Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
December 16, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty
Salvation comes to us in two acts: The first act is the birth and life of Jesus the Messiah. The second act is the death and resurrection of Christ. And the prelude to this divine drama is John the Baptist in the wilderness.
John the Baptist gets away from it all. He moves to the wilderness. The middle of a rock barren desert. He eats simple foods: locusts and wild honey. He wears uncomfortable clothing. The food—locusts and wild honey along with anything made of camel’s hair marks him as a prophet. And a prophet needs people to listen to him. Rather than being like the prophet Amos who goes to where the people are only to have the people in power say get out of here when they heard the harsh words of Amos.
John the Baptist gets away from it all. He moves to the wilderness. The middle of a rock barren desert. It reminds me of Jonah. A prophet needs people, God tells Jonah, “go to Ninevah.” Jonah says “No, I am catching a boat in the other direction.” Guess what, a prophet needs people. The boat has people, Jonah and God convert people on the boat.
John has a message for all to hear and Jerusalem lies at the crossroads of the known world. Jerusalem lies on the map where Europe and Asia and Africa intersect. There is Jerusalem and a whole lot of people, more than a boatload of people up on the hill in that city and John goes into the wilderness. Maybe God sent John to the wilderness.
You want to get away. Where would you go to get away from it all? How about Nome Alaska?
With a population of 3700 to 3800 and a high temperature on Wednesday of 6 degrees, but a forecasted high temperature for today of -13 degrees.
On Friday evening, Bishop Humphrey and Alaskan Bishop Shelley Wickstrom ordained Melissa May into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. She will serve Our Savior Lutheran Church in Nome Alaska. I have Pastor May in my prayers right now. I know I digress a bit, but her going reminds us that the word of Christ has reached some wilderness places and God sends pastors into those places. So maybe, probably God sent John into the wilderness. In case you are wondering, the ELCA has congregations further north in Alaska.
God sends John into the wilderness and then, because a prophet needs people, God sends people to John. A prophet has a message from God for the people. And John speaks a message of justice and a message of repentance and a message of baptism to prepare the way for one who is coming who is greater. The one who is coming, the one greater than John, he will go up to Jerusalem. That means for now, the people come to the wilderness where John speaks to them a message of justice.
John has a message of justice for the crowd and others who gathered, including apparently tax collectors and soldiers.
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.”
Granted, justice has other facets, but most of us are not worried about committing murder or adultery or other acts of gross illegality. Justice for John looks like the poor are cared for: food, clothing, shelter. Justice for John and for God means you do not take more than what is prescribed, your fair share, and along with that you are satisfied with what you have. We could all live in that world, maybe. But…
That pause, that “maybe,” that “but,” that uncertainty leads to repentance. Because I am fairly certain that some people baptized by John the Baptist had a second coat and did not give it away. And I would imagine that some tax collectors baptized by John the Baptist still collected more taxes than prescribed by Rome. Likewise, I tell you that some of the soldiers baptized by John the Baptist still grumbled about their wages and maybe even collected some extra benefits through intimidation. Probably others besides the soldiers grumbled about their wages not thinking that the message of John was actually a message from God for all of them. Because if everyone did what John told them to do, we would not need salvation and John might just be the Messiah.
I say this neither to denigrate nor diminish the Baptist or his ministry. I say this to confront the reality of the end of the gospel passage. That John is not the Messiah. And just like a prophet needs people to listen. A Messiah needs people to save.
Which brings us to the second part of the Baptists message: Bear fruits worthy of repentance. In this the Baptist reminds those waiting for justice not to just live in their sin and wait for salvation. That would be like sitting in a burning building waiting for the fire department to come or lying on the bottom of a lake waiting for the lifeguard to find you. Strive for a world that lives in the justice that God intends. Bear fruit. Because even without John you have a good idea what compassion and justice looks like.
Finally, just like a prophet needs people to listen, a savior needs people to save and laying in the waters of baptism is like placing a sign in your window that says save me.
When I was young, the fire company handed out to our community “Tot Finder” stickers, which you would place in the windows of young children who might not be able to get themselves out in the event of a fire. A sticker that said, look here and save me. By living in your baptism, you recognize your need to be saved. The one who is greater, the Messiah, the Christ is the one who pulls you up out of the waters. The one greater saves you from drowning. You need a savior and not just you. The world needs a savior.
Guess what, fire companies in my childhood town of Fleetwood stopped handing out those tot finder stickers. I asked why once and was told that the fire companies goal is to get everyone out of the building. When they get to a fire call they hope to see a family gathered together on a neighbor’s lawn. They hope to hear that everyone is out. Because if anyone is in the building, they will go and get them.
Rescue, Salvation comes to us in two acts. Today, just like every Sunday, serves as a prelude to Salvation that comes to us when Christ arrives. We hear the call for justice and the invitation to bear fruits worthy of that justice, to repent and recognize our need for our savior and to live out that need through our baptism.
Bless be God and the Christ who lifts us up and saves us.