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Belmont United Methodist Church in Belmont Massachusetts

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Standing at the River - Pastor Jon - December 13, 2009 - Luke 3:7-18


  An Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, asks a question, “Why do people come to church every Sunday? Why do they gather with such a regularity?” He draws his readers’ attention to the Book of Jeremiah. Zedekiah, the king of Judah, did not listen to the prophet Jeremiah that he had to trust in the hands of God who would deliver his people from the Chaldean army. He instead requested Pharaoh in Egypt to help Judah so the Chaldean army would withdraw. In this time of peril and difficulty, the King Zedekiah questioned the Prophet Jeremiah, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Brueggemann comments, “We do not ask in futility; and when we ask, we are not sure what it is we are asking. We are, I suspect, half hoping that there is no such word, because we would rather have things as they are, even if the way things are scarcely manageable. Given all of that, however, we do show up with wonderment and inquiry. We show up to listen, waiting and half expecting that there will be a new word.” (The Word Militant, 3) We may not be sure exactly what we will hear. But we gather every Sunday being curious if there is any word from God that may give us new hope even when we feel like we are surrounded by the Babylonian army.

The minds of the crowds in Luke 3 today may have been the same as the King Zedekiah. They lost their country to Roman Empire. They suffered from heavy tax, no political and religious freedom. Above all, they believed that their God was the mightiest, the supreme God who created the world and promised to Abraham that God would bless them and make them prosper on this earth. However, their temple in Judah was captured by the Romans. They could not worship God as they used to. Although the Gospel of Matthew specifies these crowds as Pharisees and Sadducee, the Gospel of Luke does not narrow the crowds to just the Pharisees and Sadducee. The Gospel of Luke clearly tells us that it was the crowds that came to the Baptist John to see what good news John had from God, to see if their lives could be changed by being baptized. And John shout to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I wonder what could possibly happen if the Baptist John is standing here and shouting at us the same words. He could be dragged out of the pulpit for cursing at Christians, the people of God, who are doing the good works in this world.

As Brueggemann said, most of Christians go to church to hear some good news. After all, we all are human beings that need good news. Living in the time of economic difficulty, physical sickness, gun violence, homelessness, H1 N1 virus, sexual scandal, & war against terrorism, we all need some message of hope that may tell us that tomorrow will be somehow better than today. In the season of Advent, waiting to celebrate the coming of Christ, we want to share a message of hope that Christ brings to this world. So we gather at the river expecting the coming of the Messiah in this season of Advent. But John, who don’t even have a car, who don’t have a good education, but wearing a clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, shout at us, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Who told you that you can have hope?” We woke up this morning and came to church to hear some good news but hear bad news. Bad news that disturbs our Advent spirit. The crowds in Luke 3 could have walked away mocking or even beating John. But they did not. Instead they ask a question, “What then should we do?” They do not dismiss the bad news but decide to stay and wrestle with John to listen to what he had to say. I also invite you this morning to wrestle with this text with me instead of walking away because I think that this text tells us how we can have a genuine hope.

We have to remember that the context of Luke 3 is baptism. John says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” The fact that people wanted to be baptized is not the problem here. Baptism that does not involve in repentance is the problem. The crowds thought they were supposed to be justified before God because they were the chosen people of God. They were born with the privilege to be saved. But John tells them that it is not our ethnicity, not our nationality that makes us people of God. It is our genuine repentance that makes us people of God. Confessing our sin does not require sophisticated language or theological idea. Our sin comes from our broken relationship with God. When we live without knowing the source of our life, it means that we are living in death. Our sin is that we think that we can live without God. We are the one that controls our life and even other’s lives. We can not participate in the full and abundant life that God has promised to God’s creation. Confessing our sin is our acknowledgment that we need God. John Wesley said that baptism is the sacrament that bears God’s grace. We do not turn away from our sinfulness by our efforts. God’s grace enables us to turn around and helps us look at Christ who has always been walking with us through our life journey.

Confessing our sin in God’s grace helps us avoid from false hope. Jesus did not come to this world like a splendid king or ruler. He did not come to this world with great wealth or money. He came to this world as a new born baby who is meek and humble. He was not born in five stars hotel or luxurious hospital. He was born in a manger being greeted by horses and other animals. It is not just non-Christians but also Christians these days are filled with excitement about Christmas spirit that is associated with material things. When our hope is not about Christ but about material, then we would suffer after the Christmas is over.

When our heart is filled with God’s grace, there follows differences in our actions. In Luke 3 there are three groups of people that came to John. First the crowds came to John asking, “What then should we do?” John answers, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Second tax collectors came and asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answers, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers came forward and asked him again, “And we, what should we do?” He answers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Do you hear their nervousness in their tone when they ask this same question? John does not instruct them to sell all their properties and share them with those in need. He tells them that they should be satisfied with what they have. It is okay to own your belongings but possess what you need. A week ago I read an article in Belmont Citizens news paper that was written by one of our youth. “A lot of food is being wasted.” In this article, our youth says that if when shoppers are following a recipe, they tend to buy more food than what is actually needed.” If we can purchase the ingredients that are needs for cooking, then there would be less food that go rotten in the refrigerator or kitchen shelve. Do not extorts others. Be satisfied with what you have. Share with those who are in need of your help. I hear from John’s instructions Wesley’s three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

In the wilderness John cries out, “Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!” John acknowledges that he is not the Messiah. He is one that prepares for the coming of the Messiah. “Are you waiting for Christ? Repent your heart. Do good works for you and for others.” These were the exhortations that John gave to the crowds that came out to be baptized in their expectation of the coming of Christ. Celebrating Christmas does not make us Christians. Being a Christian is a serious business, a way of life participating in God’s redemptive love for all creation. It is our commitment that we won’t live by wealth, violence, or threats but God’s love and fellowship. Christ is the center of our hope.

The crowds came, the tax-collectors came, and the soldiers came out to be baptized. There is no one in our church who is the same with others. We are all different from each other. But the same question we ask today is “What should we do?” As a preacher, it becomes very vulnerable when I stand in the pulpit. Repent your heart and do good work is not some words that I speak at congregation on the side of the Bible. John shouts at me too. And I am reminded of Lucy who I met in the hospital during the summer. When I was passing by her room, she was singing the Battle Hymn of Republic “Glory Glory Hallelujah” like she was crazy. I thought that somehow I could talk to her and even may fix her. I was walking around in the hospital with the badge that says, “Chaplain.” After all, was I not supposed to be a God’s messenger in the hospital? When I sat with her, it was almost impossible to have a rational talk. She could not remember why she was there. She could not remember her brother’s name. She did not know where she came from. She kept smiling and saying, “I am sorry. I am sorry.” Some pastoral care skills, such as emphatic listening that I learnt from school and hospital, I could not use them. I just sat there for a while not saying anything. Then I asked her, “Lucy, could I read a scripture passage for you if you have your favorite?” She said, “I don’t have favorite scripture. Why don’t you pick one for me?” As I was flipping around the Bible, Luke 7 caught my attention. It is a story about a woman who lived a sinful life. When she heard that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an jar of perfume. She wept at Jesus’ feet and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisees were grumbling because this woman was a sinner, Jesus said, “Two men owed money to a certain money lander. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more? Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” When I was about to read the word, “canceled,” Lucy shouted, “canceled!” Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” When I finished reading the scripture, she started weeping with tears running on her cheeks saying, “Thank you. Thank you.”

When I got out, I did not know why but tears filled my eyes too. It was tears coming out of repentance. “Lord, I do not deserve this. I am no one. But I know that you were here with us. You touched her heart today. Thank you Lord, Thank you.” Tears in repentance was not bad news. It was good news. Good news that God’s grace is bigger than our sin.

Like the crowds in Luke, we also gather at the river today to baptize one of our beloved babies, Nyles. We are reminded of our own baptism whether you were baptized as adult or baby. God’s grace fills this place. We all ask, “What should we do?” John tells us “repent your heart and do good works.” Christ is coming. Let us go down to the river and stand. Oh you father, oh you mother, you sister, you brother. Let us go down tot he river and stand.


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Belmont United Methodist Church is a Certified Welcoming Congregation


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