Sermon Library

Sermon Library

Sun, Dec 16, 2018

The First Nowell

Duration:16 mins 7 secs

Our Scripture Reading for today comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3, verses 7-18. Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, so we are not yet to Christmas. And our scripture text reminds us that before we can get to Jesus, we must first deal with one who bridges the gap between the old covenant and the new, the prophet in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. Yes, today we meet John and his preaching to crowds who come to him to be baptized. Let us hear this Word of God.

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Several of us on the church staff add prayers, scripture, hymns, and announcements to the bulletin each week, so we need several sets of eyes to try to catch our typos. We get most of them, but, as you know, we do miss a few from time to time. One we luckily caught and corrected this week was in the Gathering Chorus. During Advent we have been singing a verse from the carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to introduce our theme: “Comfort and Joy: A Celebration of Christmas Hymns.” For today we discovered the draft bulletin had this as the third line, “To save us all from Stan’s power, when we were gone astray.” We are not quite sure who Stan is, but like I said, we caught and corrected this one. I share it with you this morning because after making the correction to the accurate word, our Church Administrative Assistant Quola Wright told me, “Y’all just had to get Satan back in there, didn’t you!”

Yes, we did. We had to get Satan back in there this week. For despite the countdown to Christmas Day now being in single digits, the darkness still threatens and we would do well not to ignore it.

Yes, the darkness still threatens. That is why we encounter John the Baptist this morning with his cheery greeting, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John has been preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. People are flocking to hear and see him. Some are wondering if he himself might be the Messiah. And he greets the crowds like this? “You snakes! Who told you to run from the coming of the Lord?” No feel good, comfort and joy, preaching from John. No, John knows there is darkness in the world and that it is present even in those of us who selfishly come seeking a Messiah. We would do well not to ignore the darkness.

Yes, we must acknowledge the darkness. This past summer Bob McKillop, who has coached the men’s basketball team at Davidson College for the last 29 years, took his team to Europe. They did not touch a basketball the entire trip. No, this was at trip arranged with the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust. It was led by a survivor, Eva Mozes Kor. When most teams are doing a “feel-good” basketball camp or tour, Coach McKillop took his guys to Auschwitz to, “feel the incalculable weight of history.”

In a piece he wrote for the Washington Post, Coach McKillop said:

We are stepping into a moment in time when, for millions, evil seemed to have triumphed and humanity had vanished. We will walk the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz with a survivor of Josef Mengele’s inhuman experiments as our guide. …

I want them to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson, but to live what they learned. Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, as our college’s mission declares, guided by humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity.

Allied troops liberated the first Nazi concentration camps — what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called “indescribable horror” — 74 years ago. He called for members of Congress to come see it, as well as newspaper editors and British leaders. The lessons he sought to impart then remain as urgent and timely as ever.

Yes, Coach McKillop knew that his players had been given so many blessings - they play in a great program, they attend one of the best colleges in the country, they have the ability to travel. So many gifts. But the darkness threatens. The lessons from the Holocaust remain as urgent and timely as ever. Those who are to lead and to serve guided by humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds must not ignore the evil.

That is why we hear John the Baptist on this third Sunday of Advent. Because if we skip this prophet in the wilderness calling us a brood of vipers, we just might think that the Christmas story is merely a beautiful and sweet tale of angels and shepherds, babies and mangers, stars and visitors with odd gifts. We just might forget that the name given to this child born in Bethlehem is “Jesus” because he will save his people from their sins. We just might forget that the ones who need saving are you and me.

For the good news of the gospel, the Nowell first announced to the shepherds as they lay in fields keeping their sheep, this good news that has been given to us contains both a yes and a no.

In Jesus Christ God says yes to us.

In Jesus Christ God saves us.

In Jesus Christ God demonstrates his great love for us.

And yet, that yes also includes a no.

A No to sin.

A Condemnation of evil.

A No to death.

When we hear God’s yes, we recognize the no. In a sermon preached to prisoners in the Prison of Basel, theologian Karl Barth put it this way:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down, horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’ Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross, accused, sentenced and punished instead of us! Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake–because of our sin–sharing our captivity–burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!

Yes, my friends, Sin, evil, death, danger, and fear are very real. Indescribable horrors threaten each and every day. And yet in Jesus Christ we have been saved! In Jesus Christ we have been delivered! In Jesus Christ God says Yes!

So, what do we do? As those who have heard the Nowell first announced by the angels; as those who know this good news of great joy; as those who remember that God came as a child in Bethlehem not to be sweet but to save us; as those who seek to be advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity; what do we do? My friends, I want to suggest to you that we repent and we sing.

As John the Baptist, told the crowds who came to him in the wilderness, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We look back over the frozen lake of sin and death and we do not deny its existence. We confess that we ourselves are sinners, that we carry the guilt and the weight of human sin, and that we cannot and did not save ourselves. That is why the first question we asked our new members this morning was, “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” Because we have received mercy, because we have been saved from Satan’s power, with courage we turn away from sin. We name and renounce evil and its power in our lives and in our world.

And then we sing. We rejoice! It may seem like an odd response in a world of sin and suffering, when darkness still threatens. As Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann wrote in one of my favorite quotes,

How can one be joyful when so many people suffer? When so many things are to be done? How can one indulge in festivals and celebrations when people expect from us “serious” answers to their problems? Consciously or unconsciously Christians … have come to believe this or rather ceased to believe that [joy has] something to do with precisely the “serious problems” of life itself, [and] may even be the Christian answer to them.

Yes, we sing.

Into the darkness we declare that that the Lord has come.

Into the darkness we proclaim the light of the star still shines.

Into the darkness we sing,

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood our life hath bought.

Thanks be to God.

Latest Sermons