Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And the multitudes asked him, "What then shall we do?"
And he answered them, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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 preached good news to the people. (Luke 3: 7-18)
Above the massive front doors of a cathedral these words were inscribed: THE GATE OF HEAVEN. Below was a small sign, which read: PLEASE USE OTHER ENTRANCE.
The Old Testament lesson is from the book of prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah was active in the reign of King Josiah in 630 BC. He preached prophetic message to the people of Judah about God's coming Day of Judgment. He confronted his fellow citizens of Jerusalem about their sins of corruption and idolatry. When they went into God's temple, they had forgotten the purpose of their attendance in God's Holy Place. It had become a mere ritualistic kind of holy rollers club. They had also gone to high places to worship idols and foreign gods like Baal and committed sin of idolatry. They had thought they could enter heaven not by the main doors but by other entrances, worshipping other gods. Zephaniah called people of Judah to repent from the crooked ways and repent of their sins, and turn to the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength to honor God. If God's people shall repent and turn away from their wicked ways, then the message takes 180 degrees change as God is going to bring redemption and salvation to his people. Zephaniah as a man of God knows that God of Israel is a faithful God and his faithfulness endures forever. His message from doom and gloom changes over to message of hope and joy:
"Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more."
The prophet looks forward to the time when God is going to bring redemption and release to heal and restore his people. Then they can truly experience the presence of their living God known to them Emmanuel- God with us.
It is the same message we hear in the Gospel of Luke where John the Baptist warns people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When people came to him to be baptized he said to them, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance." He told them not to deceive or console themselves by saying: "We have Abraham as our ancestor." He called them to pay attention to the needs of poor: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." To the IRS, creditors, banks and financial institutions he asked them not to exploit those who have poor credit rating and little buying power.
It is a holiday season and many of us can fall into the schemes credit card companies are offering especially to allure lower income members of our society. Buy now and start paying next June 2004. May be many forget to read the fine print that the interest rate they shall be charged will be 14.9 percent or more. John the Baptist has a warning for those who collect excessive profits from the poor: "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." In many countries in order to get anything done from civil administration you have to pay bribe. Ordinary people are terrified by the police and to such John the Baptist has a warning again: "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." In other words he is warning that before the ushering of the Kingdom of the Son of God: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways make smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3: 4b-6). The Gospel tells us as people who heard this message "were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts." So are we on this third Sunday in Advent. Do the words from the Scripture proclaim by Zephaniah and John the Baptist challenges us not to treat this time as ordinary time? But to prepare ourselves in a special way by repenting and turning away from our crooked ways to receive the bliss and blessing of the incarnate God, Emmanuel to dwell among us? At such time the Psalmist says, "Truth shall spring up from the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. The Lord will indeed grant prosperity and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet" (Psalm 85: 7-13).
In order to enter into this blissful time John the Baptist gave them a message of hope and said, "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand." Let's face it; 'Repent' is one of the most beautiful word in our language. Repentance comes from Greek, metanoia which can be translated either conversion or repentance. It means a complete change of mind, a new direction of the will and an altered purpose in life. John the Baptist is saying that if we have made mess of our lives then the good news is that we do not have to remain captive to the failures of our lives, our past and our inadequacies for ever. For some of us our lives are filled with ups & downs … up one day, and down the next? Jesus wants to turn our roller-coaster Christian life into a life that looks to His sovereignty in every circumstance. He assures us that there is a way out and we can get rid of the past. We can have a fresh start in our lives. Wouldn't you hate to live in a world where there was no chance to repent? There is no way out and no opportunity to get rid of the garbage of the mess many of us have created in our lives. In a sense, we could define hell as a place where there is no possibility of repentance. That's one of the things that makes it hell.
Two weeks ago I happen to be at the Community United Methodist Church in Queens in New York City. There in the lobby they had a wonderful, but hard-hitting publicity poster. It was aimed at people who had drifted away from the church. At the center of the poster was a picture of six men carrying a casket up the stairs into a church for a funeral. Printed over the picture were these words: "Will it take six strong men to bring you back to church?…The Church welcomes you back no matter what condition you are in, but we would prefer to see you breathing."
Thank God we are all breathing as we hear a call to repent to welcome the coming of the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor and the Savior of the world born in a manager in Bethlehem for mine and your salvation. In order to receive Him we are asked to examine our lives and call the people of our community, neighborhood and our world to repentance as John the Baptist did. And those who repent for them the words of good news are:
Jesus said, "Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you" (Matthew 11:28). John and Zephaniah are reminding us that when God is pleased, nothing else matters (Luke 3:21-22; Colossians 3:23-24).
Friends, during this season we shall be busy decorating our homes, buying gifts for our families and friends, wishing happy holidays and merry Christmas to each other. I pray in the hustle and bustle of this season let us not forget to prepare, to repent and to listen to the voice of God, to wait to know his will in our lives and straighten the crooked ways in our lives to receive the joy of the birth of the Son of God. Remember! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. Amen.