Are any of you familiar with the “Where’s Waldo” books? The author Martin Handford began producing them in 1987 and he is still putting them out. They are sort of picture puzzle books. The pictures are full of people, things, and in different places but somewhere in this picture there is Waldo. He always wears a striped red and white hat. One would think finding him would be simple. But it is not. You can spend hours looking for Waldo. It is a fun book to do with your grandchildren or even by yourself.
The reason I bring up Where’s Waldo is because the last verse, verse 7 in our reading reminds me of the challenge of finding Waldo. Verse seven reads, “So with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.” Let’s see. Good news…Where IS the good news in what John preached? Is it when he called them a brood of vipers? If I called you all a bunch of snakes would you think that was good news? Remember, these are the guys who are coming out to listen to him preach. It isn’t as though he is a jail chaplain and he is preaching to a bunch of murderers and robbers. No, these are the ones who feel God’s tug on their lives. It is like these are the ones who are attending church, not the ones who are robbing houses or killing people. These are the ones John is calling snakes. Does that feel like good news to you?
OK, if that isn’t good news, is it good news when John asks them about who warned you to flee the wrath to come? The implication is that they deserve to receive God’s wrath. The wrath to come is referencing the day of the Lord about which the Old Testament prophets spoke frequently. Isaiah talks of the day of the Lord and fire and of destruction and torment for the ungodly. Jeremiah talks God’s burning and unquenchable wrath. Ezekiel talks of the ungodly being fuel for the fire of God’s wrath. Amos, Zephaniah, and Malachi all warn God’s people about the danger of God’s wrath which is coming because of their sins. In fact all the prophets are talking about and to their fellow Israelites. It wasn’t as though Jeremiah was talking to the Egyptians, or Ezekiel to the Babylonians, or Isaiah to the Assyrians. No, it was to their neighbors and relatives they were preaching. It is no wonder people got angry at them. It is no wonder that the prophets were killed. Now John is doing the same thing. He says, “The wrath of God is coming and I don’t think you deserve to escape it.” That is not good news either, is it? The next part isn’t much better. He tells them to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. In other words, it isn’t enough just to say sorry and to provide a sacrifice at the temple; one needs to actually change his/her behavior. One needs a change of heart. One has to become a different tree altogether. In fact, if one doesn’t change and become a different tree and begin producing the right kind of fruit, you will be cut down and burned. John is literally saying, “Turn or burn.” This sermon is not a happy sermon, is it? But not to worry, somewhere here there is good news. That is what verse 17 promises. Waldo is here somewhere.
Well, as you can imagine all this talk about wrath and fire and repentance were beginning to bother the people who were listening to John. So probably in their minds they were thinking to themselves, “Well, at least we are God’s chosen people. But then John takes away their first line of defense. He tells them God can take a stone and make into a Jew. To be honest, this applies to us as well doesn’t it? God could take a stone and turn it into a Christian too. We are called to repent during Advent or Lent. Many times our actions are not proving we are children of Abraham, that is, children of faith. We don’t act like children of faith when we worry, or grumble, or complain either. The people asked John, so what should we do we do now? Basically John tells them to stop being selfish and care for one another. If someone has a need and you can help—help. He tells them to be honest and to be gentle. That’s what Paul says in our epistle too. Speak gently to each other—be kind in our dealings with each other.
Have we reached the good news yet? Not really, right? I mean, would you call this good news? This news reads more like ‘get your act together or get toasted.’ They wonder whether John is the Christ, the one who was going to save them from their troubles. John tells them that no, he is not the Christ.
But the Christ is coming. John baptizes with water, water cleans the body and is symbolic of cleaning up one’s behavior and thoughts so that God approves of what you are doing. But the Christ is coming and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Christ’s baptism is not symbolic; it will affect one’s entire being. It will fill the person with the Holy Spirit. And then the fire will purify the person so that the deeds done by the person are done with a pure heart and with pure motives. And the Christ will not only baptize; he will also have a winnowing fork. The winnowing fork was used to throw the wheat into the air. When they do this the heavier seeds fall back into the pile of grain but the chaff would fly off. The chaff is the husk, the dry covering around the grains of wheat. There is no food value or commercial value to the chaff. So the Christ is going to separate the wheat from the chaff —he will separate the bad from the good, the worthless from the worthwhile. The Christ is coming
Here at last IS the good news. The Christ is coming and he is coming soon. This is good news for those weary of mere religious talk and weary of religious actions that did not penetrate to one’s heart. It is good news for those who were weary of the posturing done by religious people. For people who wanted to really experience God’s presence in their lives, it was good news. For these people who wanted to really experience God—even though it might hurt; even though it would change their lives, this was not just good news this is wonderful news. And John said that the Christ was coming. He is coming really soon. Hundreds of people who had this yearning and desire stayed with John to wait for this Messiah to show up. People like Andrew, John, James and Peter were still there when Jesus did come.
So here we are today some two thousand years later looking back at John and his sermon. Is there good news here for us or is it some ‘turn or burn’ first century sermon? It depends. It depends upon you. If you are weary of mere religious talk and mere religious actions, and you want the real thing—you want authentic change in your hearts—you want God’s presence in your lives even though it might hurt. You can have it. Because the Christ about whom John talked about did come, Jesus came and offers us the possibility for real change just like he brought authentic change to Peter and Andrew and James and John. He offers us God’s presence and authentic experience. But be warned; this Jesus Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire and he demands that we repent, that we change our lives. Jesus demands that we actually put him first; and not simply in words but actually how we live. And Jesus the Christ will purify our lives through challenges and hardships. You may be thinking, “So this is good news?” Yes it is, because through believing in and submitting to Jesus we are restored to a relationship with God the Father. This is what this religion is all about. It is why Christ came to earth to die for us. It is about finding our way back to God. It is about learning to know God’s great and wonderful love for us and then wanting to live for him.
So where was Waldo in this passage? We have been called snakes and were threatened with being chopped down and burned. One has to look pretty hard for the good news. But the good news is here. Jesus the Christ came! He brings the Holy Spirit to cleanse and change our hearts and lives and fill us with God’s holy love and God’s holy presence. It is good news for those of us who really want God’s presence in our lives; in fact it is wonderful news. Amen