Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
Luke 3:7-18 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 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.
Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality. I’m talking football sideline. There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players. Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling. The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level. Up their game when they get on the field. So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock. There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.
Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people. Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season. Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment. There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.
The sideline is a bit of wilderness. There is wandering around. Sitting down. Very little appears organized. But those are appearances.
Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game. Take a gander at those sidelines. Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.
John is worked up. He’s a wilderness guy. This is his terrain. And the crowds come. Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats. The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” The crowds ask, “What shall we do?” John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats. John’s answers are nothing earth shattering. The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”
In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation. It is a sincere question.
John tells the riff-raff what to do. The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people. In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind. This is not rocket science. This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.
We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins. However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too. After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.
John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us. We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence. For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:
You are a pastor so go and…
You are a wife so go and…
You are a mother so go and…
You are an American so go and..
The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself. And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.
Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side. For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism. And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.
What are fruits worthy of repentance? The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves. John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus. Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:
16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] 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 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.”
The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text. The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene. The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.
John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news. One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise. This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff. I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.
We get used to our chaff. Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin. But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free. And once that happens, look out! It is a salvation day in the here and now. Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.
God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle. It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.
We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival. Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger. Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit. We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”
In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?” We shall worship. We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.” The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love. Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people. This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving. Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.
The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Amen and Hallelujah!
 Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world. Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.
 Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”
 Revelation 1:8
 Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while. We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.
 From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.