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Friday, 5 September 2014

Turn, or Burn

WOW!!!!! Talk about a hell, fire and brimstone Gospel! We certainly got one in this morning's Gospel reading. Someone like Jimmy Swaggart or Billy Graham would have LOVED John the Baptist and his hell, fire and brimstone preaching. John the Baptist REALLY put it bluntly-"Turn or burn!

John was blunt, but his message was sincere-that of repentance. Repentance is the only way to escape from the wrath of God's judgment. It means changing our thoughts AND our deeds. It's an example of the old adage that "actions speak louder than words". Judgment is the focus of John's message, and it puts everyone on the same level. Rank HAS no privileges, which was a shock to the descendants of Abraham. Judgment brings before everyone the challenge of submission to God's grace. It demands nothing less than goodness of behaviour AND goodness of attitude. Judgment flows out of our relationship with God, and our attitude and behaviour matters the most.

When he called the people "vipers', John the Baptist suggested that they merely wanted to repent to escape calamity. He wanted people to understand the reality of their situation. They needed honest repentance just like we need repentance today. Membership in the Jewish community could not exempt them from judgment. Salvation depended then, as it does now, on sincere repentance. Nothing short of sincere repentance could save them, and nothing short of repentance can save us today. The church can't do it, nor can its rituals or attending church every Sunday. John's message of judgment was popular because the people of his time deserved it. It is still popular today because we still deserve it. Man has a sinful nature and has had it since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. We are still stuck with guilty consciences, and we regret the mistakes we have made (I know I certainly do!).

Luke and John the Baptist both emphasize ritual Judaic laws and social justice as expressed by sharing what we have with the poor. This is the heart of the cry for freedom, peace and prayer that the Israelites made before the coming of Christ. John the Baptist's ministry brought together the law of the Old Testament and the promise of Christ's coming in the New Testament. One godly person can make positive change in the world. All one has to do is look at the lives of people such as Nelson Mandela or Pope John Paul II, but we do not have to be great people to make positive change in our lives. We can make change exactly where we are-at home, at work, at school, in our families and in our communities. John was in effect telling his listeners to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

Doing the right thing often requires help because it often involves changing our behaviour. We can't make this change alone. We need the help we get from the one who came on that first Christmas-namely, Christ. To get that help, we have to prepare ourselves first. That, my friends, is the real reason for the season of Advent-preparation for Christ's coming. We have to receive Christ's love before we can make the changes we want to make. John the Baptist tells us that we must change our ways or face the wrath of one who will bring justice and fairness to the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.

We must not trivialize what it takes to be saved and to change our ways. Salvation does NOT mean good intentions to do better in the future. Our evil, sinful nature will only be reversed when Christ comes with his winnowing fork to thrash it out of us. When Christ gets into our souls for just one moment, he works on us and makes us ask ourselves the same question John's followers asked---"What can we do?" We must align our lives toward God's future salvation. Ready or not, here He comes! It is better to be ready for Him and welcome Him with open hearts, minds and souls than to be caught off guard and face eternal damnation. Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent is the way we have of getting ourselves ready for both Christmas and the Christian year.

God is with us when we suffer, when we are oppressed, when we suffer from life's injustices, and when we are sick. God feels our pain and suffering. Christian life flows from worship into service and sharing, as was proven in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke's Gospel paints a vivid, accurate picture of God's Kingdom-namely, caring for the less fortunate. There is no room in God's Kingdom for oppressors, abusers or other evil-doers.

We have all heard the story of the Three Wise Men, but there is another favorite Christmas story called "The Other Wise Man". Artaban, in his pursuit of finding the newborn King, missed his three friends who set out before him, He missed the Christ Child, too, because his journey led him into strange encounters with dying beggars and frightened mothers to whom he gave two of the three jewels he saved for the Christ Child. Artaban returned to Jerusalem after a fruitless search in Egypt, and spent the next 33 years searching for the Child. One day, when he was an old man, Artaban noticed an unusual commotion during the Passover season. He asked people what was happening, and was told that they were going to the place called Golgotha, just outside the walls of the city, to see the crucifixion of two robbers and a man named Jesus of Nazareth. Artaban instinctively knew this was the King he had been searching for all of his life, and he rushed to the scene.

On his way, he met a young girl who was being sold into slavery. She fell at his feet and pleaded for him to rescue her. His heart was moved and he gave away his last jewel for her ransom. At that moment, darkness fell over the land, the earth shook, and great stones fell into the streets. One of them fell on Artaban and crushed his head. As he lay dying in the arms of the girl he rescued, he cried out "Three and thirty years I looked for thee, Lord, but I have never seen thy face nor ministered to thee". At that moment, a voice came from heaven, strong and kind, and said, "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of my brethren or sisters, you did it to me." Artaban's face grew calm and peaceful, because his long journey was over. He found the Christ.

We too can be like Artaban. We can spend our lives looking for Christ and be distracted along the way by doing good works with deep and sincere commitment and passion, but as long as we serve others in His name, we serve Him also. We must not, however, be Christ-like on Sundays while "sowing our wild oats" the rest of the week.

John the Baptist was blunt and direct because he HAD to be blunt and direct. He did not have time for peripheral or trivial matters. He had too much to do and not enough time to do it. He wanted people to concentrate on the message and not on the messenger. The people were guilty of sin and they knew it. The problem with society today is that we do not admit our own guilt. We tend to blame others for our own problems. Sometimes it is justified as in cases of abuse, and sometimes it is not justified. John calls us to Christmas the way it is meant to be, NOT the way it is.

John the Baptist's message was simple, short, sweet and to the point. Jesus' message was also short, sweet and to the point-Love God and your neighbour. Jesus could also speak of judgment, hell, fire and brimstone, especially when He dealt with the moneychangers in the Temple. Jesus and the early church emphasized teaching new Christians to lead a new life that was very different from their old life, especially those who converted from Paganism.

The good news of Advent is that God is coming to us not to destroy us, but to refine us and help us become what we are meant to be. In order to change, we have to accept our gifts, our limitations, and our personality traits and resolve that for whatever reasons this is what God has given us to work with.

The movie and television actor, Andy Griffith, once suffered from Guillian-Barre Syndrome, which is an inflammation of the nerves which sends scrambled messages to the brain. At the time, the disease was untreatable with surgery or drugs. He went to several doctors, but they weren't able to do anything for him. Finally, one doctor convinced Andy to go to a clinic where the staff specialized in pain management. The first thing the clinic doctor who was assigned to his case did was acknowledge his pain. That acknowledgment caused Andy to relax and was his first step to recovery-a recovery that was helped with therapies and being in a support group with other patients who had the same condition.

It took him almost two years to recover to a point where he could return to work. It was a difficult time, and he and his wife were almost broke. They visited Andy's agent, and although nothing was available at the moment, they returned every day and just sat in the lobby. Finally, they were noticed by other agents, and as a result, Andy received four TV movie contracts that year. The most important invitation he received though was an invitation to have the leading role on the TV series "Matlock". He later said, "Challenges and pain will continue all my life, I know, but with (my wife) Cindi at my side to remind me of God's grace, I'll go forward and continue to work with love and happiness". His faith has also led him to record Gospel music. If someone as famous as Andy Griffith can accept his limitations and the gifts God gave him and go on to have a successful rebirth of his career, just think what God can do for us when we prepare for Him by accepting our limitations, personalities and gifts in faith and repentance and using them to do His work in the world.

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