I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.
Advent 3 (Year C)
- Zephaniah 3:14–20
- Isaiah 12:2–6
- Philippians 4:4–7
- Luke 3:7–18
7 He said therefore 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? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. ’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap 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 the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:7–18 ESV)
I love John the Baptist. I truly do. He’s crazy weird, this prophet of God, this man who points the way to the coming of God’s anointed savior of Israel. We don’t have the full John the Baptist weirdness here in Luke that we have in Mark and Matthew — the John who wears crude clothes and eats bugs and honey, who probably has that wild look in his eyes, the unkempt beard and the messy, matted hair that would make you want to cross to the other side of the street if you came across him one day while out shopping.
But the John we have here is no more sedate, no more respectable, than the John of Matthew and Mark. He proclaims a baptism — a dunking in water — for the forgiveness of sins, and the crowds listen to him, much like the stunned people of Nineveh listened to an exasperated Jonah.
And they came. In crowds, probably begging to go under, to know their sins had been forgiven.
So John, how does he respond? Does he smile wide and say, “Welcome to our worship service, thank you for coming!” “I’m glad you could be here?” “I’m John the baptizer, what’s the most important thing I can do for you today?”
No. He calls the people who have come into the howling wilderness to see him and be baptized by him “A brood of vipers,” and he wonders who on earth warned any of them to flee “the wrath that is to come.”
Bear good fruit, he tells them, because merely claiming Abraham as their ancestor is not going to help them. Not going to save them from the wrath that is to come. Be your own righteous, he says, because no one else’s righteousness is going to save you that day.
If you don’t bear good fruit, you’re doomed, he says.
I’m trying to think of how I’d feel if my wife and I walked into a church and the pastor there called the two of us “vipers” and wondered who told us to flee the doom that was coming? What John has here are, to put it mildly, not good customer service skills. He is not winning any points when his evaluation comes due.
And yet the crowds don’t leave. They don’t vote with their feet. They know the truth when they hear it — just an Nineveh understood God was speaking when Jonah spoke, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” — and they stand right there. In the face of being called ignorant, misguided vipers at risk of judgment for failing to bear fruit, they push back at John the cranky baptist.
“What then shall we do?”
To those who have more than they need — two tunics, enough to eat — John tells them to share. To the tax collectors, he tells them to collect no more than they are authorized to do, basically condemning them to poverty merely for doing their work. (Because tax collectors typically made their living by exacting more from people than they legally owed.) To the soldiers, he tells to them to be content with their wages, and do not extort or demand money from anyone for any reason.
We tend to theologize scripture too much, I think, drawing out giant abstractions from simple statements that were probably never meant to be foundational. One thing we theologize far too much about is the state, is government, and we have done so from Jesus’ admonition — when asked about taxes — to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. (It’s not clear from that passage that anything actually belongs to Caesar, aside from the coin bearing his likeness.) We have done so from Paul’s writing in Romans 13 that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God,” and that the sword is not a threat to those who behave themselves.
And we have done so, I think, from this little passage. Because John the Baptist doesn’t condemn the soldiers, some have said, means he doesn’t condemn armies or war or any of the things that go alone with it.
It’s as if we need God’s explicit approval or condemnation to properly ascertain the order of the cosmos. So that we can properly order the world ourselves.
I don’t think scripture works that way.
Besides, John is making an interesting point here that has nothing to do with government or the good order of the world, a point that I didn’t see until recently, until I began this series of Advent sermons.
The crowds have gathered in response to John’s call to repent. To be baptized. He calls them out — who told y’all to flee the wrath, the judgment, that is to come?
In the face of that coming judgment, John tells them, bear good fruit.
In the face of that coming judgment, John tells the rich among them to share.
In the face of that coming judgment, John tell those with power and authority to limit what they take, don’t use violence, and be content with what you have.
Think about this. Judgment is coming. Doom is looming just across the horizon. It will ravish and conquer and destroy. It will reduce Jerusalem to a pile of rubble. And there will come a point in which all those in Israel who are paying attention will head for the hills to escape what’s coming.
But not today. John doesn’t tell anyone to live in fear, stockpile food, or gold, or dig a bunker. He tells them — bear good fruit.
The answer to fear is faith. The answer to uncertainty is — love your neighbor.
I want you to remember this. To consider this and understand it. We are not called to love our neighbor because it is easy, because our neighbor is lovable, because the world is kind and there are no monsters — no Romans, no Mongols, no Nazis, no Islamist terrorists — waiting to detonate bombs and invade our country. John, and Jesus, are telling us to bear good fruit, to share and be content, to not use violence, in a violent and uncertain world. A world in which we are surrounded and conquered and occupied by those who hate us and would harm us without thinking twice.
They are neighbors. Our neighbors. The people we are called to love.
The rich, who might have every reason to fear having enough, are told to share their surplus with those who do not have. The tax collectors, who make as living charging more than they are entitled to take, are told to take no more than they are authorized. Soldiers, who live on violence and extortion as part of their duties occupying and humiliating Israel, are told to stop using violence as a part of daily business and to be content with their wages.
God’s answer to fear and uncertainty here is — love. Kindness. Mercy.
That is our response too. We, who come looking to have our sins forgiven, are given a task in response — bear good fruit. Love neighbors. Share with those who do not have. Do not use violence. Be content.
This is not God’s response to a kind, gentle, decent, compassionate world. This is God’s response to a violent, brutal, chaotic, threatening and uncertain world. Love.
Love even though you will have less. Love even though you cannot make ends meet. Love even though it does you no good and gets you no benefit. Love even though no one will ever love you back.
Love. Because God loves. Because god so loved the world.
Do not worry about the wrath to come. Do not spend your time searching the skies or the news or your neighborhoods for signs. Do not worry about trying to prepare yourself to survive whatever disaster may be looming. The wrath is coming. We cannot stop it, and we likely cannot even get out its way.
This is what it means to wait for God, and to bear good fruit. Love God and love your neighbor. And let God worry about the rest. Because whatever is coming, your redemption — our redemption — has already been secured.