Sunday, December 16, 2012

After the Newtown Tragedy: People Get Ready!

Luke 3:7-18
We have all been disturbed by the events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday.

And many of us in this sanctuary, I know, have been moved to pray God’s comfort for the families of the victims, for an end to the scourge of senseless violence that afflicts our country, and for the mental health of persons who would contemplate such terrible acts.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will likely be renewed debates about things like mental health spending, school security, and guns. And I hope that as Christian citizens, we all will inform ourselves and pray God’s guidance and wisdom for our leaders and for ourselves in these debates.

But all of the issues I just mentioned are topics for political discussions and as one called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I have no call from God to say what God wants governments to do or not to do about these matters.

However, I do know and I can say with the absolute authority of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit what God wants every human being to be about today, tomorrow, and every day they have life on this earth.

It’s summarized in the words of an old Impressions song written by Curtis Mayfield that Bruce Springsteen sang during this past Wednesday’s 121212 Concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy: People Get Ready!

That, in fact, is what this season of Advent is all about. It’s not just about getting ready for Christmas. After all, there are twenty sets of parents and grandparents and families who thought when they sent their little ones off to school on Friday morning that they were ready for Christmas. But no Christmas plans, no treasure picked up at ToysRUs, no planned holiday vacation could be preparation for what they faced this past Friday or what they will, in some ways, face every day for the rest of their earthly lives.

Advent is a reminder each year to get ready for the coming of Jesus because, whether at the moment of our own deaths or, should we still be around when it happens, at the moment when the risen Jesus returns to the earth to finally and fully establish His eternal kingdom, each of us has a rendezvous, an appointment, with Jesus.

Are you ready?

This is NOT a sweet by-and-by kind of question. God isn’t interested in creating porcelain saints who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.

In the face of the kind of evil we saw this past Friday, in fact, no person is likelier to have a practical impact on everyday living than the believer in Jesus Christ prepared to meet their Lord in eternity.

This world needs people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and eternity.

That is the theme of today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 3:7-18.

The lesson picks up where last Sunday’s Gospel lesson left off, with John the Baptist preaching repentance.

Repentance, as mentioned last Sunday, has (or at least starts with) two components.
  • First, sorrow for sin. 
  • Second, trust that, because of what Christ accomplished for us by His death and His resurrection, the sins for which I’m sorry are forgiven. 
You aren’t really repenting from God’s point of view unless both elements are present. Judas, for example, clearly was sorry for having betrayed Jesus‘ innocent blood. But his suicide bore clear witness that he didn’t trust the gracious God he knew in Jesus to forgive him.

On the other hand, there are no doubt Christians who, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, subscribe to “cheap grace”: “the grace we bestow on ourselves...forgiveness without...repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession...”

Look at our lesson. In verse 7, John sees all the people who are coming out to be baptized as a sign of their repentance. He doubts their sincerity. “Brood of vipers!” he calls them.

Sounds like, “Children of serpents!” to me and we know about the serpent, the embodiment of evil who, in the garden tempted Adam and Eve into sin.

John goes on, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

We think of wrath as an Old Testament word and words like grace and faith as New Testament words. Not true.

The Old Testament tells us, for example, that Abraham, the very first member of God’s chosen people, the Jews, was saved by God’s grace through his faith in God. It also says that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and even the book of Revelation, with its visions of the eternal future that belongs to all who trust in Jesus, speak about wrath.

Wrath is the anger and punishment God metes out against those who willfully violate His will by sin. Wrath isn’t irrational or irresponsible on God’s part, as though it describes God being out of control. Quite the contrary! Read the ten commandments and you’ll find that there is no mystery about  what behaviors God calls sin.

But just as God’s mercy and grace can come upon people suddenly so, both Testaments say, can His wrath. When you and I come face to face with Jesus at a moment over which we have no control or say, we will, as I’ve mentioned before, either stand naked in our sin, susceptible to the rightful wrath of God, or we will stand clothed in the righteousness of forgiven sin through our faith in Jesus Christ. “Who warned you to flee from God’s impending wrath?” John asks the crowds.

And it’s here that John brings up a third important element of repentance. Look at verse 8: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

John thought that the crowds composed of his fellow Jews, fellow descendants of Abraham and Sarah, were just going through the motions. “Sure, we’ll do this baptism thing,” John might have overheard some in the crowds saying, “but after all, we’re already part of God’s people. We’re OK.”

Folks: The modern counterparts of the crowds who flocked to hear John preach and to be baptized by him aren’t the rising percentages of people in our society who claim to have no religious belief whatsoever, but the Christians who casually mumble their creeds, fill up the offering plate, sing a song, even receive the body and blood of Jesus and then, a split second later, conduct business, care for children, talk with a spouse, deal with other people, engage in gossip as though Jesus’ shed blood on the cross and His resurrection from the dead to give us life mean absolutely nothing.

You see, the third essential element of repentance is authenticity.

A dying world that produces tragedies like the one we saw in Connecticut this past week needs nothing so desperately as the witness of Christians who confess that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, that the God we meet in Jesus can fill our lives with a peace that passes all understanding, and that all who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live for all eternity in a perfect kingdom without violence or sin with God.

Truly repentant people regret their sin, embrace Jesus’ forgiveness, and then authenticate their trust in Jesus by the way they live their lives.

When we truly repent, truly turn to the God we know in Christ for life and meaning and purpose, God plants the seeds of new life in us and, as we, in Martin Luther’s phrase, live in daily repentance and renewal, the fruits of repentance--the results of living intimately with Jesus as our Lord and best friend--will be seen in our authenticity as Christians.

Don’t misunderstand. Being authentic believers in Jesus does not mean being perfect. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. That includes me. Just ask Ann.

Take a look at verses 10 to 14 in our Gospel lesson. John has, in effect, just warned the crowds confident about their family relationship with God simply because their parents were charter members of First Lutheran Church in Jerusalem that pretty soon, God was going to chop down their family trees, that the only people who can be confident about their relationship with God are those who turn from sin, trust in Christ, and live as God’s children.

“What shall we do?” the crowds ask John in verse 10. “If you have two coats, give one away to the person with none. If you have an abundance of food, set aside some for those who don’t have food.”

Tax collectors, people who had a notorious reputation for taking more money from people than they owed and skimming the extra for themselves, asked John in verse 12, “Teacher, what shall we do?” “Don’t steal any more,” John in effect says. “Collect what you’re supposed to collect.”

Then in verse 14, some soldiers, probably soldiers in Herod’s guard, asked, “And what shall we do?” Soldiers in those days often shook people down for protection money. So, John tells them, “Don’t intimidate people. Don’t make false accusations against people. Be content with your wages.”

You see what John was telling these people?

He wasn’t saying that they all had to go Iraq and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

He wasn’t telling them to undertake extraordinary acts of religious devotion.

He was saying, “If the repentance you offer this morning is for real, then dare to live with authentic trust in the One Who is so great I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal...

Turn from sin.

Trust in Christ.

Then, in gratitude for the gracious gifts of forgiveness and new life Christ gives to those who believe in Him, live ethically.
  • Love your neighbor, even the neighbor with whom you share a marriage bed. 
  • Hug your kids and grandkids. 
  • Pray for those who hate you. 
  • Give to those in need. 
  • Invite others to know and follow Jesus.”
I have no satisfactory explanation for why tragedies befall the human race other than the fact that this isn’t heaven. Sin and death are on the loose. Yet Jesus died and rose to ensure that their days are numbered. As Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

And I can say that we will be ready for whatever this life brings and ready for heaven itself when we turn from sin, trust in God’s forgiveness, and live authentically as God’s children.

Our children will be ready for anything when we teach them to do these same things.

Truly, this world needs nothing today so much as people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and by their faith in Christ, are ready for eternity.

May we be those people. Amen

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

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