A Don Rickles Christmas Story
December 05, 2019
(Meditation for Communion at Copeland Oaks)
By John Partridge*
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
I probably couldn’t use this illustration in a younger audience, but I’m confident that everyone here will understand. Do you remember when Don Rickles was invited to speak at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration? There was some concern about what he would say because, well, because he was Don Rickles, the master of the put-down. But second, because it was no secret that Don Rickles was a Democrat and had actively campaigned for Ronald Reagan’s opponent. Maybe because that was back when people had some sense, when you could count on an entertainer to do the right thing, and when politicians had a sense of humor, but he was, ultimately invited, he accepted the invitation, and his roast of the president was absolutely hilarious.
But, imagine if you went to hear an evangelist and were attacked in the way that Don Rickles roasted people. And then, imagine that the roasts weren’t funny, but instead were deadly serious. It seems difficult to believe that such a thing would be a good formula to reach people and draw them to any kind of faith in God. But as weird as that sounds, that is almost exactly how John the Baptist preached to the people who came to see him… at least at first. In Luke 3:7-18, as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah and the coming judgment, but also offers helpful instruction… and hope.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce 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. 9 The ax 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.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors 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.
14 Then 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.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
I cannot remember a single time when I have taken classes on preaching or public speaking, when anyone thought it was a good idea to begin a message by openly insulting and taunting our listeners. In fact, I am virtually certain that, unless you were Don Rickles, this is a bad idea most of the time. But this is exactly what John does. John begins by calling everyone snakes and talks about judgment and the wrath of God.
According to John, no one can be saved because they were born in the church, born to people who went to church, or because they themselves go to church. For John, the only real measure of godliness is the fruit that grows out of repentance.
Today, some of us would wonder what the fruit of repentance would look like, and the people in the crowd felt exactly the same way. John’s answer is to share what you have, with people who don’t have any. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. But even that isn’t enough because some people want to know specifics. Tax collectors, who were widely considered to be cheats, scoundrels, and enemy collaborators, are told to just do their jobs as honestly as they could. Soldiers, who were, in fact, the enemy, were told to do their job, not to take money they weren’t entitled to take, and not to accuse innocent people. It is interesting to note, that although both groups were widely hated because of what they did, John did not advise them to quit or to change jobs, but simply to do them honestly.
John then tells the people of the coming Messiah who will bring judgment as he separates the wheat (which is fruit) from the chaff (which is basically useless). And he appealed to the people that they should hear the good news of the coming Messiah.
And, although an important part of the Advent message is a message of repentance and the need to get our hearts right before God, but John tells us that repentance is just the first step. What comes next, producing fruit, is just as critical. Fruit trees without fruit will be cut down and burned in the fire. The wheat and the chaff will be separated, and the useless chaff burned in the fire. John warns everyone, including us, that our purpose is to live a life of fruitfulness, to do our jobs well, but honestly, and to willingly share what we have with those who do not have.
But despite the Don Rickles style delivery, and despite all the talk about repentance, judgement, and burning chaff, John’s message ultimately is a message of hope. Although John openly condemned the leaders of the church who put on a good show but used their position for their own benefit while abusing the elderly and the poor, John also made it plain that even those who were widely thought to be the enemies of Israel and the enemies of God, could seek repentance, receive forgiveness, and be restored and welcomed into to God’s family.
Don Rickles’ attacks could be absolutely scathing, but they included just enough truth to be funny. John the Baptist’s delivery was just as, if not more abusive but as angry as offensive as it might have sounded to the rich, it was a beautiful song of welcome, forgiveness, and hope to the poor, the helpless, hopeless, and the outcasts.
As the followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to that same mission today. To challenge the establishment, to confront power, to share what we have with those who are in need, and to sing God’s message of hope to the poor, the hungry, the helpless, the hopeless, the outsiders, and the outcasts.
No matter where we are, no matter who we are, that is Good News worth sharing.
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