A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on December 16, 2012.
The Third Sunday of Advent
On a day like this one, it’s not so hard to believe the world is coming to an end. The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, has left the whole nation feeling shaky and scared, wondering what tomorrow’s headlines will bring. And although I’ve done my best to dispel the rumors that the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012, there may be some of you this morning who are thinking the Mayans may have been right, and that the reason they didn’t put any more days on their calendar is simply because they knew there wouldn’t be any more days to record.
My friend Walter Witschey would disagree.
Dr. Witschey—Maya archaeologist and Director Emeritus of the Science Museum of Virginia—says the Maya calendar is like the odometer on your car, and that it’s simply getting ready to roll over to the next cycle. That sounds reasonable. But recently I asked a car enthusiast why most odometers only go up to 100,000 miles and he said, “Because that’s as long as most cars last.” And I thought, “Aha! Maybe that’s it. Maybe this old world we’ve been riding around on for all these years is not going to explode in flames but simply sputter to a stop like an old car by the side of the road. It certainly seems to be showing signs of age. The polar ice caps are melting, tectonic plates are shifting, earthquakes are rumbling. When I read the Gospel lesson from Luke 21 a couple of weeks ago, about the signs of the end times, I could almost hear some of you saying, “‘Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom’—check. ‘There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues’—check. ‘There will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’—check.” Seriously, can you remember another time when there were so many natural disasters or so much violence?
It makes you think the world is coming to an end.
Here we are in the season of Advent, a time of waiting and preparation, but last Sunday I said there is a big difference between waiting and preparing for the end of the world and waiting and preparing for the Day of the Lord. This Sunday I want to expand on that. I want us to think about the difference between waiting and preparing for 1) the end of the world, 2) the Day of the Lord, 3) the birth of a child, and 4) the coming of Santa Claus. Let’s look at those one by one:
- If the world were going to end this Friday, then this would be our last Sunday ever. We would have already heard the last welcome and announcements we will ever hear in church, the last prelude, the last call to worship. We would have sung “Angels We Have Heard on High” for the last time, seen our last baby dedication, heard our last Scripture reading. I don’t think we would be preparing for the end. What could we do, really? I think we would be gripped by a profound sadness, with tears streaming down our faces as we realized again and again, “This is the last time we will ever do this!” We would linger long after worship was over, hugging and holding on to each other. Someone would start to sing “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” and we would all join hands and join in. When the singing was over I would assure you that the next time we gathered for worship we would gather in heaven, singing praises around God’s throne, and that would be a comfort. That would be enough to get you out the door. At least, some of you. Others wouldn’t want to leave at all, and Lynn Turner would finally announce that the doors of the church would stay open till the very end for anyone who wanted to come and pray or weep in those final days, or for anyone who just didn’t want to be alone. Many of you would make up your minds in that moment to stay right here till the bitter end, and start looking for a comfortable pew where you could bed down for the night.
- But if December 21st were not the end of the world but the Day of the Lord, it would be different. If we knew with absolute certainty that Jesus were coming back this Friday, then the most important moment in the service would be the invitation, when I would invite you to come forward to profess your faith in Christ, to recommit yourself to him, or to join his church. I have a feeling everybody here would come down the aisle. And they wouldn’t leave it up to me to tell the church why they had come. They would grab the microphone, and give their testimony. Someone would eventually insist that we fill the baptistry, and then the baptisms would begin. Some people wading into the water for the first time, others for the first time in a long time. Strangers would come in off the street to be baptized and soon the baptism team would give up trying to find white robes for everyone; I would baptize them just as they were, without one plea, until my arms got tired, until I had to ask Ralph Starling or Steve Blanchard to take over. I have a feeling that everybody would want to get in the water, and that it might take days to get the job done. Maybe we would still be here on Thursday night, baptizing the last few stragglers before the coming of the Day of the Lord.
- Now, if we were waiting and preparing for the birth of a child we would do what we always do in Advent: we would talk about the first coming of Christ and count down the days until December 25th, when we celebrate his birthday. We would light the candles on the Advent wreath and talk about the hope, peace, joy, and love that he brings. We would sing, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and “Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but we wouldn’t really mean it. We wouldn’t expect him to come. We would take part in the ritualized waiting and preparation that has become the staple of the Advent season, but it would be nothing like the kind of waiting and preparing a woman does when she is really expecting a child. I know something about that. Both of my children were born in Advent and I remember how the season had a different feel about it in those years. Christy and I weren’t simply participating in a ritual; we were getting ready. We made sure the overnight bag was packed and the gas tank was full because we didn’t know when the baby might come. Maybe that’s what Advent is supposed to feel like.
- And finally, if we were waiting and preparing for the coming of Santa Claus we would do what the rest of the world does at this time of year. We would go to the malls and shop for gifts while the loudspeakers blared “Jingle Bells,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We would try to find the perfect gift for everyone on our list and eventually give up with a good-natured grin and do the best we could. We would stock our pantries and fill our refrigerators and deck the halls with boughs of holly. The tree would already be up in the living room, the wreath on the front door, the stockings hung by the chimney with care. For those of us lucky enough to have someone coming home for Christmas there would be a delightful sense of anticipation in the air, and those of us traveling to see loved ones would look forward to the moment when we could get in the car and go. Neighbors would stop by with fruit cakes and cookies, strangers would greet each other like old friends, and everybody would be a little more cheerful than usual, caught up in a holiday mood, humming the songs of the season.
In many ways it is the most wonderful time of the year, and there is certainly nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas like that, but on this Third Sunday of Advent I need to ask you: what are you waiting for? What are you getting ready for? Is it the end of the world, the Day of the Lord, the birth of a child, or the coming of Santa Claus? Because it will make a difference in how you get ready. I promise you that. I want you to be honest, but honestly on this Sunday when we light the candle of joy I hope that we who call ourselves Christians can say that our joy is found not in the coming of Santa, but in the coming of Christ, and in today’s Gospel reading we hear about people who are getting ready for that.
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.”
It should be obvious to you that John wasn’t trying to help people get ready for the coming of Santa Claus, but he also wasn’t trying to help them get ready for the end of the world. He was trying to help them get ready for the Day of the Lord, and they responded in much the same way we would if we thought Jesus were coming back on Friday: they confessed their sins, they repented, and they got baptized. They wanted to stand before the Lord as pure and spotless as they could be. In John’s time there was an expectation that when the Messiah came the age they were in—what some called “the present evil age”—would give way to the Messianic Age, an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The way they talked about it was not so different from the way we talk about heaven, but instead of thinking they had to die and go “up there” they thought heaven would come when the Messiah did. It wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal. They thought they would move from one age to the next like you move from one room in your house to another, that the Messiah would open the door to an age when there would be peace on earth, good will toward men, and everybody would have plenty of everything.
But, like us, they also had the suspicion that not everybody would get to go through that door. They believed that only those who were pure and spotless would enter the new age. You’d better believe that when they heard John talk about the One who was to come they came to confess their sins, repent, and be baptized. Even so, when John saw them coming he said, “You sons of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Honestly, it’s the same kind of thing I would be tempted to say if we knew that Jesus were coming back this Friday and people I had never seen in church suddenly showed up asking to be baptized. I might not say it out loud, but I would surely be thinking, “Oh, now you come! Now that you know Jesus is coming back. Where were you on all those other Sundays? Who told you that you could just waltz in here at the last minute and get right with God?” And yet John baptized them, and I probably would, too. But he also told them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, if you’ve given your life to God there ought to be some evidence. People ought to be able to see something that would convince them. And if they didn’t see it, John said, then you might as well be cut down like a fruitless fig tree and thrown into the fire.
So, the crowds began to ask John, “What should we do?” And here’s one of the most interesting things about this passage: John doesn’t tell them to pray more or read the Bible more or come to church more. He says, “If you have two coats, share with someone who doesn’t even have one. And if you have more food than you need, share with someone who doesn’t have enough.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be content with your wages.” John doesn’t ask anybody to leave their old way of life—not even the tax collectors—but within that way to love their neighbors as they love themselves, to look around and see if anybody needs anything they have, and to make sure they don’t have more than they need. It sounds simple, doesn’t it?
So many of these things John talks about sound like the kind of things we’ve been doing on this year-long, every-member mission trip, as we work to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. It’s almost as if John is saying, “The surest way to get to heaven is by confessing your sins, repenting, being baptized, and then by doing the kind of things that bring heaven to earth, by looking around you and making sure your neighbors aren’t hungry or cold, and if they are sharing what you have with them. In other words, you get ready for the Day of the Lord first by loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and second by loving your neighbor just as much as you love yourself.” No wonder some people began to think he might be the Messiah. But John said:
“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.
It doesn’t sound much like good news, does it? All that talk about burning the chaff with unquenchable fire? But listen to what John says: “One more powerful than I is coming.” It’s not the end of the world, it’s the Day of the Lord, and this year, more than ever, we need that day to come.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.