Speaker: Rev. Doug de Graffenried
Scripture Passage: Luke 3:7-18
Our lesson this morning comes from the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Starting with the seventh verse.
John said to the crowds that came to be baptized by him, you brood of Vipers. who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits Worthy of repentance do not begin to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our ancestors for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees and every tree Therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. And the crowds ask him, what then should we do? In reply, he said to them, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise. Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they asked him, Teacher, what should we do? And he said to them, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Soldiers also ask him and we, what should we do? He said to them, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with your wages as the people were filled with expectation and all we’re questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the messiah, John answered all of them by saying, I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I’m not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, But the chaff, he will burn with unquenchable fire. So, with that in many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Friends This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
There are some things that happen in church life that just stick with you. Sometimes they’re hilarious, other times are poignant. Sometimes they just make good sermon illustrations and introductions. When I was a senior in high school. I preached my first sermon. It was televised because I grew up in a church that televised worship services. In that church, we remodeled the sanctuary and we put in a brand-new state of the art sound system. Not a vacuum tube within 100 miles of that sound system. it was solid state with transistors. It was glorious. And I was at one time one of the people who operated the sound system. I have since forgotten everything I ever knew about running a sound system. The same is true about air conditioning. I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about air conditioning. It’s good as a preacher to forget.
It was a Sunday night. It was a Sunday night in December. We were having church and the preacher was preaching a Sunday night sermon series entitled “The Sandals of the Holidays,” and he was talking about all the characters that are around the birth of Jesus who were wearing sandals. My suspicion was this was the mid-seventies. He’s worried about all the people out there, them hippies that are coming to church, wearing sandals and wanting to bring guitars into God’s house. I don’t know what he was hoping to garner, but he read this passage I just read from Luke’s Gospel about John the Baptist. He closed his Bible. Put it on the pulpit and he said, let us pray. And he prayed and he said, Amen. And on that Sunday night.
WMSL Radio in Decatur Alabama was testing a new transmitter, which was on the bank building across the street from the church and before the preacher could say any word, The voice of Chuck Berry blared out, Go, go, Johnny, go, go, go, go, go, Johnny, go Johnny, be good.
And if you don’t understand that Chuck Berry song, it’s what Marty McFly sang in the 1985 version of Back to the Future. Man keeping up with you generations is hard. Preacher never recovered, and every time I see John the Baptist, I want to start humming Chuck Berry’s Go, go, Johnny, go, go, go Johnny, be good. And that’s what John the Baptist is to me. he’s this transitional character that speeds through the pages of scripture. He’s there one minute, next minute gone. He pops up at Christmas because if you read all the lections, we read about John the Baptist two Sundays in Advent and he’ll pop up again, an epiphany and boom. John the Baptist is gone. But I want to say to you, he’s a very important character in the Christmas story. He’s a very important character in the biblical story. He is the gatekeeper between the Old Testament, the New Testament. He’s got his foot in both worlds, he’s like one of the rogue prophets that the traveling bands of prophets. he’s in Nazareth, he’s taken the vow that he will drink no wine and no razor will ever touch him. He walks around in camel skins. He eats locusts and wild honey. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to dinner during Christmas time. And he comes out and he starts preaching, and all of Jerusalem, comes out to hear him, and he starts his sermon with you, Brood of Vipers. Translated You Dirty Rotten Sinners, who told you to show up for this. And he just lays it out in front of them. A message calling for them to repent. A message calling for them to repent, prepare their lives for the coming of the Messiah, he says, I’m not the Messiah, I’m not even worthy to bend down and unbuckle his sandals. The one coming is greater than I am, and he’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. but there are four things I think in this passage that are important for us to hear.
first of all. It’s your faith, not your parents’ faith. These people want to say, but we’re Abraham’s children, we’ve already got our ticket punched. We’re good Jewish people and John said, no, doesn’t count. You cannot have faith by birth. You can have nationality by birth. You can have ethnicity by birth. But you cannot have faith by birth. There are no secondhand faiths in the church. There are no people who inherited it from their parents or grandparents. Indeed, our parents and grandparents are vital to our faith development. But there comes a point where you have to say for yourself, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s my faith. No secondhand faith. No inherited faith. No, you get in because your grandpappy was once a deacon in church. You have to make a faith commitment to Christ. You have to make your decision about what you’re going to do with Jesus, about what you’re going to believe about Jesus. About following Jesus. It’s not your birth.
That’s why Jesus says to Nicodemus, look, Nicodemus, you may be a ruler of the Jews and you may be a rabbi and a great teacher, but Nicodemus, you must be born again. You must have your faith experience with Jesus Christ. Now here’s the cool part about this. Each faith experience is unique. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father, but by me, but each person that meets Christ, Meets Christ personally and meets Christ individually. Your faith experience in my faith experience, your faith story. My faith stories are going to be unique. They’re going to be different. They’re going to be some commonality in them, Jesus Christ. But how we came to that faith in Christ is going to be as individual as our fingerprints.
second thing, John called the people to repent. We don’t say repent like we say any other word in the church. It’s one of those words that old timey evangelist used to use, and they would have their 27-pound Scofield reference Bible and they would hold it like this, they’d say brothers and sisters, you need to repent. You have to put the emphasis on the last syllable. You need to turn or You’re going to burn. You better get right or you’re going to get left. And it’s no wonder people go around, repent. Oh, I don’t think I want to be involved in that. The Hebrew word shoe is the word translated. Shove means to turn around. Turnaround doesn’t sound deeply theological. The Greek word for repentance is Metanoia, it means to change your mind, that doesn’t sound very theological either. I mean, that kind of loses the evangelical flavor of repent when you say it means to return or to change your mind. Repentance means stop following the crowd. Repentance means stop doing what the world’s doing and trying to call it good. Because everybody else is doing it. Repentance means turning your back on the world and turning it back toward God.
I confess that yesterday I went to TJ Max. I’d like to throw myself on the mercy of the court. Because I don’t believe in Christmas shopping anymore, because there’s this thing called Amazon, and Amazon will shop for you. You know how bad Christmas has gotten. one of the things I used to do on Christmas Eve is I would finish all my shopping. I’d get it wrapped or in gift bags. Gift bags are biblical, that’s what God wants you doing. I’d have it all done, and on Christmas Eve, Tamara knew that I was going to find a mall someplace and I would go, and I would sit in the mall, and I would sit in front of the jewelry stores. Because what you found were all the frantic males who were in the jewelry store because they hadn’t listened to their wives’ hints. they had no idea what to get her for Christmas. And they were all buzzing in the last minute at the jewelry store. It was hilarious to watch. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t find a mall in the malls. I can’t find don’t have any people in them because they’re all shopping at the Amazon. I was in TJ Max. I was thinking about repentance. And I have my little buggy of stuff when the nice, polite lady comes on and says, “Number one now available.” It was my turn to check out I’d been in that line for a while. Repentance would be turning around at that point and leaving.
John says you’ve got to repent. You’ve got to turn your back on some things you declared normative. You’ve got to turn your back on some of the ways you’re living and turn and face God. And walked back toward him. You’re not born into it, you need to repent, you need to do the right thing. And it’s interesting how John phrases this because so much of what John says either James or Jesus is going to say in another form. the crowds say, What do we do? John says if you have to coats, you got to share with anyone who has none. if you have food, you must do likewise. Jesus will raise that up a level, he’ll say. If you’re compelled to go one mile, go with somebody, two. The tax collectors, they’re repenting, they’re being baptized, they’re acknowledging their need to change your life. Teacher, what do we need to need to do? And Jesus said to the tax collectors collect no more than the amount prescribed for you, because the way the tax collectors made money is, they skimmed off the taxes. They were cheats. They were legal cheats put in place by the Roman Empire. Even the Roman soldiers asked him, “What do we need to do?” And John told them, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, but be satisfied with that Which you’re being paid. Do the right thing. You’ve got to have your own faith experience with Jesus Christ, you can’t be born into the Kingdom of God by virtue of birth. You need to repent. You need to turn from the worldly ways, and turn back to God, and you need to do the right thing. You need to treat people well. You need to show them love And Grace.
Verse 18. It just jumped off the page at me. So, with many other exhortations. He proclaimed good news. Good news to the people. We have good news. We have good news that even as this culture is in the middle of whatever we’re in, we have hope. We have light, we have love. We have the expectation that Jesus Christ who came once is coming again. And just as the first century awaited him, we await him. This season is about joy and light and love and hope and second chances and and grace. Are you experiencing it? Are you experiencing good news?
In 1965. Charles Schulz was Commissioned and hired by CBS to produce a holiday special and. And it’s the Charlie Brown Christmas. I think they’ve moved it to PBS now because it has religious overtones. And the thesis of the cartoon and the thesis of the show is that Christmas, in the 1960s, y’all, had become too commercial. It had lost its Christian underpinnings and the characters Snoopy is used to sort of describe and illustrate and live out the insanity of commercialism and the Christmas competitions we get into. And Charles Shultz was struggling how to proclaim his Christian faith and get away with it. Because the networks at that time even then were loath to allow anything overtly Christian To pop, into our broadcast. So, at one moment of great frustration, Charlie Brown, who is lamenting this Christmas tree they bought, you remember the Christmas tree, all the little everything fell off of it. It was a pitiful Christmas tree in Charlie Brown wanted to know what was the meaning of Christmas. And up popped, Linus. Linus, who always had his blanket. His security blanket. Janice didn’t go anywhere without the blanket. And Linus says, I’ll tell you, Charlie Brown, the meaning of Christmas. In the scene, Linus gets up and basically recites the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. That in the region. There were shepherds. Living in the fields by night, keeping watch over their flock. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them in the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them Do not be afraid for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people. for you is born this day in the city of David. A Savior, the messiah. The Lord.
And if you go home, which you will. Get on YouTube, which you will. And watch Lioness give the speech. At the minute, he is quoting the angels that say, fear not. Linus drops his security blanket. The only time in the Charlie Brown run, Linus, is without the blanket. The good news that we have in Jesus Christ is that we don’t need to be afraid. The good news we have in Jesus Christ is that no headline on the news can harm us. The good news in Jesus Christ is that nothing can befall us that will separate us from God’s love. The good news in Jesus Christ is that you don’t have to do it. God has already done it for you. The good news in Christ Jesus is that you, through the love and grace of Jesus, have been made right and whole and complete Before God.
There’s a good news story about a guy, you know what he did. You just don’t know him. His name is James Pierpont. James Pierpont died in 1866. After living a life which most people would consider a failure. James Pierpont was a graduate of Yale; A School His grandfather had helped found Pierpont Cho’s education as his profession. However, it didn’t last because he was way too easy on his students. So, we turned to law. But he couldn’t make a go of being a lawyer because he was too generous with his clients. So, he published a book of poems. But he didn’t collect enough in royalties to make a living. So, then Pierpont decided that he’d become a minister. But his position for prohibition and against slavery got him into trouble with the influential members of his congregation. And so, he tried politics. He ran for governor and for Congress. But of course, He lost. The Civil War came, and he volunteered to be a military chaplain. two weeks later, he quit. He said his health wasn’t good enough to continue doing it. Of course, he was 76 years old at the time. Finally, somebody found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington, and he finished out his life as a menial file clerk. James Pierpont accomplished nothing he set out to do. A small Memorial Sloan marks his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The words in granite read Poet, preacher, philosopher, philanthropist. But there’s one important sense where James Pierpont wasn’t a failure. He wrote a song. Not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It’s a song about the joy of riding in a sleigh. James Pierpont wrote Jingle Bells. A song for three or 400 million people around the world will be one of their theme songs this Christmas.
What is it about James Pierpont’s life that speaks to me about Jesus? just this he spent his whole life working to make his life count. And all he experienced was failure. And then in a bit of a whimsy, he wrote a chorus that will be sung by millions of people for generations. To me, this is a glimpse of God’s grace. that you and I work so hard to try to please God. But all of our strivings are nothing in his eyes. But when we say yes to Jesus Christ, when we say yes to the love of God in Christ Jesus, into the mercy available to us through faith, He brings into our hearts, his love, his peace, his joy.
And suddenly, with no effort on our own, we move from the losing side of life to the winning side. We move from the hopeless side of life to the abundant side of life. We move from the shadows into eternal sunlight and all this with a simple yes. It’s enough to make a person feel absolutely giddy. But the story of this good news. Starts in the New Testament. With the preaching of John the Baptist. Go, go, Johnny. Go, go, go. Would you stand and pray with me?
We thank you, God, for this season of light and love, and we thank you of the physical reminder we have of your amazing grace. We pray that Bethlehem’s babe would be born in us and knew that we would experience the tenderness, the splendor, The hope and the majesty of that birth. be born anew in this Lord Jesus is our prayer. Amen.