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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent - December 17, 2006

   John the Baptist got their attention; after all, you call people a brood of vipers and they’re probably going to take notice, if for no other reason than to tell you exactly what you can do with your opinions.  But John didn’t back off and apparently continued to draw crowds.  He kept up his call for repentance and his message was across the board, inclusive of all those groups that came out to the wilderness to hear him; he had something to say to all of them. 

First, for those counting on their status as children of Abraham as the ticket to God, they were warned that that’s not enough.  Your insider status won’t save you, John told them.  Other parts of the crowd were reminded of the Old Testament commands to share the necessities of life, food and clothing, to share from their abundance with others who had less.  Tax collectors and soldiers were told not to cheat and defraud the people they dealt with.  That sounds quite obvious to us but for them a lot of it was business as usual, just doing what they needed to do to get by.  They probably knew it was wrong, but it was the old every one else is doing it argument.

In any case, John the Baptist didn’t pull any punches in his ethical demands.  He preached a repentance which was more than just feeling bad about your sins and shortcomings.  For John, repentance included real changes in behavior as the fruits of repentance.  Ultimately this kind of honesty in preaching was what got him in trouble with King Herod and led to his execution.  But for others who heard him it was such bold statements that made them think that perhaps he was the messiah they were waiting for.

“Messiah” is a term that we use quite a lot, especially at this time of year, but it’s not really possible to know exactly what the average man on the street believed about the coming of the messiah back in first century Palestine.  The general consensus is that based on some Old Testament prophecies and statements about King David, the messiah they were looking for was someone who would lead some kind of military/political rebellion, but specifics were not clear.  In any case, there was enough in the prophetic tradition for the messiah question to be raised when people like John showed up preaching about the wrath of God and the judgment of God.  Could he be the one who would trigger this uprising?

It was at that point that John’s true character and his true calling emerged most clearly.  He consistently deflected attention from himself in order to announce the one who was yet to come.  His message of repentance was important but not as a means to and end.  Instead it was the way to prepare for the means, who was the Coming One, the Christ, the Messiah.

You wonder if at first the people didn’t kind of breathe a sigh of relief that John’s harsh message was not the last word, that he was just pointing to someone else.  It must have been a short lived sigh of relief however as they heard of John’s vision of the messiah with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor, a vision of chaff burning in unquenchable fire.  Pitch forks and fire are things we associate with the devil not the messiah; so while John the Baptist made clear that he himself was not the messiah, the one he was talking about didn’t sound like a day at the beach either. 

John reminds us that for those who prefer Holy Jesus, tender and mild, for those who prefer to leave the baby Jesus sweetly lying in the manger, it’s not quite that simple.  This messiah that John announces, the one that we prepare for during the season of Advent, this messiah has an edge to him that we must take seriously if we’re preparing for the grown up Jesus as well as the baby Jesus.

That’s the word from John in today’s gospel lesson that ends with the words “So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people;” except this doesn’t exactly sound like good news, it sounds like scary, judgmental news, not really what we want to hear a week before Christmas.  But, before we go too far down the judgment road, we remember that what John is announcing, what Jesus proclaims, what the core message of the New Testament offers is a reality that is not about the unquenchable fire of hell. 

Jesus comes into the world to show that our real destiny lies with God.  He comes into the world so that we can share in his own eternal life with God.  That is God’s will for us.  That’s the good concerning the news John proclaims.  We do take seriously that edge that Jesus has even at Christmastime, but at the same time we remember that nowhere does the gospel announce that the kingdom of hell is at hand.

John the Baptist’s word of judgment and unquenchable fire is not the last word.  In Lutheran terms we would call it a word of law that drives us to the grace of the gospel, the grace of the coming messiah.  Recognizing our inability to adequately fulfill all that is required when we ask “What should we do?” we repent and turn toward a God who knows our inadequacies and by grace, loves us anyway.  We turn to the God revealed in Jesus, the Messiah, the one we prepare for, the one who was and who is and who is yet to come.  We prepare for and give thanks for the Advent of the kingdom of heaven made known in Jesus.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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not me
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