What If this Is It?
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
December 16, 2012
The Third Sunday of Advent
On a day like this one, it’s not so hard to believe the world is coming to
an end. The tragic shooting at
Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, has left the whole
nation feeling shaky and scared, wondering what tomorrow’s headlines will
bring. And although I’ve done my
best to dispel the rumors that the world will come to an end on December 21,
2012, there may be some of you this morning who are thinking the Mayans may
have been right, and that the reason they didn’t put any more days on their
calendar is simply because they knew there wouldn’t be any more days to
My friend Walter Witschey would disagree.
Dr. Witschey—Maya archaeologist and Director Emeritus of the Science Museum
of Virginia—says the Maya calendar is like the odometer on your car, and
that it’s simply getting ready to roll over to the next cycle.
That sounds reasonable.
But recently I asked a car enthusiast why most odometers only go up to
100,000 miles and he said, “Because that’s as long as most cars last.”
And I thought, “Aha!
Maybe that’s it. Maybe this old
world we’ve been riding around on for all these years is not going to
explode in flames but simply sputter to a stop like an old car by the side
of the road. It certainly seems
to be showing signs of age. The
polar ice caps are melting, tectonic plates are shifting, earthquakes are
rumbling. When I read the Gospel
lesson from Luke 21 a couple of weeks ago, about the signs of the end times,
I could almost hear some of you saying, “‘Nation will rise against nation
and kingdom against kingdom’—check. ‘There will be great earthquakes, and in
various places famines and plagues’—check. ‘There
will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’—check.”
Seriously, can you remember another time when there were so many
natural disasters or so much violence?
It makes you think the world is coming to an end.
Here we are in the season of Advent, a time of waiting and preparation, but
last Sunday I said there is a big difference between waiting and preparing
for the end of the world and waiting and preparing for the Day of the Lord.
This Sunday I want to expand on that.
I want us to think about the difference between waiting and preparing
for 1) the end of the world, 2) the Day of the Lord, 3) the birth of a
child, and 4) the coming of Santa Claus. Let’s
look at those one by one:
If the world were going to end this Friday, then this would be our last
Sunday ever. We would have
already heard the last welcome and announcements we will ever hear in
church, the last prelude, the last call to worship.
We would have sung “Angels We Have Heard on High” for the last time,
seen our last baby dedication, heard our last Scripture reading.
I don’t think we would be preparing for the end.
What could we do, really?
I think we would be gripped by a profound sadness, with tears streaming down
our faces as we realized again and again, “This is the last time we will
ever do this!” We would linger
long after worship was over, hugging and holding on to each other.
Someone would start to sing “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” and we
would all join hands and join in.
When the singing was over I would assure you that the next time we
gathered for worship we would gather in heaven, singing praises around God’s
throne, and that would be a comfort.
That would be enough to get you out the door.
At least, some of you.
Others wouldn’t want to leave at all, and Lynn Turner would finally announce that the doors of
the church would stay open till the very end for anyone who wanted to come
and pray or weep in those final days, or for anyone who just didn’t want to
be alone. Many of you would make
up your minds in that moment to stay right here till the bitter end, and
start looking for a comfortable pew where you could bed down for the night.
But if December 21st were not the end of the world but the Day of
the Lord, it would be different.
If we knew with absolute certainty that Jesus were coming back this Friday,
then the most important moment in the service would be the invitation, when
I would invite you to come forward to profess your faith in Christ, to
recommit yourself to him, or to join his church.
I have a feeling everybody here would come down the aisle.
And they wouldn’t leave it up to me to tell the church why they had
come. They would grab the
microphone, and give their testimony.
Someone would eventually insist that we fill the baptistry, and then
the baptisms would begin. Some
people wading into the water for the first time, others for the first time
in a long time. Strangers would
come in off the street to be baptized and soon the baptism team would give
up trying to find white robes for everyone; I would baptize them just as
they were, without one plea, until my arms got tired, until I had to ask
Ralph Starling or Steve Blanchard to take over.
I have a feeling that everybody would want to get in the water, and
that it might take days to get the job done.
Maybe we would still be here on Thursday night, baptizing the last
few stragglers before the coming of the Day of the Lord.
Now, if we were waiting and preparing for the birth of a child we would do
what we always do in Advent: we would talk about the first coming of Christ
and count down the days until December 25th, when we celebrate
his birthday. We would light the
candles on the Advent wreath and talk about the hope, peace, joy, and love
that he brings. We would sing,
“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and “Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but we
wouldn’t really mean it. We
wouldn’t expect him to come. We
would take part in the ritualized waiting and preparation that has become
the staple of the Advent season, but it would be nothing like the kind of
waiting and preparing a woman does when she is really expecting a child.
I know something about that.
Both of my children were born in Advent and I remember how the season
had a different feel about it in those years.
Christy and I weren’t simply participating in a ritual; we were
getting ready. We made sure the
overnight bag was packed and the gas tank was full because we didn’t know
when the baby might come. Maybe
that’s what Advent is supposed to feel like.
And finally, if we were waiting and preparing for the coming of Santa Claus
we would do what the rest of the world does at this time of year.
We would go to the malls and shop for gifts while the loudspeakers
blared “Jingle Bells,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer.” We would try to find
the perfect gift for everyone on our list and eventually give up with a
good-natured grin and do the best we could.
We would stock our pantries and fill our refrigerators and deck the
halls with boughs of holly. The
tree would already be up in the living room, the wreath on the front door,
the stockings hung by the chimney with care.
For those of us lucky enough to have someone coming home for
Christmas there would be a delightful sense of anticipation in the air, and
those of us traveling to see loved ones would look forward to the moment
when we could get in the car and go.
Neighbors would stop by with fruit cakes and cookies, strangers would
greet each other like old friends, and everybody would be a little more
cheerful than usual, caught up in a holiday mood, humming the songs of the
In many ways it is the
most wonderful time of the year, and there is certainly nothing wrong with
celebrating Christmas like that, but on this Third Sunday of Advent I need
to ask you: what are you waiting for?
What are you getting ready for?
Is it the end of the world, the Day of the Lord, the birth of a
child, or the coming of Santa Claus?
Because it will make a difference in how you get ready.
I promise you that. I
want you to be honest, but honestly on this Sunday when we light the candle
of joy I hope that we who call ourselves Christians can say that our joy is
found not in the coming of Santa, but in the coming of Christ, and in
today’s Gospel reading we hear about people who are getting ready for that.
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?
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.
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
It should be obvious to you that John wasn’t trying to help people get ready
for the coming of Santa Claus, but he also wasn’t trying to help them get
ready for the end of the world.
He was trying to help them get ready for the Day of the Lord, and they
responded in much the same way we would if we thought Jesus were coming back
on Friday: they confessed their sins, they repented, and they got baptized.
They wanted to stand before the Lord as pure and spotless as they
could be. In John’s time there
was an expectation that when the Messiah came the age they were in—what some
called “the present evil age”—would give way to the Messianic Age, an age of
unprecedented peace and prosperity.
The way they talked about it was not so different from the way we
talk about heaven, but instead of thinking they had to die and go “up there”
they thought heaven would come when the Messiah did.
It wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal.
They thought they would move from one age to the next like you move
from one room in your house to another, that the Messiah would open the door
to an age when there would be peace on earth, good will toward men, and
everybody would have plenty of everything.
But, like us, they also had the suspicion that not everybody would get to go
through that door. They believed
that only those who were pure and spotless would enter the new age.
You’d better believe that when they heard John talk about the One who
was to come they came to confess their sins, repent, and be baptized.
Even so, when John saw them coming he said, “You sons of snakes!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Honestly, it’s the same kind of thing I would be tempted to say if we
knew that Jesus were coming back this Friday and people I had never seen in
church suddenly showed up asking to be baptized.
I might not say it out loud, but I would surely be thinking, “Oh,
now you come! Now that
you know Jesus is coming back.
Where were you on all those other Sundays?
Who told you that you could just waltz in here at the last minute and
get right with God?” And yet
John baptized them, and I probably would, too.
But he also told them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
In other words, if you’ve given your life to God there ought to be
some evidence. People ought to
be able to see something that would convince them.
And if they didn’t see it, John said, then you might as well be cut
down like a fruitless fig tree and thrown into the fire.
So, the crowds began to ask John, “What should we do?”
And here’s one of the most interesting things about this passage:
John doesn’t tell them to pray more or read the Bible more or come to church
more. He says, “If you have two
coats, share with someone who doesn’t even have one.
And if you have more food than you need, share with someone who
doesn’t have enough.” To the tax
collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
And to the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by
threats or false accusations, and be content with your wages.”
John doesn’t ask anybody to leave their old way of life—not even the
tax collectors—but within that way to love their neighbors as they love
themselves, to look around and see if anybody needs anything they have, and
to make sure they don’t have more than they need.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it?
So many of these things John talks about sound like the kind of things we’ve
been doing on this year-long, every-member mission trip, as we work to bring
the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.
It’s almost as if John is saying, “The surest way to get to heaven is
by confessing your sins, repenting, being baptized, and then by doing the
kind of things that bring heaven to earth, by looking around you and making
sure your neighbors aren’t hungry or cold, and if they are sharing what you
have with them. In other words,
you get ready for the Day of the Lord first by loving God with all your
heart, mind, soul, and strength, and second by loving your neighbor just as
much as you love yourself.” No
wonder some people began to think he might be the Messiah.
But John said:
"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. 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.
It doesn’t sound much
like good news, does it? All
that talk about burning the chaff with unquenchable fire?
But listen to what John says: “One more powerful than I is coming.”
It’s not the end of the world, it’s the Day of the Lord, and this
year, more than ever, we need that day to come.
—Jim Somerville © 2012