No one, no one begins their sermons like john the Baptist begins his sermon in the Gospel lesson for today: “You brood of vipers!” “Ack!,” I’m saying, “Is he talking about me?” Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “My family has been Lutheran for over five generations.” “I have been a member of this church for fifty years.” “I am a new person I have a perspective nobody else has.” “I have a Masters of divinity.” God is able from these stones to raise masters of divinity.” It takes time to raise a Masters of divinity and a lot of work but it can be done. And there’s nothing wrong, in fact it is a very good thing to be Lutheran for over five generations or a member of the church for fifty years or new, with a very important perspective, or even to have a masters of divinity. It just won’t get you off the hook.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” IF you have two cloaks, share one with someone who doesn’t’ have any. If you have food, share some with someone who has none.
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” so if you’re cutting down a tree, you touch the blade of the ax to the place on the tree where you plan to strike first, to show your body where to start cutting. “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John the Baptist! Awfully intense.
Now, this would be the part of the sermon where I pick something that is happening in the world or in our congregation or in our personal lives, that everybody knows, everybody knows shouldn’t be. And we’re kind of relieved to pull it out in the open.
I’m not sure I’ve been here long enough to do that. Besides, it’s joy Sunday. And I’m particularly interested in the last line of the Gospel lesson. It says, “with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people. How is this good news?
We’ll hear it in a couple of weeks, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.” Good news.
Maybe here is one piece of it. Wouldn’t it be a relief to have the parts of us that hang there, dragging bearing no fruit, cut away? Wouldn’t it be a relief if those withered, bitter branches, full of hatred and cynicism and a sense of entitlement and arrogance and despair could be cut away?
He is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Remember that Spirit and breath are the same word in both Greek and Hebrew. Spirit and wind. What happens to a fire if you breathe on it? What happens to an established fire in the wind?
Wouldn’t it be nice if those branches of bitterness and resentment and entitlement and despair and hate were to burn away. Wheeew, to nothing? That would be good news.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most popular Christian writers of the mid twentieth century, wrote a series of children’s fantasies entitled the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book in that series, entitled the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, begins like this: “There was once a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” That has got to be one of the greatest first lines of a book ever. And it was true. Eustice was a twerp. He was self-centered. Everything was everybody else’s fault and he could not be expected in any way to help deal with it. He had no imagination. No compassion.
One day, Eustace is transformed into what he has been for so many years. He becomes a dragon. IN this story, dragons are greedy and self-centered, and they devour their own kind. At first, nobody recognizes Eustace. He sheds tears, but they think it might be crocodile tears, that is, tears someone sheds to draw you in so that they can devour you.
Eventually Eustace’s companions figure out what has happened and he tries to do better. But he’s still a dragon. One moonlit night while he sits weeping beside a pool of water high in the mountains, the Christ figure comes to him. The Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia is a lion, named Aslan. Aslan the Christ-figure says “It’s time for you to take a bath.” Now, remember, the word Baptism means, a bath, a cleansing with water in in Greek. Time to take a bath, a baptism. But first you have to take off your clothes. Eustace doesn’t understand this because he’s a dragon. He has no clothes. But then he realizes that he can wriggle out of his skin, just like a snake wriggles out of his skin.
So he claws and pulls and tugs and wriggles out of the outer layer of his skin. There it lies in the moonlight, ugly, kind of frightening. Eustace makes to ge t in the water, but Aslan says ‘You haven’t taken off all your clothes yet. Eustace says Okay, must be another layer of skin. So he tugs and claws and wriggles his way out of a second layer of skin. There it lays, uglier than the first, more scary.
Aslan says “I have to take your clothes off for you. Are we willing for Jesus to take our clothes off for us, so that we can walk this journey of daily repentance, daily baptism, daily new life that is our journey as Christians?
Aslan’s claws pierce so deeply that Eustace thinks his heart is being torn apart. Surely he will die from this. Surely he is being torn limb from limb. Aslan pulls off the whole skin, and there it lies in the moonlight. It is horrible. Eustace is terrified.
And then Aslan throws Eustace in the water. Ow! It stings. It is cold and it hurts. Eustace thrashes around like he’s drowning. And then he finally climbs out into the moonlight, naked, shivering, human.
Wouldn’t it be a relief to see all that withered bitterness the arrogance and sense of entitlement the hatred and laziness and fear and despair burn?
George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis’s spiritual mentor, says “When we say that God is love, do we teach [people] that their fear of Him is groundless? NO. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. . .The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear. . .”
Good news. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, say the angels. We will hear them in a couple of weeks.
There is something deeper than our bitterness, our hatred, our sense of entitlement, our resentment our laziness, our fear, our despair. There is something bigger than us or anything we care about. That yes, might burn us up into nothing, burn what we think we are, at least, but only so that we can be what God has made us to be. What we have truly been since the dawn of time.
Something is coming: A baby in a manger, coming, a rabbi on a hill, a convict on a cross, an empty tomb, a blazing resurrection light, that changes everything.