2nd Sunday of Advent - 2021c
Old Testament - Malachi 3:1-4
New Testament - Luke 3:1-9
INTRODUCTION: Will Rogers, a Cherokee Indian and known by his home state as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” is, of course, an iconic figure.
And while he is surely remembered for his movie career - he was in more than 70 of them - it was his down-home style and witty humor that I really like. With his earthy aphorisms and folksy-style, Will Rogers was one of those rare figures who had the ability to make everyone laugh - even when it came to hot-button issues that tended to angrily and deeply divide people.
Or as he once said about his ability to make people of all stripes feel at home, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
A favorite target for Rogers, of course, was government in all its forms and ilks. Or, again, as he once said, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
And while there is some debate as to whether he is the actual source of the saying, Will Rogers is often given credit for the famous line, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Part of the idea behind the saying being that how we greet and meet other people has an immediate and lasting effect on any new relationship. Greet someone warmly for the first time, and the relationship is probably going to get off to a good start. Likewise, greet someone with a sullen and sour demeanor and things are probably not going to go well in the future.
For me? It’s hand-shakes. I hate to admit it, but nothing turns me off more than shaking hands with someone for the first time who has a limp and flaccid grip. While I’m not looking for someone to break my hand with that first shake, I also don’t want to feel like I’m holding a wet noodle.
So first impressions matter. Whether we like it or not, how we greet another person (and even present ourselves) when meeting them for the first time can determine how a relationship proceeds in the future.
ONE: Well, when it comes to making a first impression, ole John the Baptist could have surely benefited from Will Rogers’ advice about never getting a second chance to make a first impression.
After all, John’s very first words after being introduced in Luke’s Gospel are far from jovial, warm, and fuzzy, right? “You brood of vipers!” bellows John. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance...Even now the axe 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.”
Geez-Louise! How is that for a first impression? Instead of engaging talk (“Hi! My name is John the Baptist. Good to meet ya. What’s your name?”) we get surliness and grumpiness. Needless to say, if John the Baptist were at a holiday Christmas party, he’d be the guy standing in the corner by himself because everyone within minutes of meeting him would be making up an excuse to get as far away from him as possible.
“Oh, look! I think I see Genghis Khan over there by the cheese dip. Why, I haven’t talked to him in years. Please excuse me, John. So nice to meet you…really. So, so nice to meet you.”
Many of you probably recall that classic movie Elmer Gantry. Gantry, a smarmy and golden-tongued salesman turned revivalist preacher, is his own version of John the Baptist. “Sin, sin, sin,” says Gantry during a revival, “You’re all doomed to perdition. You’re all goin’ to the painful, stinkin’ scaldin’, everlastin’ tortures of a fiery hell, created by God for sinners, unless, unless, unless you repent.”
And so it went for John the Baptist - except he didn’t even bother making a good first impression before bellowing his words. “You brood of vipers!” begins John right out of the gate. “You brood of vipers.” Talk about your bad first impressions.
TWO: Of course, it would be a mistake to simply see John as some kind of oddball outlier who we can, therefore, quickly write off as a nutjob.
For like all good prophets from the Bible, John is simply reminding us that God’s promised Messiah is coming, and because of that, we better make sure we’re ready for him.
In the same way we go about cleaning our homes and getting them in order when hosting guests, we’re to do the same when it comes to our lives and the coming of that Christ Child. We’re to get our lives in order so we can welcome the coming Messiah properly and even decently. And yes, sometimes that might even mean making some changes in our lives.
Repentance in the Bible, after all, is always more than just feelings of remorse. Nope. To repent in the Bible is to actually change the direction of one’s life. It’s to be headed in one direction only to stop in order to turn and move in another. Repentance, in other words, is to change the way one behaves and lives in the world.
Or as someone once said, “The best way I know of to repent of anything is to do better the next time.”
The late theologian Shirley Guthrie liked to say, “To be Christian is not to have arrived at some state or condition of…existence. It is to be constantly having growing pains. It is not to be something but to be becoming something. It is not to have arrived but to be constantly on the way.”
And repentance…well, that’s how we engage in that process of becoming something.
I have never been one for bumper-stickers on cars. I suppose it is because I grew up in a family that believed many of the things people love to declare publicly with their bumper-stickers are simply best kept in private. Why, my parents still refuse to disclose who they voted for during presidential elections - and that’s with each other!
But if I were to ever have a bumper-sticker, it would probably be the one that I have seen only a few times over the years, but absolutely love. Short and pithy, it reads as follows, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”
For behind the humor of such a sticker, there is also
some theological truth worth heeding. Since Jesus is coming, we really should be busy.
Not busy simply for the sake of being busy, mind you. But instead, we should be busy with the hard work of slowly becoming something by seeking to conform our lives to Jesus’ life. Or, to use John’s imagery, we should be busy “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”
THREE: In a neat short story by Dina Donohue called Trouble at the Inn, a young boy named Wally Purling one year managed to bring the annual Nativity Play at his church to a screeching halt.
A large, clumsy boy who also wasn’t known for his quick wit, Wally was dying to play a shepherd in his church’s Christmas play. But to his disappointment, the play’s director, a woman named Miss Lambard, decided he needed to play the part of the Innkeeper for two basic reasons.
First, being bigger than all the other kids, Miss Lambard thought Wally would be a natural fit to play a gruff Innkeeper who was out of lodging. But she also thought the part of Innkeeper would be good for Wally because there were so few lines for him to utter.
And so on the night of play, Wally faithfully stood offstage waiting for his cue to enter and say his lines. But as the play went on, Wally became increasingly engrossed by the story and the plight of Mary and Joseph in their quest for shelter.
So needless to say, when the time came for Wally to finally say his lines as the Innkeeper, he was ready. Swinging open the door of his inn in response to the knock of Mary and Joseph, Wally said brusquely: “What do you want?” And to Joseph’s request for lodging, Wally said even more forcefully, “Well, seek it elsewhere. The inn is full.”
“Please,” came the reply of the boy playing Joseph, “this is my wife Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”
Well, right as Wally was about to deliver another brusque “No!”, he looked at Mary for the first time and suddenly paused - paused to the point where people were starting to assume he had forgotten his lines. But eventually regaining his composure, Wally finally delivered his line, although this time without the previous gusto: “No! Be Gone!”
And so with their arms wrapped around each other, Joseph and Mary turned to walk away into the night. But Wally, rather than turn around as if to go back into the inn as he was supposed to, stood instead in the doorway watching the two leave.
And as he gazed at the forlorn couple walking away, Wally, with real tears in his eyes, suddenly offered some impromptu words. “Don’t go Joseph,” screamed Wally. “Bring Mary back. You two can stay in my room!”
And with that, the Christmas Play at Wally’s church that year came to a screeching and unexpected halt.
CONCLUSION: And so now ole John the Baptist’s call for repentance, well, it doesn’t quite have the hardness to it anymore, does it?
For repentance is really about becoming something above all else. It’s about trying to conform our lives more and more everyday to Jesus’ life, isn’t it? That life of grace and charity and boundless mercy.
Admittedly, no easy task, but one we are called to nonetheless - especially during this season of preparation and waiting.
For Jesus is coming, my friends! And because he is coming, it’s best we get busy making ourselves ready.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.