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  • Samuel at Gilgal

    This year I will be sharing brief excerpts from the articles, sermons, and books I am currently reading. My posts will not follow a regular schedule but will be published as I find well-written thoughts that should be of interest to maturing Christian readers. Whenever possible, I encourage you to go to the source and read the complete work of the author.

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Advent: A Time Of Repentance

John the Baptist

John the Baptist did not always have kind words for those who came to him. He was often brutal in his assessment of the lives of others. Yet, John the Baptist is just as important to us in our present day as he was in his own lifetime. Leonard J. Vander Zee helps us to understand why:

He said therefore 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? (Luke 3:7 ESV)

Homiletics is the theological term for the study and craft of sermon making. Seminarians take a couple of courses on homiletics of course, and there are lots of books on homiletics written for the guidance of preachers. Nowadays, there’s a lot of emphasis on the introductions of sermons. The theory is that the modern audience has to be led gently and carefully into the sermon and the text as though they were being led into alien territory. So there’s a lot about “contracting” or “partnering” with the audience, easing them into the word with stories and humor, giving them the assurance that you’re on their side.

Well, evidently John the Baptist didn’t take a course in homiletics. The very first words we hear from his mouth in Luke sound less like he’s partnering with his audience and more like he’s attacking them. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7) Look around, says John, looks like we’ve got some bad trees around here that aren’t producing good fruit. Every one of them is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Look, there’s the axe already lying at the root. And don’t think your pedigree will save you. God can make children of Abraham out of rocks. Even when he gets around to speaking about Jesus, the messiah who was to follow him, the message doesn’t sound much better. “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.” (3:17)

From what I can see, people are not banging down the doors of the church to hear this kind of stuff, especially not just before Christmas. So what are we doing mucking around in this unsettling text about John the Baptist instead basking in the soft glow of Christmas peace and joy? It’s because Advent is not Christmas; it’s about getting ready for Christmas and the whole of the Christian year. And in God’s timetable, John the Baptist comes before Jesus. Law comes before gospel. Judgment is the necessary precursor to grace. . . .

To prepare the way of the Lord, John says we have to do something, repent, because something is about to happen, the Kingdom is coming. I’m afraid that the word repent has lost its edge these days. To many of us, it just means feel bad, feel guilty. We have psychologized the gospel and transformed the Kingdom into a mood altering experience. The Messiah is the cosmic affirmer of all we hold dear. But that’s not really what repentance is all about. John is not calling people to cry big crocodile tears over their sins. Repentance is turning around, it’s shaping up.

Given his harsh demeanor and his searing message, it is perhaps surprising to us that John was a very popular figure. People flocked to him out there in the wilderness. They went out there in the wild and began to openly confess their sins. And they wanted to be baptized by this fiery prophet.

We live in an age which thinks that the way to preach the gospel is to soft-pedal it. Believe me; it’s very tempting to try to make it all nice and smooth, and attractive. It’s all about acceptance. It’s all about feeling good about yourself. It’s seeker friendly, market driven. But deep down people know that what we might want to hear is not the same is what we need to hear. . . .

We need to notice that John doesn’t call us to some private spirituality or personal piety, but to public justice and compassion. His call is not that we attend church more often or attend more Bible studies, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Repentance is not just feeling sorry, or getting cozy with God. It’s is changing the way we live our lives in the world. . . .

John’s message belongs alongside of Jesus’ message, even today. On our way to Bethlehem we need to spend some time in the wilderness to hear this gaunt, thundering prophet. We need to confess our sins and face ourselves.

But, thank God, that’s not John’s only message. John’s message was the message of the one who prepared the way. . . .

John prepares the way; he is not the way. The law can show us our failure, but it cannot liberate us from it. The law can show us where we are wrong, but it cannot make us right with God. . . .

The power to produce a new life is not ours; it is God’s power through the fiery, purifying work of the Holy Spirit. Every urge in us to turn away from the darkness of hate and selfishness to the light of grace and giving is from God. Every step of love, and giving and caring we take is empowered by the Spirit. Every shining moment when we catch a glimpse of the holiness to which we are called in Christ is burned on our souls by the Spirit. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. He will plant in your hearts the very power by which he lived his life for God and gave it up for others. Changing our lives is not just some far-off ideal, it happens today. . . . (“Real Repentance”)

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