A Time of Expectation – November 28

A sermon based on Luke 3:3-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 28, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The First Sunday of Advent is here! So much expectation is already in the air.
It’s the start of the time of year when throughout our culture we let the Christmas Spirit motivate us to be our better selves, all in anticipation of the coming of Christmas. Love begins to fill our ways of being, we create and recreate sights and sounds that bring back good memories and create new ones. A warm fire sparks our hearts to give, and care, and smile more. It’s quite remarkable. We prove we can be better–and we are better. It’s really an incredible time of year.

As a part of Advent revving up, this morning our church theatre ministry is ramping up our efforts to help bring in the Christmas Spirit in the community, and tend to the needs of others. Today we’re moving the production of A Christmas Carol out of the church and into the Woodward Opera House as we make our final approach to the live performances at the end of the week. The performances will not only culminate weeks of connecting youth to the community through the performing arts, but raise significant funds for The Winter Sanctuary – and give all who attend the gift of large doses of the Christmas Spirit! It’s been an amazing journey, full of that Spirit.

Something else very special is happening today. In this worship service we are having a baptism. All baptisms are special, this one perhaps even more so. It was planned by Molly’s mom Meg before she passed away. That Special Baptism is one of the reasons I chose our Lesson on John the Baptist to start the Advent season.

“Advent,” means approaching, arrival, coming toward . . . which the lesson also fits. And, as we heard, Luke records John the Baptist setting the stage for the adult Jesus’ arrival preaching that “one more powerful than I is coming . . .”  This is the same John who in Luke leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Jesus in Mary’s womb arrived nearby some thirty years earlier. We can understand John’s leaping in the womb as a prediction of the joy Jesus brings that first Christmas and every Christmas ever celebrated. We can understand the adult John’s preaching as a prediction that unfolds each Advent “Holiday” Season as we are metaphorically re-baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire each year as we prepare for the advent of Christmas and open up to the Christmas Spirit falling upon us, motivating us to be our better selves, igniting our hearts to give and care and smile more.

As the placement of the verses from Isaiah in Luke’s account of John the Baptist is meant to convey, John’s considered the voice of the One crying out in the wilderness.  He’s crying out that we prepare the way of the Lord. He’s crying out for the world to get ready; Jesus is on his way. In more modern terms, we can even hear John to portend Christmas is coming! Of course, John did not mean the modern sights and sounds and traditions we associate with the Holidays. He meant the Messiah, which is what “Christo” means in Greek, Christo is on the way. And although we tend to hear John the Baptist giving a hell fire and brimstone message in our lesson, quite the opposite is actually happening. We know this because his voice crying out in the wilderness is to “Prepare the way of the Lord” who is in essence the Prince of Peace, who’s arrival is not about hell fire and brimstone, but about making the world easier, calmer, peace-full.

On the Lord’s way, Luke and Isaiah emphasize that

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and ALL FLESH shall see the salvation of God.’”

Hear that? All flesh shall be saved!!! John was a universalist, as was Isaiah– and the author of Luke and presumably Luke’s community. Read literally this passage in Luke means universal salvation was Jesus’ purpose from the start– “all flesh shall see the salvation if God!” Despite what we may have heard or read elsewhere that literally means no one is damned and going to hell. So, this is not hell fire and brimstone stuff. I’ll admit, though, that John is abrupt and pointed in the passage. He calls the crowd a “brood of vipers! And sharply questions them with a warning “to flee from the wrath to come” Which we tend to hear as an angry God’s punishment, like we probably also do with John’s statement that “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.” But what if the wrath to come is the obvious natural consequences of the unpeaceful ways. And what it the trees cut down and tossed in the fire are the unpeaceful ways? If all flesh shall see salvation that makes more sense than lack of salvation caused by wrath and fire.

That also fits with what John advises the crowd to do. Which is to repent, a word that has negative connotations because of misuse, but actually means to turn and change your way. And sure enough, when the crowd asks John what they should we do, he gives them only peaceful love-oriented things to do. He tells them “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors to stop cheating people, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” He gives a similar instruction to the Roman soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John’s crying out in the wilderness filled folks with expectation, some even thought that John might be the Messiah. But he told them he wasn’t. He told them someone else was coming, and that he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” He indicated that person, Jesus, would baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John added that the anticipated One would have “a 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.” That is hell fire and brimstone sounding, only if we ignore what we were told at the start that ALL FLESH are to see the salvation of God. For John, and the author of Luke and his community, Jesus was not arriving to toss people into hell, but to toss aside and destroy hellish ways precisely so ALL might be saved. The One – whom John expected– was arriving to save everyone with peaceful loving ways . . . that salvation was a rescue from unpeaceful, lesser ways of being. That’s why what John proclaimed is called “the good news to the people.” That’s why folks were anticipating the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace whom Luke tells us at the start of his book was arriving to bring peace on earth good will to all.

If we want to see what that looks like, well, we get a glimpse of it every year at Advent when the Christmas Spirit motivates us to be our better selves. Love begins to fill our ways of being. A warm fire sparks our hearts to give, and care, and smile more. It’s quite remarkable. We prove we can be better. The promise of Christmas is we can be like that, and that one day we will be like that all year long, then we will have peace on earth good will to all. AMEN