(Luke 3: 7-18)
Did you ever have one of those jobs that was so enjoyable, so gratifying that getting paid was just a perk? I’ve had a couple, including this one, that were like that. I couldn’t wait to get to work and had a hard time going home at quitting time. One of them was when I was a uniformed officer with the Houston Police Department. I worked the 3-11 shift and was assigned to a district where everything and anything happened. I couldn’t believe they were paying me to put people in jail! We’d hit the streets and get our ducks out of the way. The department had an unofficial quota where they wanted you to get two arrests a day so you could justify your existence. My partners and I would try and get at least ten before we’d take our dinner break at 6:00 p.m. Our initial ducks would be non-moving traffic violations like expired license plates or no brake lights or only one headlight. The violator could take care of it, show the court and the ticket would be dismissed and we’d get our ducks. Of course, some irate motorist would ask us if we had a quota and we’d usually respond yes, but only needed two more to get a toaster. After our dinner break, we’d get down to serious business looking for real law-breakers, prized ducks. I loved doing follow-up investigations trying to track down the residential burglar or the armed robber who hit the mom and pop shops, elusive ducks. Near quitting time we’d try to grab a late call for some overtime, extra ducks, but the dispatcher would wave us off as the night shift was waiting for our patrol car. We believed in what we were doing. We were joyful doers.
And joy is where we find ourselves on this third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy when we light the pink candle as a symbol of Christ, our joy. We make the joyful promise of your presence, O God, make us rejoice in our hope of salvation. In this joy, there is an expectation that the people of God will “do” something to be a part of the inheritance promised to Abraham.
This doing something to be a part of the inheritance promised to Abraham is what John the Baptist was talking about in our scripture reading for today. Crowds were coming to him to be baptized and you would think he would be thrilled at the prospect of baptizing so many people, but he refers to them as a brood of vipers. Pretty blunt. I can just imagine how you would react if I started the service by addressing you as a brood of vipers. Welcome to Community United Methodist Church, you brood of vipers! The difference was that they were coming to him thinking that if they were baptized they might escape eternal punishment. John realized that they were not really repenting of their sins, nor were they willing to change the way they lived. They thought being descendants of Abraham was all it took, but they wanted to hedge their bets by being baptized by John who, some thought, might be the long-expected Messiah. Couldn’t hurt. He says to them, 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. He is pointedly telling them that merely being descendants of Abraham, God’s chosen people, was not enough to ensure salvation. A personal relationship with God cannot be handed down from parents to children. It’s not something that can be inherited. Everyone has to commit to God on their own. Even John Wesley was concerned that modern Christians may gain false confidence from their participation in the “visible church” just as the ancient Jews gained false confidence from being children of Abraham. John tells them that the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. That got their attention! What should we do, they exclaimed? In reply, he gives them three quick examples. He says that whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. He’s telling them, and us, to share what we have with others who are in need. He then addressed the tax collectors in the crowd telling them to collect no more than the amount prescribed for them, which is saying, whatever your job is, do it well and with fairness. Don’t take advantage of people. To the soldiers in the crowd he told them not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and to be satisfied with their wages, meaning to be content with what you’re earning. John was calling the people to right living as he prepared the way for their Messiah.
You can sense the frustration in John’s voice as he addresses these people who have seemed to have forgotten all God had done for them in the past. Like us sometimes, they’re kind of a “what have you done for me lately” crowd. For example, our Call to Worship this morning was from the prophet Zephaniah who, around 630 B.C. says: Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. The people of Judah had suffered for quite some time under the rule of two evil kings and the new king, King Josiah, was trying to turn things around. Zephaniah was telling them to praise God for their good fortune and improved existence. God was with them and they should be glad. Our own gladness results when we allow God to be with us. We obtain this gladness when we faithfully follow him and obey his commands. If you want to be happy, draw close to the source of happiness by obeying God and not just going through the motions.
The Apostle Paul puts it into perspective in his letter to the Philippians where he says: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul was full of joy because he knew that no matter what happened to him, Jesus Christ was with him. Paul’s advice is to turn our worries into prayers with the understanding that true peace comes from knowing that God is in control. If you haven’t been joyful lately, you may not be looking at life from the right perspective. Ultimate joy comes from Christ dwelling within us, and he who lives within us will fulfill his final purpose for us.
So, how are we doing as “Doers of the Word”? Are we joyful or are we just marking time like the Jewish people two thousand years ago, going through the motions, hoping that our church membership will save us? I have little doubt that we’re a pretty joyful bunch. The energy level before the service starts is enthusiastic, the fellowship of believers is warm and genuine. The spirit of missions and being disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is contagious. We’re like the little Macedonian church, eager to give what we have and desirable of opportunities to do more. We lustfully sing praises to God, sometimes a bit off key and off tempo, but lustfully nonetheless. The church is abuzz during the week with people coming and going as they work on their various missions, giving of themselves and sharing what they have with those who have not. We are bearing fruits worthy of repentance. Our turning from sin is tied to action as joyful doers. To us, following Jesus means more than saying the right words; it means acting on what he says, and doing it with a joyful heart.
Please pray with me.
Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. In the name of Jesus Christ, the Holy One of Israel, we pray, Amen.