Sermon originally preached at Kenai and North Star United Methodist Churches on December 16th, 2018.
John said to the crowds that came out 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 ancestor’; 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; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked 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?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were 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 am 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 many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Today’s scripture, at face value, seems to be pretty far from a joyful one. Instead, it begins with a casual calling out of the folks John is speaking to, calling them a brood of vipers. The crowds, who are there to be baptized, are being selfish, according to John. John addresses the crowd, and tells them, that in order for them to be prepared for Christ, they must repent.
Now, repentance, at least for me, has been a tough word to digest. We Methodists don’t really love to talk about things that revolve around sin language. I think a part of that is because it gets flipped too often, to mean that we need to be ashamed of ourselves in order to realize we need God to save us. What I want to offer today, is that repentance simply means gaining an awareness of God as the one who provides joy to us, above anyone or anything else.
John tells folks to repent, and then he digs deeper, addressing each person or group of people there. He tells the tax collectors they should only collect the prescribed amount, meaning they can’t cheat people and keep the money for themselves. They must repent of the idea that money can bring the tax collectors more joy than God.
He instructs the soldiers similarly, telling them not to collect money that is offered by threats or false accusations. The soldiers must repent of immoral monetary gifts, and again, the idea that money brings more joy than God.
And John instructs all of us of this: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Following the pattern, in doing this, the people are to learn that holding on to possessions will not bring as much joy as they’ll receive when they give to others, sharing the joy of Christ.
So joy, true and loving joy, is rooted in God. That’s the bottom line of John’s teaching in this passage. We are called to be the joy, modeling Christ’s joy and love for others.
The holidays are not an incredible happy time for everyone. This season can be filled with worry, loneliness, stress, and the list goes on. While I was in school, I had a friend who wasn’t able to go home for the holidays, because they had come to the United States from their home country because they were being threatened. They had to leave their family, and they weren’t sure when they’d be able to see them again. The holidays also remind many of us of family, and we can find ourselves reminded especially of loved ones who are no longer with us, during this time. Sometimes, joy isn’t the immediate thought that comes to mind for folks.
But if today’s scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God offers joy, and promises us, that we can trust in God, more than money, more than material possessions, more than our status. And through these examples, God promises us, through God’s love, that we can find joy and be joy, no matter how we compare to anyone else.
God has promised to change the world we are living in. God promises to change the world from corruption, failed leadership, captivity, injustice, oppression; all things which are currently affecting the vulnerable community members, or the ones who find it hard to experience more joy than sorrow.
At Christmastime, we’ve been given a great opportunity, a gift, to help others see joy in God’s constant love and relationship. Often times, we think to do that through giving material possessions, by taking one of those names off the tree, by giving gifts, by providing food. Those things are all ways that we can share joy, but not for the reason we might assume. The ‘stuff’ itself is not where the true joy that John invites us to share comes from. Instead, it’s the transaction itself, the giving, that is the source of that joy. To know someone cares, and to make the choice to care, that’s an act of love, and that love is a reminder of the joy we find in Christ.
There is a difference between happiness and joy, and the difference, I believe is love. At our Advent study on Monday, we looked up what the biblical sense of joy means. It described it as eternal, as something that lives on and stands the test of time and circumstances. A box of food itself can be taken away, or consumed until there is none left. That box of food brought happiness. But the fact that several of you gave your time and energy, your money, in order to purchase and prepare that box of food for someone else: that joy is eternal. That joy demonstrates love, love that is directly parallel with how Jesus teaches us to love.
This Sunday in Advent, we are being challenged to find pockets of true, loving joy in our lives. And, we are challenged to share joy with others. It doesn’t mean we will be happy all the time. It doesn’t mean we can expect someone who is going through a tough season to suddenly feel perfect. It means that we share the love of God, for no purpose other than to love and be loved.
Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, is a story of unconditional love. It’s miraculous, and it’s also very ordinary. These parents, through the coming into the world of baby Jesus, suddenly knew love in a profound way. They loved this baby, like most parents, unconditionally. They knew their journey in raising this child, not to mention him being a savior and everything, would not be easy or perfect or even happy at moments. I’m thinking the middle of the night crying, or the moments the child learns their first swear word or throws a tantrum in a public place. But Mary and Joseph realized, that love was not about being happy. It was about finding joy, and knowing joy, through their newborn child.
This Christmas season, may we learn and re-learn and practice that same lesson. May we remember that true joy comes from God’s unconditional love for us, and is shared in the name of that same love. That joy has no prescriptions or limitations, and it won’t go away. May we seek little moments and big moments of joy this Christmas season, and find small or big ways to share joy with others. Through the love of God, may we prepare to see and be joy, as we anticipate the arrival of Jesus. Amen.
Loving God, we thank you for the many ways you teach us and walk with us. Through the moments of stress, anger, grief, you are with us, promising us much more than happiness. As Advent people, help us to look beyond the everyday things to see the extraordinary joy you place on our hearts. It is in your name we pray, Amen.