By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
December 13, 2009
Read: Luke 3:7-18
John has some harsh words to say this morning. First he addresses the crowd – those people who went out of their way to travel into the wilderness to see him and hear him – by calling them a “brood of vipers”. How would you like to be called a viper? And notice it is a brood – in other words, children. Children of snakes he says. And don’t begin to say to yourself, well…Abraham is my ancestor, so it’s all ok. Forget it.
And then John gets out the ax. The ax is lying at the root of the tree and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Not so warm and fuzzy. And so, the crowd asks John. “What then should we do?” It’s a great question.
In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books—also now produced as movies—the central character is a powerful and mysterious lion named Aslan. Clearly Aslan is intended to be a Christ figure.
Four human siblings are magically transported from earth to the kingdom of Narnia, where Aslan rules. One by one, the four children are invited and challenged to follow Aslan. Early on, two of them become Aslan’s followers. The others aren’t so sure about it all, and one of them asks a sibling, ”Why should we follow Aslan? Is he safe?”
And the reply comes, “No, Aslan’s not safe—but he’s good!”
Doesn’t the preaching of John the Baptist tell us the same thing about Jesus—he’s not safe—but he is good!”
Is that what we are expecting this Advent? Are we expecting Jesus? Are we just expecting Jesus to wave a magic wand and make everything right? Or are we expecting Jesus to shake things up—to change the world, maybe even change you and me?
John makes it clear that Jesus is going to make some changes—and those changes will begin with us. Because, like Aslan, Jesus is good—but he’s not safe! Especially for those who are complacent, those who rest on our laurels, those do not take seriously the call to repentance—Jesus is NOT safe!
“What should we do?” the people plead with John, after he announces it’s time to repent.
And here’s where it gets dangerous: “You might have to change your lives!” John responds. Share with others. Treat others fairly. Don’t exploit them. Don’t take advantage of them. Be content with what you have.
Not safe—but good. (Rev. Rick Thompson’s phrase)
Good, because it’s a change that will make goodness possible in us. God is doing something new, and it will be good—but the old has to go!
In the old movie The High and the Mighty, a plane is over the ocean when the pilot announces, “There is a problem. We cannot correct it. We are not going to make it. I want you to know, so you can prepare for the inevitable.”
An elegantly dressed woman begins to remove the diamond broach from her neck, and a large, expensive right from her finger. She peels off her false eyelashes, and takes off her make-up—revealing an old scar on her forehead, previously hidden by the make-up. She is preparing herself for the end, and will go there as she really is.
Unexpectedly — but, of course, this is a movie — the flight is saved, and lands at the airport. But the woman has changed. She had an opportunity to be honest about herself, and she took it.
That’s how it is with repentance. That’s how it is when we expect Jesus to come. We’re invited to be honest about ourselves. We’re warned that he comes in judgment. But we’re also told that his ultimate purpose is to forgive our sins, to save us, and to heal the creation.
No, he’s not safe. But, yes, Jesus is good!
That’s why preacher and Bible scholar Fred Craddock says of John’s preaching, “When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is good news.
What is it that God wants from us? There is a story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven. She was told she could return when she could bring back to God the one thing that God valued most. So she searched the world for what God might want most.
She collected coins given by a destitute widow for the poor. She brought back dust from the shoes of missionaries who had spread the gospel to distant lands. She even brought back drops of blood from a dying martyr. Yet every gift she brought to God was turned back.
One day she watched a small boy playing in a fountain. A man rode up on horseback to take a drink. When he saw the boy playing in the fountain, the man remembered his own childhood innocence. Then he looked into the water and saw the reflection of his hardened face. He was overcome by the sin of his life. At that moment he wept tears of repentance. The young woman caught one of those tears and brought it back to heaven. She was received by the angels with joy.
Preacher and author Walt Wangerin tells the story of a dream he once had.
“In my dream, a friend was coming to see me, and I was excited! I didn’t know who the friend was…but the anticipation and certainty of my friend’s coming occupied me.
“As the time of arrival drew nearer and nearer, my excitement increased. I felt more and more like a child….Laughter fell from me like rain. I wanted to stand on the porch and bellow to the neighborhood, ‘My friend is coming!’ Joy became a sort of swelling in my chest, and all my flesh began to tingle.
“A wild kind of music attended my waiting. And the closer my friend came, the more exquisite grew the music—high violins rising higher by the sweetest, tightest, most piercing dissonance, reaching for, weeping for, the final resolve of his appearing.
“And when the music had ascended to nearly impossible chords of wailing little noises…and when excitement had squeezed the breath from my lungs, I started to cry.
“And my friend came….then I put my hands to my cheeks and cried and laughed at once.
“He was looking directly at me, with affection—and I grew so strong within his gaze. And I knew at once who it was.
“It was Jesus.” (Wangerin, Walter in Eifrig, ed., “Waiting for a Friend to Arrive,” Measuring the Days: Daily Reflections with Walter Wanterin, Jr., pp. 326-7. )
As Eugene Peterson wisely says: Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god . . . Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.
The person who will endure is the one who has made himself or herself ready. Preparing for Christ’s return calls for soul-searching and repentance, two of the great, but often-forgotten, themes of this time of year. God is pleased with the gift of our sincere repentance – a seeing of our sins, a sadness over our sins, a willingness to try, with God’s help, to amend our living, a turning back to God, a turning things around. A willingness to try.
Jesus Christ is our Savior. He rescues us from our broken relationship with God and offers us a new relationship under God’s kingdom rule, which completely reorders creation and the human community. And this is good news. Not safe, but good! Thank God! Amen.
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