderness that the Jordan river cuts through is much more like the Arizona desert than the forests of Maine. I remember thinking “this reminds me of Arizona, only it’s whiter.” As we imagine John’s ministry, we should think of the deserts that lie between here and California, and you can have a pretty good idea of what it is like.
And then the lazy river Jordan runs through it. Though it might be spiritually mighty, it is not like the roaring waters of the mountain rivers we might think of when we think of the word mighty but rather is flows through the landscape rather peacefully from the sea of Galilee until it empties into the dead sea.
The Judean wilderness has little to offer the world, and as such, it seems reasonable that it is a favorite place of the prophet, for there is little to distract them, and there is little to draw those who are consumed with worldliness.
The repentance John preached wasn’t a repentance of works righteousness, but to prepare for the coming of the Christ – to prepare for the incarnation – to prepare for the great work that God was already doing in the world and in the lives of all who come to know Christ.
We must be careful here, it would be easy to make Advent into a season of works righteousness, it would be easy to think: I am going to make myself worthy of Christ, I, by my own hand, am going to put off all my sin, and then to be consumed with pride and think it is I who has done all this. Rather – it is the Holy Spirit that tends to the soil of my heart, it is the Holy Spirit that plants the seed of faith into my heart, it is Him who waters, who nurtures the seedling into a plant until it bears fruit and it is the spirit that carries those seeds into others hearts.
Remember St. Paul talking about who plants, who tends, and so forth? He does not want those who tell us about the faith, and who disciples us to become our source of hope but to recognize that it is ultimately God who is responsible for our faith, and our growth. A life of faith, comes not from our works, but from submission to Christ and allowing Him to grow and nurture us. And so the season of Advent is not about our works but about preparing, and being prepared by the Holy Spirit.
And even Creation will testify to Christ. Creation testifies in two ways – first remember Christ had authority over the weather? We see him calming storms, and in this we know he is the incarnate Lord. But, we also know of the coming new creation. All that is broken and crooked in creation because of the fall will be made whole and right.
This probably doesn’t mean your favorite childhood pet will be waiting for you when you get to heaven, but it does mean that there will be dogs in the new creation, who will be in the perfect, untarnished form of dogs. It does mean that every aspect of creation will be perfectly restored to how it was before the fall, and that will be an amazing and beautiful day.
And what does it mean that all flesh shall see God? Christ opened the door that every person can come to know God, opened the door that regardless of race, or ethnic background, regardless of socioeconomic factors, of upbringing, through Christ we can see God and are being prepared for fellowship with God. But it is also prophetic for the end, for St. John the Evangelist tells us that on the last day every knee shall bow and confess that Christ is Lord.
John the Baptist’s message stings to our modernist ears, but sometimes we must be stung to be awakened out of our stupor. John calls those who are listening “a brood of vipers.” Imagine if I were to start my sermons that way. I suspect it would get some sort of reaction, and probably not a very good one, for John is calling his listeners evil, connecting them with a creature that is routinely portrayed in the Old Testament as being a schemer, who seeks the destruction of others.
Jonathan Edwards, whose theological prose are matched by few others, is largely only remembered for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which starts by talking about God’s vengeance. In his context – it seems there were some pretty serious sin issues in his congregation that needed to be addressed, and his sermon wasn’t out of line – but as modernist we do not like to hear of God’s wrath.
So here we must pause and ask ourselves – are our hearts being conformed with God’s heart? Or is this all a show? Are we a brood of vipers more concerned with worldly goods or are we desiring to glorify God in all we do? Our life in Christ calls us to leave behind worldly goals, and seek to build the kingdom of heaven, seeks those fruits of the spirit.
And so we flee from God’s wrath – flee from those things that incite God’s anger and flee to His grace. The wrath of God is a tough thing to think about – but over the last year it has become clear to me that we cannot have a loving God without God’s wrath. We cannot have a God who truly cares for his creation who does not get angered by sin. We cannot have a Holy God, a God who is perfect, who is the truest form of love, who is good in every way imaginable, who does not condemn the actions that are the antithesis of love, of goodness, of perfection. No, God must become angry with sin, and God must condemn it, if he truly loves us.
And this is the good news: God sent forth a propitiation for our sins, that is God sent forth one who has taken all our sins upon Himself in order that we do not bear the intolerable burden of them, in order that we do not bear the wrath that is rightfully ours. It is in Christ that we find this freedom, and so when we flee from our sins, flee from God’s wrath, we flee into Christ, flee into God’s love, and to that mercy that we find in Christ and Christ alone.
It is when we are in Christ and given the Holy Spirit that we are given the ability to bear fruit that is in keeping with repentance and what is that fruit? It is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It might do us well to memorize the end of Galatians five, so we are continually reminded of what God is doing in us. We know that we are still fallen, we know that we still sin, that we fail at times to produce these fruits, but the fruit doesn’t come from our own work, but learning to reside in the spirit all the more. It is under His sanctification that we start to love better, to rejoice more in all things, to be more patient in adversity, to be kinder to our friends, and even those who hate us, to love goodness, and to do good, to be faithful to Christ, to be gentle, and to have self-control.
John’s warning to not say for ourselves that we have Abraham for a father stands true for us today as well, though I doubt many of us are trusting in that specific heritage – we do have a tendency to trust in the things of the world, to say these things set us apart. This is another good question to ask ourselves from time to time: are you trusting in anything that isn’t Christ? Are you a cradle Episcopalian, therefore, set apart, regardless of your actions? Are you an amazing patriot? Therefore set apart, regardless of your actions? Are you a democrat or a republican? Therefore about reproach? Are you well education? Are you hardworking?
There is a goodness in being a child of Abraham, they are God’s chosen people, there is a goodness in being raised in the church, and faithfully attending throughout your life, what an amazing testimony of God’s faithfulness, there is a goodness in loving our country, we were planted here after all, there is a goodness in having political convictions, it shows we care, there is a goodness in being educated, it can renew our mind, and there is a goodness is being hardworking! These are all good and beautiful things, but they do not save and we cannot trust in them.
No, we trust in the Lord. When judgment day comes surely our actions will matter, but we will find ourselves in the arms of Christ, not because we were Episcopalian, or Anglican, or Baptist, or a patriot, or a democrat, or a republican, or held several degrees, or held no degrees all. We will find ourselves in the arms of Christ because he loves us, he died for us, and he rose again, we will find ourselves in the arms of Christ because we trust in Him, and him alone, and not in any of our own works.
John the Baptist says that God can make for himself children from the stones. Of course he meant the stones that liter the Judean wilderness, but God raises the spiritually dead to life all the time. And in this we are called to rejoice, for we were once spiritually dead, but now are alive in Christ, we were once separated from God, but now in Christ are made one.
And it is Christ who has given His church the Holy Spirit and it is Christ that will judge with fire. In the now, the fire is the process of sanctification, the burning away of all our imperfections, all our brokenness, all our sins.
I once heard it said – that we can either serve the Christ who comes riding humbly into Jerusalem on a donkey or we can be judged by the Christ who comes to conquer on the last day, riding upon the white horse of victory. Let us serve the humble Christ who makes us humble like him through the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist prepares the way for the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry, he was God’s tool in softening the soil, in tilling it for the seeds of Christ to be sown and grow. We are reminded through his hard words that as we look forward to celebrating the incarnation next Wednesday, that our hearts are constantly being tilled by the spirit, and watered, and pruned until we produce the fruits of the spirit, and that in this we are called to be prepared for Christ’s second coming.
It is Christ’s second coming that gives us such a great hope in these days of turmoil. We may not understand the evil that befalls but to quote the poet:
And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again/
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and in the Lover all/
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales.
In the face of all our pain, and sorrow, in the face of all our sin and heart ache, in the face the darkness of the world, let us bear the light of Christ with joy, and cling tightly to him, knowing the great joy that will come in the last day.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 After the Last tears fall, Andrew Peterson.