Texts: Zeph 3:14-20, Isa 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy or 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. Even now the ax 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.”
Wow. Those are harsh opening words from John the Baptist. But surely they are only directed to that crowd of people by the Jordan river. Surely we escape those words of judgment! After all, we, as Christians, experience the grace of God through Jesus Christ. If we are clothed in his righteousness, we can happily ignore that pronouncement of judgment, right? Right?
John commands us: bear fruits worthy or repentance! In other words, repentance cannot be empty words. If repentance is words alone, that is no repentance at all. For John, repentance involves a change in lifestyle; it reflects a turn away from ourselves towards God and towards others. Genuine repentance bears fruit. It bears evidence that we are in the process of being transformed.
This time of year, the TV schedule is filled with Christmas movies, and one of those movies was adapted from one of my favorite Christmas books growing up: How the Grinch stole Christmas. We all know the story. The Grinch, with his heart three times too small resents Christmas being celebrated by the Whos down in Whoville and he does everything in his power to prevent Christmas from happening. He steals Christmas trees and presents and everything he can think of. His plan is succeeding, or so he thinks! But then his plan fails. On Christmas morning, he hears songs of joy and thanksgiving rising out of Whoville. He realizes that he was in the wrong, and hearing these songs begins to change him. He sleds back down the hill to Whoville with everything that he has stolen, with a changed heart, one that is learning what joy is. The Grinch then shares in the Christmas celebrations, with a new and generous heart. This change reflects his repentance. He has changed!
For John, repentance is always a conversion experience. It is more than simply saying “I’m sorry” and then going back to life as normal, as if nothing has changed. God offers us grace freely, grace that can transform us if we let it, but how can we let it transform us if we are not willing to allow ourselves to be changed?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers two concepts of grace that are related to John’s call to repentance: that of cheap grace and that of costly grace. He says, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves.” In essence, John is accusing the crowds of adhering to cheap grace by claiming Abraham as their ancestor and assuming that’s all they need.
On the other hand, costly grace is much more in line with what John is talking about in today’s gospel lesson. “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has…. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” John asks us to live a lifestyle that reflects an understanding of costly grace. If we do not, then in reality we are missing the good news that God has offered to the world!
Today’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah offers us an image of what the kingdom of God in its fulfillment will look like. God’s kingdom is one where the lame are healed, the oppressors are thrown down, the outcast are brought into the center of society. It points to a new social reality, and a new relationship with the one who creates and sustains the world.
For John, true repentance leads one to consider what it means to live as God’s hands and feet in the world. John’s call to repentance is not simply a pronouncement of judgment. It is directly linked to his command to do justice and show compassion to the neighbor. It is to become aware of the needs around us, to begin to see things more in line with the way God sees things. John challenges us to live lives without greed or the desire to accumulate material possessions for ourselves, but rather to give freely out of our abundance. We, in response to God’s mercy, are called to turn our eyes away from ourselves towards the world. And not just towards the spiritual needs of the world, but also those social needs, those physical needs. Many churches fall into the pitfall of focusing solely on the spiritual needs of people in the surrounding community that they neglect physical needs or fail to see them as related.
Two summers ago, Darick and I participated in a weekly food pantry run by several churches in the community of Shallotte, NC. Every Saturday, people would come seeking groceries for themselves and their families. Because the role of handing out groceries was already filled, both Darick and I took on a more pastoral role in the ministry, assisting in or leading the optional worship service for the people of the food pantry, and spending time talking and praying with people while they waited for their food. This was the first time I really participated in a ministry that sought to nurture both the souls and the bodies of people. To me, this ministry was an example of what it means to begin to consider that the good news of Jesus Christ extends beyond the spiritual realm.
So as we have seen so far in John’s preaching, he has emphasized a call to both judgment and justice. But the third thing he emphasizes is his confession of Jesus as the Messiah. At first, this third emphasis may not seem directly related to the first two, but it is. Both judgment and justice are directly connected to his confession of faith. In fact, if we look ahead to Luke 7 when John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask if he is the awaited Messiah, Jesus gives them this message: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This message indicates a direct correlation between God’s radical action intervening in the physical and social realities of the world and a confession of faith in the Messiah. To confess Jesus as Savior not only means to enter into a personal relationship with him, it also means we begin to align ourselves with how God both views and acts in the world. To confess Jesus as Savior means that we are no longer our own gods, seeking to serve only ourselves, but that Jesus is Lord and we now seek to serve his interests: and his interests are people—whole people.
In reality, our whole lives should reflect a spirit of repentance, a continual turning away from the self towards God and others. Not only does this build up our own relationship with God, but it also leads us to be faithful witnesses to the transformative power of God’s grace. This is our salvation. Not only that we have the promise of life with God in the hereafter, but that we also have the promise of becoming new people, here and now, though this road can at times be difficult and demand sacrifice on our own part. This is the life of costly grace.
We have been talking a lot about renewal and revival in Dunbar lately, and we have been praying for this transformation. How do we even begin to reach our community, with so many unchurched? At times it seems like a monumental task, even when we know that God can do all things. We know that God can and will work. But what can we do? What role are we to play in God’s plan for Dunbar? We must begin by recognizing that renewal and revival in Dunbar is about more than just people’s souls. It is about proclaiming the kingdom of God, which is not just spiritual in dimension. Today’s Scripture lessons remind us that God’s kingdom also points to a new social reality: a place in which things are flipped on their heads: the poor will be brought out of poverty, the lame will walk, and the outcast will no longer be on the margins. In God’s kingdom, it is not just souls that matter. It is people’s lives, here and now. As a church, we do share an abundance. Even in these more difficult economic circumstances, we are a community that is blessed by much, surrounded by a greater community where there are needs that aren’t being met. The road to renewal and revival in Dunbar will be fueled if we are a congregation who understands and seeks out a lifestyle that reflects costly grace. Costly grace means stepping outside of what is comfortable. It means going out beyond these church walls, and doing more than just finding a way in conversation to invite people to church.
As a congregation, we must undertake a collective life of costly grace. This begins with recognizing our own need for grace, and those sins that we fall into as the Body of Christ. What will it mean for us to bear fruits worthy of repentance? How might the Holy Spirit be guiding us to show compassion and offer justice in Dunbar? True evangelism comes through faithful witness to Jesus Christ. As we have heard in today’s Scripture, John’s witness came through three things: judgment, justice, and confession of faith. May we allow this pronouncement of judgment guide us to self-examination and repentance as we continue to look towards what role we are to play in a renewal and revival of our community.