Luke 3:7-18

December 13, 2015

Humorous newspaper columnist Dave Barry once made an interesting observation: “If there really is a God, who created the entire universe with all its glories,” wrote Barry, “and He decides to deliver a message to humanity, He will not use, as his messenger, a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle.”

Barry’s probably right. I certainly would not look to a TV preacher–even one with a good hairstyle–to bring me an accurate depiction of God. But I have to ask what would Dave Barry do with John the Baptist? Bad hair wouldn’t even begin to describe John’s distinctive appearance. According to Matthew’s Gospel, John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts with wild honey. And when he preached, he outright insulted his congregation. He called them a brood of vipers!

Imagine if I began my sermon by addressing you as snakes. “Listen up, you lizards!” Obviously John never read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Author Walter Brueggemann called John the Baptist, Checkpoint John. He was referring to that famous Crossing in Berlin during the days of the Cold War called Checkpoint Charlie. It was the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin, between godless communism and glorious freedom. Brueggemann pictures John the Baptist as standing on the border between the Old and New Testaments, checking passports. “His demeanor is not unlike those border patrol people at Checkpoint Charlie,” says Brueggemann, “rude, deliberately intimidating, mostly silent and glaring.”

That’s a nice image. Checkpoint John. And each Advent season we encounter this rough-hewn preacher standing at the entrance of the Advent season. In order to get Christmas, each year we have to go through Checkpoint John, John the Baptist.

John’s message was as stark as his appearance. John was not Jesus. John was not the promised one sent from God. He said so himself. His task was to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah. Thus, his preaching lacked the richness and the subtleties of Jesus’ is preaching. But John’s message was a powerful one. And great crowds came out into the wilderness to hear him deliver it. Given his limitations John gave the only advice he could give. But John’s words have stood the test of time. And they are important words for helping us prepare for this important season of the year.

John’s first word is “repent.” “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Harsh words, but important words. Someone has said that a sign of insanity is to keep doing as you’ve always done and expect different results. If you want to improve your life, then you will have to change your ways! In other words, repent! That’s common sense!

In his Nobel Prize winning book, The Glass Bead Game, writer/poet/philosopher Hermann Hesse had a poem titled “Stages.” The first line reads, “There is magic in new beginnings.” And there is. There is magic in new beginnings. The sad thing is that many of us are not aware of our need for change.

Murray Elkins, a volunteer chaplain at a prison, tells about a Christmas program which was conducted in a unique setting, behind the bleak walls of a prison. Those who prepared the program were limited to what was at hand. Nothing could be carried into the prison, so creativity was an absolute must. Frayed blankets were transformed into realistic shepherds’ cloaks. White sheets were draped over would-be “Angels” as well as over a smooth-shaven “Mary.”

Actually, there were some advantages to the setting. The prison yard needed no imagination to be mistaken as the barren Bethlehem Hills. There were even “Roman guards” keeping watch from the walls and the watchtowers.

The only snag was Baby Jesus. What could be put into the cardboard box manger to take the place of Jesus? A swaddling towel? A handmade doll? The prisoner planning committee was determined that the manger not be empty. The prisoners wanted to SEE Jesus.

So, in the presence of a truly captive audience, a Transfiguration occurred. As the scraggly shepherds came, as the Kings knelt, as the far-from-angelic chorus sang, the smooth-shaven ‘Mary’ lifted up the child for all to see:      ‘A HANDMADE CRUCIFIX!’ Jesus not as a gentle babe, but Jesus nailed to a cross. And the carol the maximum-security prisoners sang was, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

In this instance the handmade crucifix was ideal as a symbol for the baby Jesus. These prisoners knew they needed to repent of their sins. They knew they needed to make a new beginning.

The great evangelist Gypsy Smith was asked how to have a revival. He said, “Take a piece of chalk. Draw a circle on the ground. Step inside the circle and pray, ‘Dear Lord, please send revival inside this circle.’”

Repent! That’s John’s first message to us.

John’s second word is: get in a right relationship with others. John was a persuasive preacher. After he told the people to repent and be baptized, they asked, “What should we do?” John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”

In other words, the repentance John preached was not simply about our personal indiscretions and vices. He was concerned with our relationships with others.

Our prayers this Christmas are with young women and young men on the fields of battle around the world. War is so dehumanizing, and yet there is no place on earth where God is not at work.

During the Korean War, Communist forces invaded the city of Hungnam and began mass executions of Koreans who were suspected of sympathizing with the American cause. The American Navy responded to this atrocity by sending 200 ships to evacuate the refugees from Hungnam.

On December 22, 1950, Capt. Leonard LaRue and his crew steered their ship, Meredith Victory, into the Hungnam Harbor. The Meredith Victory was only supposed to be delivering jet fuel, but they were immediately called into service as a refugee ship. Over 14,000 desperate Korean refugees crowded onto the ship. Capt. LaRue said a silent prayer as his men pulled up the anchor and headed for South Korea. Over the next few days, the crew and passengers endured freezing temperatures. There was only enough food and water to keep them all from starving, but not enough to satisfy their hunger. They were in constant danger from enemy fire. But as they sailed for a safe port, Capt. LaRue took comfort in the thought that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had also known hunger and cold and danger.

In the midst of hardship, Capt. LaRue also reported a change in his men’s attitude. They gave away their own food and clothing to the refugees. Seven babies were born on the ship, each one delivered by a team of unskilled sailors. On Christmas day, 1950, the Meredith Victory landed in safe harbor. Not a single life had been lost on the voyage. Capt. Leonard LaRue received high military awards from the South Korean and the U.S. government for his part in the refugee rescue.

Four years later, Capt. LaRue left the military to join a Benedictine monastery, where he spent the rest of his life. In his journals, he once wrote, “The clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmas tide in the bleak and bitter waters off the shore of Korea, God’s hand was at the helm of my ship.” And indeed it was.

John’s first word is repent. His second word is get into a right relationship with others.

John’s third and most important word is “Look to Jesus.” The impact of John’s preaching was extraordinary and the people were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire …” He was speaking, of course, of Jesus.

John’s third word was his best one. Repentance is good and necessary, but we can carry it only so far. We can never, by our own power. And right relationships are important. But just because your heart is right with your neighbor does not mean that you have an overall meaning and purpose for your life. Look to Jesus. He’s the only one who can fill the God-shaped void at the center of our souls.

Dr. Keith Wagner, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Sydney, Ohio tells a wonderful story about a man named James Pierpont. Pierpont died in 1866 after living what most people would consider a life of failure. A graduate of Yale, a school his grandfather had helped found, Pierpont chose education as his profession. However, he did not last. They say he was too easy on his students. And so, he turned to law, but could not make a go of it. He was too generous with his clients. He published a book of poems, but he didn’t collect enough royalties to make a living.

Pierpont decided to become a minister, but his positions for prohibition and against slavery got him in trouble with the influential members of his congregation. So he tried politics. He ran for governor and for Congress, but, of course, he lost.

The Civil War came. He volunteered as a chaplain. Two weeks later he quit. The task was too much of a strain on his health. Of course, he was 76 years old at the time. Finally someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington and he finished out his life as a menial file clerk.

James Pierpont accomplished nothing he set out to do or be. A small memorial stone marks his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The words in the granite read, “Poet Preacher Philosopher Philanthropist.”

In one very important sense James Pierpont was not a failure. He wrote a song, a song not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It’s a simple song about the joy of whizzing through the snow in a sleigh. James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells”–a song that three or four hundred million people around the world will sing this Christmas season.

What is there about James Pierpont’s life that speaks to me about Jesus? Just this: James Pierpont spent all his life working to make his life count. And all he experienced was failure. And then, in a bit of whimsy, he wrote a little chorus that will be sung by millions of people for generations. To me this is a glimpse of grace. You and I strive so hard to please God. But all our strivings are as nothing in God’s eyes. But then we say “yes” to the person of Jesus Christ. We open our hearts to his love, his peace, his joy–and suddenly with no effort of our own, we move from the losing side of life, to the winning side, we move from the hopeless side of life to the abundant side of life, we move from the shadows into eternal sunlight. All with a simple “yes.” It’s enough to make a person absolutely giddy.

So, this is the message from Checkpoint John, John the Baptist: Repent, get into a right relationship with others, and look to Jesus. He is our hope, our peace, our joy–at Christmas and throughout the year.