Ever tried to clean sin from yourself? Works about as well as cleaning grill grates, doesn’t it?[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/236111-grill-grates.mp3?client_source=buzzsprout_site]
The sermon text, which roughly approximates the spoken version
If you were an actor and someone was making a movie about Jesus’ life, would you rather be cast as Jesus or John? I suppose professional actors would jump at the chance at portraying Jesus because of the challenge. You know, that part of playing the role convincingly enough that people would believe you actually were without sin and could really do all those Jesus things. Walk on water, turn water into wine, heal the sick and raise the dead.
On the other hand, the role of John seems like a lot more fun and considerably easier to portray. All you have to do is convince people that you dress funny, eat strange things and say outrageous things. For many of us, that isn’t so much of a challenge.
John is a character for certain. He doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about baptism. Come to the water and repent. Repent? Who wants to do that? Confess our sins and get our lives in order? Pssh… But that is what John claims baptism is about. And when the religious leaders of the day, the people supposedly most in touch with having their lives in order, when they come to be baptized he calls them a brood of vipers, a bunch of venomous snakes, because of their hypocrisy. Doing good things, saying the right things, looking good in front of other people isn’t enough. Your life actually has to be transformed when you are washed in the waters of baptism.
That’s crazy talk isn’t it? Outrageous words from an outrageous guy who wears funny clothes and eats strange things.
Think about this. Is it more outrageous to say you’re going to burn in hell if you don’t change your ways or to say you are a broken sinner and God loves you so much that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and in Jesus, you have eternal life?
There is something to be said about burning the chaff with unquenchable fire though what we say may not be what is expected. I’m guessing most folks look at the fire that Matthew brings up and they connect it with the lake of fire in the book of Revelation that is associated with the idea of hell. That’s something of a leap and not entirely accurate. It is easy to think that Matthew is talking about burning in hell. It is easy to think that Matthew is talking about separating the good from the bad. It is easy to think that Matthew is telling us we’re all in big trouble because we’re sinners.
But he isn’t. Quite the opposite, actually.
We’re like grates on a grill, really. Grill grates always seem like they’re in need of some attention and cleaning, aren’t they? And no matter how hard we scrub and brush, it just doesn’t seem to get things clean. On the other hand, you crank that baby up to 600 degrees for a little bit and that baked on crud just falls away.
So it is with us. We can scrub all day long but our broken sinfulness isn’t going anywhere. We can do all kinds of good things but at best these actions only cover up the dirt that is on the inside. It probably gets worse as we delude ourselves that we can fix things all on our own. Who are we kidding, we can’t even clean a grill without some help.
This is what John is getting at. Every one of us has some crud in our life that we just can’t seem to get cleaned up, no matter how hard we try. All the effort we put into looking good is for nothing. Our lives aren’t changed by our actions but our lives are transformed in the waters of baptism.
In baptism, our lives are joined with Christ and in joining with Christ, our sins are forgiven. Period. That’s it. It is not we who clean up our act but it is Jesus Christ that does the work of cleaning us up and making us shiny and new, a new creation in Christ.
It is then we are sent into the world for the life of the world. We don’t go into the world to serve to earn forgiveness, we’re able to serve the world because we’ve been forgiven. Forgiveness and freedom come first. Then we serve.
There is a message in what we do and how we do it. Many people and churches are worried about doing the right things to avoid going to hell. And convincing other people that they need to do all the right things to avoid going to hell. Remember what John called the people connected with this idea? A brood of vipers. That’s not a compliment.
On the other hand, if you believe that you’ve been transformed, however imperfectly, by your baptism into Christ then Bringing Christ’s Love to Life isn’t such a stretch, is it.
When people see that we spend a lot of time serving others and we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to making a difference in the world, THAT sends a message. It tells the world that we’re not concerned with going to heaven or going to hell because heaven has already been promised and that we believe that promise. It also tells the world that instead, we are not concerned with our personal salvation and going to heaven but we’re concerned about bringing the kingdom of heaven to our neighbor. The love of God in Jesus Christ frees us to do that.