Adv 3 Dec 16 2018
So far, we’ve talked about the Promise of Hope and the Promise of Love. Today, we come to the Promise of Joy. In the ancient church, the call to worship for this Sunday came from our epistle lesson, where Paul tells us—twice—to rejoice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” As a sign of that joy, the Advent Wreath has a pink candle instead of the purple. That’s not a mistake! It’s supposed to be pink.
Joyfulness is part and parcel of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” is one of those songs that everyone knows, at least the first verse. The French Christmas greeting is Joyeux Noel [zhoy-oo no-well]—a joyous Christmas.
But then comes the twist. Heaped on top of all this joyfulness is John the Baptist. The crowds walk into his open-air church in the wilderness, and he yells, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Well, that’s a fine how-dee-do.
And then he turns up the heat: In verse 9, he says, “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.” Fire. Burn the Christmas tree!
And then, just in case they missed it the first time around, he comes back again in verse 17: “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.”
Burn, baby, burn! But then Luke tacks on the happy ending: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news! Good news, he calls it. Vipers, wrath, the ax, and the fire—that unquenchable fire. Did we miss something here? What’s the good part? What does all this chopping and burning have to do with the Promise of Joy?
(1) Let’s unpack it. In verse 8, John points to the What. This is what he calls us to do. He says, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.” We’d probably say it more like, Put your money where your mouth is. Put up or shut up. Prove your faith by following through with worthy behavior.
And then he throws out some specifics. In verse 10, the crowd asks him, “What then should we do?” So he says in verse 11, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.”
“Even the tax collectors came to be baptized,” Luke says in verse 12. And they also ask, “Teacher, what should we do.” And John says, Stop collecting more than what’s legal. Tax collectors back then were charged with raising a certain amount of money, and they could keep whatever they raised beyond that. So they would often shake down people and charge more than a fair commission. That’s why everybody hated them. John says, Stop ripping off people.
Soldiers came to John, Luke says in verse 14. What should we do? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Soldiers were sometimes little more than mobsters, shaking down people for protection money, or blackmailing them: threatening to arrest them on trumped-up charges that could even get them crucified. John says, Stop it!
So there’s a three-step message here. To the soldiers and tax collectors, he says, Stop it! Clean up your act. To the crowd in general, he says, Reform! Do the right thing. You know you should share. Your parents taught you that when you were little. Take care of one another. You shouldn’t sit around with two coats when some people have none. You shouldn’t sit around with a full cupboard while other people starve.
But the third step is implicit: This is possible, John is saying. It’s already happening. Look! Here come the tax collectors and soldiers to repent. If God can turn them around, think of what he can do to the rest of you vipers. Change is possible. Reform is possible. A new day is dawning, right here and now.
Now that is good news. That’s a reason to be joyful. So often, we think we’re locked in, stuck on the ice, spinning our wheels with no chance of ever moving forward. We think, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do this. I have no other choice. We think that way as individuals. We think that way as a church. We think that way as a nation. Our problems are just too big, too complicated, too expensive to fix, and we’re not up to the task. I can’t ever change the way I am.
Nonsense, John says. Repent. Clean up your act. Reform yourself, reform your society. Look! even the people on the lowest rung, the most outcast of the outcast, those Roman soldiers and tax collectors, are lining up to do it.
(2) And then he tells us How. “I baptize you with water,” he says in verse 16, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Jesus Christ comes to bring the Spirit and fire—–to bring power and to purify us, just as a farmer burns off the weeds to prepare the soil for a new crop. Jesus Christ comes to help us throw out the garbage in our lives, to clean up our act,
and then he gives us the Holy Spirit, the inner power we need to follow through and start down a new path.
And that’s good news too. That’s a reason to be joyful. Jesus Christ brings the power of the Spirit and the cleansing fire of his forgiveness and love. You can change. You can be different. You can stop spinning your wheels and kick your life into gear again. God himself is clearing the path. God himself is putting the ax to the root of evil. God himself is making it happen.
(3) And that bring us back around to Paul. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”
How do we rejoice? How do we live a joyful life? If Jesus Christ bring the power of the Spirit and the cleansing fire of forgiveness and love, so that we can clean up our act and reform our lives and our world—what does that look like? We sing, “Joy to the World,” but what does a joyful world look like?
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul says in verse 5. Gentleness. It’s a difficult word to translate with just one word. What Paul has in mind is being gracious and tolerant on the one hand, and being considerate and mild-mannered on the other. In English, we might say it more directly: Stop being a jerk, and give the other guy a break. Be that way to everyone, Paul says.
Do you live a joyful life like that? Are you tolerant of others? Are you willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt, or do you automatically assume the worst? Are you considerate and mild-mannered, or are you pushy, bossy, and demanding? Do you think before you speak, or do you kick yourself afterward for what you said? A joyful life is a gentle life. Give other people a break.
And give yourself a break. In verse 6, Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Think about that. Instead of worrying, pray, Paul says. Put it into words. Sometimes, just saying what’s on our minds takes away the worry. It’s like, That just sounds silly. Why am I worried about that?
But don’t just pray, Paul says. Pray with thanksgiving. Put your worries into perspective. Thank God for what you already have. Celebrate that, and maybe then you won’t worry so much about what you lack.
Can you put away your worries for Christmas, and let yourself be joyful instead?
Paul says “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” If you let yourself be joyful, God will help keep you in that spirit with his own heavenly peace.
Now that brings us back to John one more time. I’ve been doing this job a long time. This passage comes up every year. And every time, people come up after church and ask, But what about this? What about this other thing? And I know what they want me to say, Well, of course, it’s okay to worry about that. Paul wasn’t talking about you. Your worries are the exception to the rule.
But think about it. Worry doesn’t change anything. And sometimes, we let worry become a substitute for inaction. We con ourselves into thinking that if we’re worried about something, that makes us good and pious and caring people—that it makes us better than all those people who aren’t all worked up, and run around without a care.
So let me say it again: Worry doesn’t change anything. Worry is just worry.
If you really are concerned about something. then do something about it. The people come to John: What should we do? What should we do?
Share, he says. If you’ve got two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have a coat. If you’ve got food, give some to someone who doesn’t have any. I’m a tax collector, what should I do? Stop overcharging. I’m a soldier, what should I do? Stop being a bully. Don’t worry about it—just do it. You know the right thing to do. Do it.
We need to hear that same message. Joyful living is empowered living. Joyful living stops worrying and gets going on whatever needs to be done. You don’t have to sit around and wait for the promise of Joy. You can start living a joyful life today, a life of gentleness and action, free from worry and driven by the power of the Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.