Sermons That Work

Comfort and Affliction, Advent 3 (C) – 1997

December 14, 1997


“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!…. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” proclaims John the Baptist in today’s gospel.

And “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near, don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your heart and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Huh?

What is this, a mixed message festival? In the gospel John the Baptist says: Vipers, bear fruit, and repent or fry! and the second reading from Philippians tells us, and by the way: Don’t worry, be happy, the Lord is near!

Huh?

Advent is a time of preparing for the Lord’s coming. The two readings from Luke and Philippians seem to have contradictory advice as to how we are to prepare for the Lord’s arrival. One seemingly tells to prepare for the Lord’s coming by straightening up, flying right and getting our acts together or else!, the other seem to say, throw some shrimp on the barbie, kick back and relax. Well, which is it? What are we supposed to do? We all want to get ready for the Lord’s coming, but how?

One way to bridge these two seemingly contradictory preparation plans is to remember that the gospel, if it is truly the gospel, is always a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. In other words, the gospel can simultaneously “comfort the afflicted” and “afflict the comfortable.”

There are times in our walk with God that we need be shaken out of our complacency and receive a good kick in our religious rears. There are other times when the weight of life has beaten us down and we desperately need to put away our anxiety and worry and trust that the Lord is near. The texts for today speak to both of those realities in our lives.

In the gospel, John the Baptist is furious with the people because he say through their religious charade. He looked over the crowd that had come to be baptized and realized that many who came had motives that were far from pure.

Some in the baptismal crowd were there, not out of sincerity, but to try and cover their rears. They wanted baptism as a salvation insurance policy that called for no premiums, no righteousness, and no real faith.

To those looking for religious cover, the gospel, the good news came as a harsh word. They were told to stop being hypocrites, and “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Being children of Abraham could not cover them, for God could turn stones into children of Abraham.

The only authentic way for them to prepare for the Lord’s coming was for them to have a changed heart. They were told not only to “talk the talk” of faith but to “walk the walk” of faith as well. Those with two coats were to share one with some one else… Those who had food were to divide it with others…

The text from Philippians speaks to those were religious, but more often than not their religion was more a burden to bear than a joy to share. To those people, preparing for the Lord’s coming was a daunting task. A matter of dotting all I’s and crossing all the T’s of life, as if salvation were a matter of self justifying spiritual precision.

The author of Philippians knew that folk, no matter how good and righteous, no matter how vigilant and faithful, were not capable of working their way to heaven, but that salvation and the joy in believing that goes with it, comes as a free gift of grace, and not of works, lest anyone should boast. To those who were worried about being perfect enough for the Lord’s coming the message was to rejoice, for the Lord is near.

Nothing much has changed in the last 2,000 years. When it comes for preparation for the Lord’s coming, God’s people are still prone to extremes. Some of us fret about religion to the extent that joy is lost. Others of us can slide into believing that religion is a game to be played with skill and that grace comes cheap. Most of us experience both poles, at one time being fearful and at other times being naive.

It is gospel, it is good news that God’s word is a two-edged sword that cannot be escaped.

It is Advent. It is the time to prepare the Lord’s way. It is time to bear the fruits worthy of repentance and to amend our lives and our ways. We cannot begin to say to ourselves “we are children of Abraham.” For God can create children of Abraham faster than we can blink.

It is Advent, and we must prepare, for the Lord who is coming and is powerful. His sandals we are not worthy to untie. He will come to baptize us with fire and the Holy Spirit.

It is advent, so let us rejoice in the Lord always, for he is near. “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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