Luke 3: John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, You brood of vipers!

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1 Luke 3: 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? 8 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. 9 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 fire. 10 And the crowds asked him, What then should we do? 11 In reply he said to them, Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, Teacher, what should we do? 13 He said to them, Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. 14 Soldiers also asked him, And we, what should we do? He said to them, Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages. 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, 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. 17 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. 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 1

2 What s So Good About This News? You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Thus begins the good news that John the Baptist proclaims to the people. Indeed, John s first words in the Gospel of Luke are to call the crowds who have come to listen to him a bunch of poisonous snakes. He must have been a lot of fun at parties. But in all seriousness, John is the forerunner of Jesus. He prepares the way for him. But he has a strange or, let s be polite and say that he has a unique way of preparing for the coming of the Lord. He rebukes all of the crowds that have come to hear him speak and to be baptized by him. He doesn t discriminate by directing his rebuke toward any specific group. Jews, Gentiles, tax collectors, soldiers he is an equal-opportunity offender. He calls the entire crowd a brood of vipers. The John that we see here in Luke s Gospel isn t afraid to speak his mind. He is willing to rebuke anyone and everyone. The universal nature of his message is characteristic of the Gospel of Luke as a whole. I have mentioned before that each Gospel writer portrays Jesus somewhat differently [SLIDE]. Reading just the first line of each Gospel gives us an indication of how that Gospel writer views Jesus. Mark brings us the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Matthew begins with a very Jewish family history. Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham, and Israel s Messiah. John begins all the way back at the beginning, before even creation, with the Word [SLIDE]. Mark emphasizes Jesus identity as the Son of God through his healings and exorcisms. Matthew emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus and demonstrates how he is the Messiah because he fulfills Old Testament prophecies. John shows us a cosmic Christ who exists with God the Father in eternity as the Word before the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. 2

3 And Luke, which we will be reading for much of the next year, shows us a Jesus whose ministry focuses on the poor and the foreigner. Only in the Gospel of Luke do we hear Jesus say, at the start of his ministry, that he has come to preach good news to the poor. Only in Luke do we hear the parable of that righteous foreigner, the Good Samaritan [SLIDE]. Luke also makes repentance and forgiveness of sins the centerpiece of the Gospel. The words repent and repentance appear more often in Luke than in any of the other Gospels. In fact, neither word appears at all in John. The reason I mention all of this is to highlight that Luke is concerned with showing us that Jesus message of repentance and forgiveness is a universal one. It applies to Jew and Gentile, to rich and poor, and to insiders and outsiders. Repentance and forgiveness are offered to everyone. One way that Luke demonstrates this is shown in the first verse of today s passage. I joked about it a moment ago, but Luke shows us John addressing the crowds as a brood of vipers. These are the people who have come not only to listen to him but to be baptized by him! John calls them a bunch of deadly snakes. Many Gospel stories appear in more than one Gospel. For example, John s preaching to the crowds also appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Often we can find interesting insights by comparing the similarities and differences in how the Gospel writers tell the same story [SLIDE]. Matthew shows John saying the same exact phrase as in Luke: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Matt. 3:7). But there is one slight difference to Matthew s version. It has to do with who John is addressing: But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them. 3

4 Hmmm that s interesting. Did you notice it? Matthew shows John directing his warning to the religious authorities, the Pharisees and Sadducees. But in Luke John addresses the crowds as a whole. The Pharisees and Sadducees are never mentioned. So what? you may be thinking. What difference do a few words make? A lot, actually. In having John address the crowds, and not specifically the religious authorities, Luke is making John s message of repentance a universal message. It applies to the entire crowd, not just to the religious authorities. All need to repent. Last week I talked about Advent as a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus. A big part of that preparation involves repentance. I focused on the reason why we repent. God s presence is a holy presence one that we, as we are, are not ready to encounter. Therefore, we prepare for the coming presence of God by repenting of sin. But today I want to look at how we repent because that is the focus of what John preaches to the crowds. After he calls them a brood of vipers, John tells the crowds that they must bear fruits worthy of repentance. They shouldn t simply assume that because Abraham is their ancestor that they have no need to repent. John is warning them not to be complacent [SLIDE]. When we are complacent we are satisfied with ourselves to the point that we are unaware of actual danger. Complacency is something that can particularly affect us as Christians. We can become quite pleased with our own righteousness to the point that we are blind to the pride swelling within us. John warns the crowds that they shouldn t think that because Abraham is their ancestor that they have no need to repent. But John s warning is also directed at us. He also warns us that we shouldn t think of the fact that we attend church and are good Christians as signs of our righteousness. Attending church is not a sign of our righteousness. Quite the opposite, in fact; it is a sign of our unrighteousness. 4

5 That may sound controversial, but it shouldn t. So, what do I mean? Let me explain using a metaphor. One of my favorite metaphors for the church is that of a hospital. In the same way that we go to the hospital because we are sick, we go to church because we are sinners. Yes, through the grace of God our eyes have been opened to the fact that we are sinners. And what do sinners do? They repent. We re not any better than someone who doesn t attend church. We simply understand that we are sick, and like any sick person, we go in search of healing. Repentance is part of the healing process. But what does repentance look like? How do we repent? That is not only our question, that was the question of the crowds who were listening to John. Having heard John s warning to bear fruits worthy of repentance, the crowds ask him [SLIDE], What then should we do? (Lk. 3:10). The tax collectors and soldiers, in turn, ask the same question: What should we do? Tax collectors were despised members of Jewish society. They were Jews who collected taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of Israel s conquerors, the Romans. They were viewed as collaborators. The soldiers were Roman soldiers, the Jews hated oppressors. That even these two despised groups respond to John s call to repentance is another way that Luke shows how the Gospel is good news for everyone insiders and outsiders, righteous and unrighteous. But I want to focus on the crowds, which is to say, the common people of Israel. I want to focus on the crowds because, frankly speaking, they are us. In addressing the crowds John is addressing the church of his day. They came to the desert to listen to him preach. In response to his preaching they want to know what they should do. How should they repent? How can they bear fruit worthy of repentance? And in answering their question, John does not mince words. He gives the crowds a direct answer: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise (Lk. 3:11). 5

6 John s answer recognizes our innate, meaning our natural selfishness. As parents of young children know, children must be taught to share. It doesn t come to them naturally. Adults are not much different. We may know, we may understand that to give from our abundance to those who lack even the bare necessities is the right thing to do. In that much we are different than children. We have learned the lesson. We know what is right. But knowing and doing are two different things. We look for all manner of excuses and justifications not to share with those who are in need. They are lazy. Their poverty is the result of their own bad decisions. Why should I give when the gift will just be wasted? I need to worry about my own needs. Who is looking out for me? But our selfishness goes beyond failing to help those in obvious material need. Sometimes we act as though we don t want to be inconvenienced at all. What I m speaking of here goes beyond sharing material goods. If you think about it, it s not so difficult to share our stuff the coats and food that John mentions. But we can take John s principle of sharing and extend it beyond material belongings. In fact, each of us is in possession of something that we value more than any of our possessions. We value it so much that we are mindful of how we spend it every day, for we do spend it every day. That sounds like a riddle. What is something we possess that s not a possession, but we spend it every day? Of course, I m speaking of time! How willing are we to share our time? Can we spend a few minutes and share a bit of ourselves by welcoming the new person who feels a bit awkward because they don t know anyone? Or would we rather not be inconvenienced? Can we give the gift of our time and be present for the person who is lonely or burdened? Or are we afraid that it might take up too much of our time? Can we make ourselves vulnerable and allow ourselves to be known by another? Or would we prefer to keep others at a distance because we are too busy to form new relationships? John s challenge to us is not limited to sharing our possessions but our whole selves. 6

7 It s December 13, and despite the fact that there are still mosquitoes in my apartment, Christmas is less than two weeks away. And of course, along with Christmas we think of Christmas presents. But there is another form of presence associated with Christmas that doesn t come neatly wrapped in colorful paper and tied with streams of ribbon. I am referring to God s presence. In this baby born into homelessness as a member of a conquered people, God shares with us his very presence. God did not think it too much to give of himself for others. In fact, it is God s character to be self giving. God was willing to be inconvenienced by leaving the throne of heaven and entering the earthly realm. The God who exists eternally outside of time was willing to enter time and give us a glimpse of his eternal kingdom. God was willing to become vulnerable by taking on human flesh and being subject to all that it entails, including death. In Jesus Christ, the creator of the universe and Holy One of Israel becomes present to us. Can we not, in turn, be present for others? I know some of us are visual learners and could use some visual reinforcement of this lesson, so here you go [SLIDE]. I hesitated to share this because the cynic in me says that this is, as we would say in English, a bit cheesy. Sentimental. Mushy. But I don t care. The idealist in me is stronger than the cynic, at least on most days, and especially on Sunday. The phrase bucket list comes from the expression to kick the bucket, which is slang meaning to die. If someone has kicked the bucket, he s dead. I don t know the origin of the expression. I m actually curious. Anyway, a bucket list refers to the things someone wants to do before he or she dies. But a Christmas bucket list refers to things that we want to do before Christmas ends. Look at this list: 1. Buy Be presents 2. Wrap gifts someone in a hug 3. Send gifts love 4. Shop for Donate food 5. Make cookies memories 7

8 6. See Be the lights Perhaps it s a bit sentimental. Alright, it is sentimental. But what I like about it is the active nature of most of the verbs: wrap, send, donate, make. Even the stative verbs, i.e., the verbs that describe a state or condition rather than an action are active in nature: be present, be the light. It s a list that exhorts us, that urges us to do these very concrete things. In that way it is much like John s exhortations to the crowds. What does he want them to do? Share the coat. Share the food. And, I would add, share our time. All the instructions that John gives to the crowds on how they can bear fruit worthy of repentance have one thing in common: they are actions. Repentance is a call to action. That is part of what makes it good news. I joked at the beginning of this sermon at the harshness of John s tone. Calling the crowds who have come to listen to you preach a bunch of poisonous snakes is an interesting way of getting them to respond to your message. And John ends his message by referring to the one to come, who will baptize not with water, as John does, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. His concluding metaphor of the farmer who separates the wheat from the chaff, collecting the wheat and burning the chaff, strikes an ominous tone [SLIDE]. And yet, Luke concludes in verse 18 that with this and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people. You heard right he calls this message of warning good news. The sermon title asks us, What s so good about this news? Between poisonous snakes and unquenchable fire, where is the good news? As is always true of the Gospel, the good news is more than a message it is a person. For even judgment is good news when Jesus Christ is the judge and repentance and forgiveness are readily available. As Luke reminds us, repentance and forgiveness are the heart of the Gospel, the universal Good News for Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies, tax collectors and soldiers, and even for such a crowd of sinners as we are. 8

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