Sermon text: Luke 3: 7-18
It’s eight o’clock Thursday morning and I was sitting in the Parsonage putting the finishing touches on a funeral sermon for later that day. Down Strawberry Alley I heard a man yelling, somewhere in the distance, and he sounded angry. But hey, weird things happen at all hours of the day and night on Strawberry Alley, so I didn’t think anything of it.
A couple of minutes later I heard the man again. He’s still in the alley, but this time he is right outside my windows, yelling again. And he’s not angry. He is irate. From what I can gather he’s yelling for his dog who seems to have escaped. He’s carrying a leash and harness in his hands. As I listen I think, “Good luck getting your dog back. There’s no way he’ll return to you if your using that tone.”
A minute later, more yelling at the intersection of Strawberry Alley and Union Street.
A minute after that, directly in front of my house, yet more yelling, then the sound of a loud thud, then a dog yelping in pain. Piecing the sounds together the man collected his dog, then beat it in his frustration, and the dog was crying in pain.
As I walked to the window to see what’s going on, I immediately heard a woman getting out of her car confronting the man. She is absolutely aghast at what she had witnessed. The two of them have at it. At one point she makes the poignant observation that “It’s no wonder the dog runs away from you if that how you treat it.” The continue their confrontation until the man roughly walks the dog down Union Street, past the church.
The first thing I’ll say is that I’m horrified and disappointed that such animal abuse would happen, let alone happen in the broad daylight in front of other people. This man’s behavior was inexcusable, regardless of what precipitated the incident.
The second things I’ll say is thank God for this woman. She was a modern-day prophet if I ever heard one, speaking truth and standing up for those without a voice, even if it was for a dog. At 8 AM on Thursday, John the Baptist was standing outside my house, calling out to a “Brood of Vipers.”
From my limited perspective, I saw several things going on. I saw a dog who was positively looking for direction, who needed some training and handling. And I saw a man abusing his power and privilege, taking out his anger on a poor dog. Both of them standing before our contemporary prophet, being called to repent for their different behaviors.
At least once every Advent we preachers are obligated to remind you that Repentance means to turn around. Quite literally it means to change one’s mind. It’s an action that’s tied closely together with forgiveness. In our modern example repentance could take the form of obedience training and not abusing your power to cover for your own shortcomings.
The crowd before John the Baptist could be sorted into similar categories. We have people who are intrigued by John who ventured into the wilderness to hear him, to be baptized, to repent, and to have him answer the question, “What should we do?”
On the other hand, we have John’s words to other members of the crowd, warning them that the consequences of their actions will pull them away from God. John is convicting the guilty. They need to hear the call and turn back to the ways of God.
So we have two groups of people before John hearing his words: Those looking for direction, and those who are headed in the absolute wrong direction.
That was the scene when John was preaching and baptizing. The same truths appear today. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have fallen short. We break our baptismal covenant with God. We have broken relationships with each other. We know in our hearts that our actions, attitudes, and inactions fail to demonstrate our love for each other and the divine. And if we don’t know that fact, then others will certainly point out our faults.
Do we fear the cost of our failures? Are we looking for a way out? Do we desire to be more faithful and do we not know how to get there? Are we overwhelmed or frightened? Do we have nowhere else to turn?
The people in the wilderness left the relative comfort of home to hear the word of God, even if that word was challenging and severe. They heard the word of God if they were looking for help or if they had no clue that they were in the wrong. They heard the call for repentance. For action. Simply being sorry is not enough. For John, repentance is living out everyday practices in life, no matter our station or vocation.
But in the end our repentance, our turning toward God, is not the whole story…it CANNOT BE the whole story. Otherwise, faith would just be a nice checklist of morals and ethics, a list that we would ultimately fail to uphold.
Instead, the whole story ends in the hope of one whole is more powerful than John, a messiah boundless in compassion who will baptize us with spirit and fire. One who has the power to change everything. A savior who will love us when we fail to love ourselves. A healer who will put us back together again. A refiner who will remove all our chaff—the things we cling to that do no bring life or joy.
A better day is coming. For John’s people it was the ministry of Jesus Christ. For us it is Christ’s wonderful return to complete what he began 2000 years ago.
John wanted the same thing as the woman challenging the abusive dog owner. Live a godly life. Give your relationship your best. Give your neighbor your best. Give God your best. See where you have missed the mark and fix it. Repent. Get going in the right direction because it’s too costly to continue in the wrong.
Look, we know that our actions won’t save us, but at least we can bear godly fruit for the benefit of one another. And when the one more powerful than John arrives, when Jesus visits us again, perhaps we all will be rowing in the right direction. AMEN