The Joy of Coming Home

December 12th, 2021 homily on Luke 3:7-18 by Pastor Galen

“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. So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” – John 17,18

Now I know what some of you are probably thinking: John the Baptist, if what you’re telling us is good news, I’d hate to hear the bad news!

“You brood of vipers, who told you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Who says that kind of stuff, right? “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees…” Tell us how you really feel, John!

But of course, in order to recognize good news, we often need to know the bad news first. My wife loves reading the news. She spends a rather large percentage of the small amount of free time that she has reading the news. Often I’ll walk into the room and she’ll want to share the latest tidbit with me by way of updates. The other day she shared some good news that had developed recently in a story, which she assumed I had been following as well. But since I had not been following the story, her good news report was meaningless to me. I had not context for what she was sharing.

John the Baptist – bold and forthright as he was – wanted to ensure that people had a context for the Good News by calling out the sin and injustice around him. He wanted people to understand the full story so they could be open and ready to receive the Good News.

Last week, Rachel preached to us about peace, and she said that sometimes in order to create true peace you have to break the illusion that everything is okay when it’s not okay. Being a peacemaker does not mean being passive. Sometimes it involves disrupting the peace, in order to get down to the root causes of the issue.

John the Baptist was someone who was not afraid to disrupt the peace in order to deal with the root issues. Through his words – and really through his whole persona – he broke any sort of illusion that people may have had that everything was OK. He called out things that were wrong, he pointed out injustice. I imagine that when he was a little child he was probably one of those kids who said the thing that everyone else was thinking but were too afraid (or polite) to say. Like some of you in this room, you never had to wonder how John was feeling. He told you exactly what he thought.

Interestingly enough, John’s truth-telling – and his accompanying disruption of the status quo – seemed to strike a chord with people. So much so, that the people of his day asked what they should do in response. And John’s answers to them – which were very practical and concrete – filled them with expectation and joy – so much so, that they began to wonder whether he might be the Messiah – the anointed one, the promised savior that the Jewish people had been longing and hoping for for so many generations.

Pointing to the Messiah

Of course John was clear about the fact that he was not the Messiah, but rather he had been sent by God to pave the way for the One who was to come. But we might wonder, what was it about John’s message – harsh as it may sound to our ears – that filled the people of his day with such joyful expectation? What led so many of them to come forward to be baptized, and them to follow John’s counsel to them – to respond in tangible ways to his message, and for several of them to eventually leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus?

Well, first we have to understand that John’s statement about the “brood of vipers” was not directed at all of the people in general, but as the Gospel of Matthew makes clear, John was specifically targeting the corrupt religious and political leaders of his day (see Matt. 3:7). The invitation to repentance was indeed given widely to anyone and everyone, but John’s most venomous attacks were directed towards those who were in positions of authority, and who used and abused their authority to leading others astray. In this way, John the Baptist stood in the long line of Hebrew prophets who were not afraid to speak truth to power. Jesus too reserved his harshest criticisms for those who used power to hurt and abuse those who were most vulnerable.

But secondly, we have to remember that many of the people in the crowd that John was speaking to were people who had been led astray, and who wondered whether God might accept them back again. Many of them, like the tax collectors mentioned here in Luke 3, were considered religiously unclean by the temple authorities and they were often ostracized by their communities who considered them sellouts and traitors. And the soldiers – who were most likely non-Jewish Roman soldiers – would have been excluded from the people of God by nature of their identity as Gentiles. Many in the crowds no doubt thought that there was no hope for them, that they just weren’t good enough, that they had gone too far astray, that God would never accept them. So John’s message about the wrath that was to come was not a surprise to them.

What was a surprise was the hope he offered to them, that change was possible, and that if they repented and turned away from their wrongdoing, that surely God would forgive them. This was a message of hope and forgiveness that many of them had not heard before. Many of them had been led to believe that God had rejected them because of who they were or what they had done. But John told them that if they would simply turn around (that’s the definition of repentance – turning around) then they would indeed see and experience God’s grace and forgiveness in their life. John gave them hope that true peace and reconciliation with God was possible. And for the people hearing John’s message that was good news indeed.

The Prodigal Son (retold)

The story is told of a young man who left home shortly before the economic depression of the 1930s. Angry with his parents and frustrated by life on a farm, the young man wanted excitement and adventure. So, seeking fame and fortune in the city, he left home. Unfortunately, the stock market crashed, employment became scarce, and instead of wealth and fine living, the young man found himself living as a pauper. Nostalgic, he thought of his home and family and how they loved and took care of him. Yet, in all the years he’d been away, not once had he contacted his parents. Although he longed for their forgiveness, he was too ashamed and proud to admit that he had been wrong and to ask to be taken back into the family home.

Times were hard and the young man had no place to live and little food to eat. Facing destitution, he finally found the courage to write a letter to his parents. He acknowledged his mistake, apologized for causing them distress, and admitted he was too scared to ask for their forgiveness in person lest they should reject him. The young man had just enough money left to pay for a train journey home. So he asked his parents, if they could forgive him, to tie a white handkerchief to the old apple tree near the railway track on the day he would be on the train passing that spot. If he saw the handkerchief from the train, he would know his parents would welcome him back, but if he looked out of the window of the train and didn’t see a white handkerchief tied to the branch of the tree, he would just stay on the train and keep going to who knows where.

The young man boarded the train on the allotted day, and the closer it drew to his village, the more anxious he became. Finally he was able to bring himself to look out the window. To his utter amazement, he saw not just one handkerchief, but there where white handkerchiefs tied all over the apple tree – on every single branch of the tree. And there in the yard, next to the apple tree were both of his parents, exuberantly waving white handkerchiefs in both of their hands, with tears of joy streaming down their faces.

The Joy of Coming Home

This was why John the Baptist wanted the people to repent. This was why he wanted them to turn around and come back home. Because when they came home he knew they would be able to see and experience God’s amazing love and grace and mercy towards them. For the people of John’s day, coming back home meant coming to grips with how far away they had strayed. It meant acknowledging the errors of their ways. It meant taking practical steps to rectify the wrongs they had done. For those with wealth or resources – no matter how large or small, it meant giving to those in need. For the tax collectors, it meant collecting only what they were required to collect – not skimming any money off the top as was their custom. For the soldiers it meant being satisfied with their wages, and not extorting money from others through threats or false accusations.

In other words, for John the Baptist, repentance was not about apologizing or simply saying the words, “I’m sorry.” For John the Baptist, it was about demonstrating through our very lives and actions that we have made a commitment to change. It’s about living out our faith in real and tangible and practical ways. It’s about taking ownership of the wrongs that we’ve done, and seeking to make restitution, knowing that God’s mercy is available to all who turn to God and repent.

Of course, we know that there is no way we could ever make up for the debts that we owe. We could never make things right with every person we’ve ever wronged. We could never do enough good deeds to outweigh the bad things we’ve done. That’s why Jesus died on the cross – to stand in the gap for us, to make up for all those places where we fall short, and to demonstrate in a real and tangible way just how much God loves us.

Our outward acts of repentance, then, are about coming to grips with how far we’ve gone astray. We turn away from our sin and turn towards God, not in order to earn our own salvation, but so that we can see and experience the salvation of our God.

As the prophet Zephaniah proclaimed many years before the time of John the Baptist, we can sing and shout aloud because God has taken away the judgments against us. God is in our midst, rejoicing over us, renewing God’s love for us, rejoicing over us with singing. And ultimately, one day, God will bring us home to be with God (see Zephaniah 3:14-20). And what a day that will be!

Time to Come Home

This morning, there may be some of you here this morning who are ready to make a change in your life. Perhaps God has been trying to get your attention, but you’ve been heading in the opposite direction. I would invite you to turn around. To acknowledge where you’ve gone astray. Commit to living differently. If possible, seek to make amends. Know that God is ready and waiting to welcome you home with open arms. For some, that might mean reconciling with family members, friends, neighbors. Other times people have hurt us so deeply that we may know that resuming a connection with them would be toxic or dangerous to us – in that case it may not be wise to seek to reconcile. But we can and should do as much as in our power to make things right, trusting in the grace and mercy and goodness of God to make up for our shortcomings in the places where reconciliation is not possible.

For others of us here this morning, perhaps there’s someone in your life who is seeking to make a change in their lives. Let us commit to telling them the good news. Let’s point them to Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life – the source of true hope, peace, and joy. Let’s not disparage them, or hold their guilt and shame over their heads. Let’s do whatever we can within our power to point them towards the love and grace and mercy of God. Let’s make sure they know that they are not too far gone. Let’s hang out the white handkerchiefs, like John let’s point them to Jesus so that they can be assured that there is hope, there is peace, and there is joy, if only they will come back home.

Amen.

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