Johnsville Grace and Steam Corners United Methodist Churches
You Are a Fraud (and so am I)
“You Are a Fraud (and so am I)”
December 13, 2009*
(Third Sunday of Advent)
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-18
This morning. The third Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle that represents Jesus’ mother Mary, the Candle of Christ our Joy. The arrival of Jesus Christ on earth is the cause of great joy for those who understand what his arrival means. Obviously Mary, Jesus’ mother, is filled with joy, what mother wouldn’t be? Mary’s joy is compounded and amplified because she knows and understands whom Jesus is and why he has been sent. Our confusion this morning is caused when we crash headlong into today’s lectionary passage, our New Testament scripture for the day from Luke. This morning we continue with Luke’s story about John the Baptist. John does not, at first seem very joyful… (Luke 3:7-18)
7John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."
10"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.
11John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."
12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
13"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. 14Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay."
15The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 18And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
John has developed a reputation as a prophet and as a preacher and the people are literally flocking out of the cities and towns and into the countryside to see and hear him. As they come, he practically curses them for coming to see him and effectively calls them all frauds. “You are a fraud.” “You snakes” or “You big phonies, why have you come out here?” John asks who warned them to flee from the judgment that was coming and demands that the people produce fruit that is consistent with repentance, he demands that they act like they know God. In other words, John demands that their actions match their phoney-baloney false fronts. The Pharisees and the teachers and preachers in the temple were particularly guilty, but John accuses the crowd of wearing masks and living false lives. According to John, the people say one thing but do another; they worship in one way, but live another. People say that they are followers of God, but don’t act like it. They say that they love the teachings of the prophets but don’t do the things that the prophets taught. The people tell their friends and family and even tell themselves that they obey the law, but their lives lack any evidence to back it up. For John, too many people have found comfort in believing that because they were born as descendants of Abraham and because they went to the temple and performed the rituals, that their judgment was already decided and they were all good little children of God. Instead, John warns that God can make descendants for Abraham out of the stones along the road. John warns that those whose actions do not produce godly results will be destroyed and burned in an unquenchable fire. John teaches that we are to live lives that outwardly exhibit and express the teachings and the intent of scripture and demonstrate the goodness of God. When you have more than you need, share with those who have less. Do your job honestly without padding the results to benefit yourself. Don’t abuse your authority to hurt others or to pad your wallet. Make your actions line up with your words.
John tells of the coming of another, the person whom we know to be Jesus, who John describes as a person who will thresh the people as wheat. If you are familiar with threshing wheat, the image is troubling. John says that Jesus will separate the wheat and the chaff and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Most of us are aware that chaff is a natural part of the wheat plant but is a useless part that is no more than a leftover leaf or hull from a grain of wheat. Chaff naturally hangs out with wheat, it hangs tightly to real kernels of wheat, and it can be difficult, at a glance, to tell the difference between wheat and chaff when they are in a pile together. John is preaching that there are, among God’s people, phonies who hang tightly to the real thing, go where the real thing goes, and even look a lot like the real thing but when Jesus comes, he will separate the real from the phonies, the useful from the useless and all those who have been faking it will be cast aside and thrown into the fire.
As I said, this news that the church is full of phonies who are wearing masks and masquerading as God’s people does not sound especially joyful. The news that Jesus is coming to destroy the phonies does not sound especially joyful, but the last verse that we read from Luke says, “18And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” The bright side is that John’s preaching used the news of Israel’s phoniness to prepare them to hear the good news that would bring great joy. The good news is that John used the bad news to prepare the people to be ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The good news that John brought was not new. The prophets of God had been saying for centuries that the Messiah would come to restore his people. The prophet Zephaniah lived during the reign of Judah’s king Josiah, at about the same time as the prophets Jeremiah and Nahum. Zephaniah’s message was that God intended to punish many nations including Judah because they have abandoned their faith. Sounding very much like John, Zephaniah says that the people are only faking their faith in God. They still talk like they are the church and they might even do some of the rituals of the church, but they have stopped being the church. After Zephaniah delivers the news of God’s punishment, he ends with God’s promise of restoration. Like John, Zephaniah begins with bad news but also tells of the joy of the coming Messiah. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
14 Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."
18 "The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you.
19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.
20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes," says the LORD.
Zephaniah says that when the king comes, all punishment will be taken away and God’s people will no longer need to fear or sorrow.
Still, how are we to connect the good news of the Messiah with the Good News of the Gospel when so much of what John is declaring sounds more like a curse than a shout of joy? As I mentioned before, the bright side is that John’s preaching used the news of Israel’s phoniness to prepare them to hear the good news that would bring great joy. John uses the bad news to prepare the people to be ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. John begins by reminding Israel, and reminding us, that we are all phonies, that we wear masks, that none of us are all that we pretend to be, that none of us are as good as we would like our neighbors to think or as good as we would like to imagine ourselves to be.
John reminds me that I am a fraud. John reminds you that you are a fraud. John’s good news is that God is always ready to forgive. John’s good news is that God is always ready to hear our cry of repentance when we recognize our failures. God is ready to invite us back into his family. Please understand that repentance does not mean asking for forgiveness using empty words. We can’t say we’re sorry like the insincere forced apologies of five-year-olds. Repentance is not recognizing the error of our ways and continuing in our error. Repentance means turning away from something that we recognize as wrong and following a new path. John does not point out our faults and our phoniness so that we can continue to be faulty and phony but so that we can turn away from our fakery and get things right. Are we going to get things right the first time? Probably not, but Jesus knows our hearts and as long as we are continually trying to do things right, to get better, to do better, to be more like Jesus and to do the things that he taught us to do, then he will forgive us when we fall short.
In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul also points to why we have cause to be joyful…
4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
We can rejoice because Jesus has so transformed our lives that the change in us will be evident to everyone. We can put away our masks and false fronts and fakery, we can live our lives, and be the people that God calls us to be and it will be so real that the change in us will be evident to everyone. Paul says we can be joyful because the message of Christmas is that with the coming of Jesus Christ, God is no longer far away. With the coming of Jesus Christ, God is not some far off spirit who cannot comprehend what it is to be human.
We can he filled with joy because truly, with the coming of Jesus Christ……God is near.
Let us hear the message of John crying in the desert. Let us repent and turn from our false fronts, fraud and fakery and live as if God is real.
*You have been reading a message presented at Johnsville Grace and Steam Corners United Methodist Churches on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor of the Johnsville Parish. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Johnsville Grace UMC or Steam Corners UMC at P.O. Box 205, Shauck, Ohio 43349. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at . If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at http://www.scribd.com/Pastor John Partridge
All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
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