Last Sermon at All Saints Wellington

Philippians 4: 4-9; Luke 3: 1-14

A cartoon shows a sceptic shouting up into the sky, ‘God! If you’re up there, tell us what to do!’ Back comes a voice, ‘Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice.’ The sceptic looks alarmed. ‘Just testing,’ he says. ‘Me too,’ replies the voice.

One of the great values of preaching through a book of the Bible or preaching from the lectionary is that it makes you expound the more difficult passages, and not just stick to the easy or encouraging ones.

I wouldn’t have chosen ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ for my final sermon.

However it is all too easy to make excuses for not preaching on judgement, somehow it is never the right time. Yet if we shy away from judgement, we end up testifying, as one theologian complained, ‘to a God without wrath, who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.’ (Reinhold Niebuhr).

So, since we have just begun to preach through Luke’s Gospel, from the birth narratives at Christmas through to the resurrection story at Easter, and having had the boy Jesus in the Temple last Sunday at the end of Luke 2, there is really no way I could skip preaching on the message of John the Baptist today.

And it has been good to have been thinking about John the Baptist this week, amid all the packing and clearing out, because John is such an example to follow – his whole life pointed people to Jesus the Saviour, from the moment he leapt in the womb when the pregnant Mary came to visit, through his public ministry and here in Luke 3, where the crowds are wondering if he might be the Messiah himself, in vv 15-17 he distracts attention away from himself and points people to Jesus…

So here goes…

What can we learn about the Gospel from this passage?

Firstly, it’s a historical gospel…

V1 – in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…

Luke was a historian as well as a theologian, and he goes to great lengths here, as in 2: 1, to root the events of Jesus’ life in dateable history. This is important for his argument, which is that in one particular place and time God intervened decisively for all people in all time…Luke takes particular care to cross-reference in history the events which showed Jesus to be the Son of God in the miraculous manner of his birth and the miracle of his resurrection…

Secondly, it’s a challenging gospel…

V3 – preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

The gospel involves the baptismal challenge at its heart – to turn away from sin and follow Christ. I am going to miss worshipping in a church with its cross-shaped baptismal pool. Every time we see a baptism take place in this baptismal pool we are challenged afresh to repent, to turn away from our sin and receive forgiveness through the cross of Christ.

V7 – You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? – If you look at Matthew’s account of this event (Matt. 3: 7), it is clear that John is addressing his preaching to the Pharisees and Saducees who were coming for baptism, who were the most religious people among the Jews…

The challenge of the Gospel is addressed as much to believers as to unbelievers. We all need to repent, every day, and to receive God’s forgiveness afresh.

When I was on study leave and read all the Gospels afresh I was struck by the way that the preaching of John the Baptist and of Jesus was harshest towards those who thought that they were religious, and gentlest towards those whom everyone else looked down on as sinners… whereas too often churches seek preachers who are gentle towards those who are religious and harsh towards those we tend to look down on, either because of their behaviour, sexual orientation or their life-controlling issues. We may have been religious all our lives, as John’s hearers were, but if we want to avoid the judgment of Christ we need to hear the challenge to repent of the sin in our own lives, whether it be self-righteousness, a foul temper, or a gossiping tongue, or a stingy heart.

Thirdly, it’s a practical gospel…

V8 – Produce fruit in keeping with repentance – repentance isn’t just feeling guilty, it’s about changing direction and behaving differently…

To the crowd he said, Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food…

Do any of you remember the fun time we had some years ago with the 50 sack challenge, when 50 of us filled a sack with clothes and took them to the charity shop? I have been remembering that this week, as Gill and I are down-sizing to move to a more normal size house. I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I’ve been teaching myself to ask not ‘might I need it one day?’, but rather, ‘might someone else need this more?’…

To the tax collectors – Don’t collect any more than you are required to….

To the soldiers – probably Herod’s soldiers rather than Roman ones – Don’t accuse people falsely

Be content with your pay…

Fourthly, it’s a divisive gospel

V 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to gather the wheat into the barn and to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire

At the end of this service it is just conceivable that somebody might say something nice about me, because I am leaving (that is, if I have paid them enough…) and that is good, because we all need encouragement and ending well is important, but it is good to be reminded that the gospel measures a person not by how popular they are but by whether they have been willing to say the unpopular thing for the sake of Christ.

For John the Baptist, his bearing witness to Christ led him to suffering and death – indeed the Greek word for bearing witness is martureo, from which we get our word martyr…and our passage ends with the sobering words…

Vv 19-20 When John rebuked Herod…Herod locked John up in prison

Fifthly, it’s an encouraging gospel

V 18 With many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Do we present the Christian message in such a way that it is clearly heard as good news? Do our non-Christian friends know us for what we are for, or what we are against?

The word exhorted in v18 can also be translated comforted. I have noticed that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who are really good at exhorting and giving encouragement, and those who desperately crave encouragement from others. Do you exhort and encourage other people, or do you feel a bit discouraged and find it easier to moan and be negative because you wish that people would notice what you do and encourage you? Well, let me let you into a little secret that I have learnt in life: the more encouragement you give, the more you get back.

All of us get discouraged at times – I know I do. So if you sometimes tend to be a cup half empty, Eeyore rather than Tigger kind of person, make it your New Year Resolution to exhort and encourage someone every day – I tell you, you will get back so much more encouragement than you give – it will transform your life. And maybe it will transform the lives of those around you too!

So let my last sermon as your vicar end by encouraging you to follow the example of John the Baptist in bearing witness to the Gospel of Jesus – a historical gospel, a challenging gospel, a very practical gospel, a sometimes divisive gospel, but above all an encouraging gospel. Together let us bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the Saviour of the world.

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