Of Snakes and Salvation: an Advent message

Sunday, December 13, 2009                  Luke 3:7-18

You brood of vipers! 

Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  

Bear fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t even start saying ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, or ‘I come to church every Sunday’, or ‘my family helped to start this church’, for I tell you, God is able from these chairs and hymnals to raise up children to Abraham, or good, church-going Christians, or Holmes County family trees whose roots are firmly planted in Millersburg soil.  

But even now the ax is lying at the root of those trees; and every one that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”


…I’m not sure I like to hear from John the Baptist at this time of year.  

…How about you? 

His language is strong, and it stings a little bit, even though it’s been a long time since he spoke these words!  His is a message that’s hard to hear in the middle of the cutest, sweetest, and fluffiest time of the year.  

Don’t get me wrong–the Social Worker that’s in me recognizes that sometimes people need to clearly hear the message that life demands something of us, that there are no free rides, that there are consequences for our actions, and that we have to take responsibility for the choices we make.  

The social worker in me understands why John uses such harsh language to prepare the way of the LORD, because the social worker in me knows that we can believe all the right things, know all the right information, and rub elbows with all the right people–but at the end of the day if our behavior hasn’t changed, then none of that matters.  

The social worker in me gets it.  

But the white, male, middle class Pastor in me wanted to choose a different text this morning!  I’ll admit it.  That guy started to chime in, saying things like:  “Where does John the Baptist get off?”  “Where does he get off breaking into my Christmas like that?” 

Nobody tells me what to do!  Nobody questions my integrity!  I don’t care if you’ve been dead for 2,000 years…I don’t want to hear this!!  

So, the Pastor in me started to think about all these other texts that we could look at this morning, the ones that would be far less controversial and far better suited for the sugar and spice and everything nice of Christmas.  

But as any good counselor (or Social Worker) might tell us, it’s a good rule of thumb that we should generally walk towards our discomfort, not away from it.  

So this morning John is among us whether we like it or not.  He continues to prepare the way for the majestic, glorious, everlasting LORD of Heaven and Earth.  He continues to call us to repentance, to faithfulness, to patient living as we wait for the coming of the fullness of the kingdom of our LORD.  

It’s a hard message.  I know.  

But this message that still stings after 2,000 years is worth repeating and taking to heart.  

There are three groups of people that John is addressing in this passage.  The first is the generic ‘crowds’…that is, everyone who had come out to him seeking his baptism.  

And these crowds begin to get it…they begin to take his message to heart.  You can tell because they start to ask him what they should do, in light of the message he was preaching.  

They approach him and they start to ask “What should we do?” rather than “But what about x, or y, or z?” questions.  After hearing his scathing message, the generic crowds come seeking practical advice.  

And he told them to share their clothing and their food.  

It wasn’t radical.  He didn’t tell them to sell everything they had, or to give away everything they had–he left that message for someone else.  

But he told them to share out of their abundance so that people who had nothing would be provided for.  

It really shouldn’t be that hard, right?  If I have two apples and you have nothing, common human decency suggests I offer you one of my apples.  And I have to think that to a first century Jew, hearing this story for the very first time, that it would make sense, you know?  

After all, life is hard and we do need to share with people who have less than we do.  I might get along with John after all.  I might even be willing to pledge myself to him and his teaching through accepting his baptism.  

But then the story continues.  And it’s not just generic crowds out there.  

The story continues, and those dirty tax collectors come, asking the same question!  

Those traitors, those snakes, that brood of vipers who were getting rich at the expense of the rest of us.  I bet Matthew was there–that snake who made me pay him double what I had to so he could make payments on his summer home in Florida.  

That viper who took everything from me–took the food right out of my children’s mouths so he could keep enjoying the good life.  What a snake!  

So, if I was a first century Jew, listening to this story for the very first time, I’d be pretty interested in what John was going to tell these tax collectors to do.  

But what he says to them isn’t all that remarkable.  He just tells them to be honest and fair–not to take more than they should.  Ha!  Good luck with that one!  Those tax collectors are good for nothing swindlers.   I bet it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a tax collector to flee from the coming wrath.  

But then the storyteller goes on!  It’s not just a crowd and a group of tax collectors.  

Soldiers were there, too!  

Now the story’s getting good!  

Can you imagine the setting of the story?  Out by some river somewhere, a wild-man in camel hair who’s breath smelled like locusts was preaching like there was no tomorrow.  He was holding forth with something like the authority of God…to the point that people were flocking to him.  

And at the time the people were looking for a messiah, right?  They were looking for someone to come and throw off the yoke of Roman oppression.  Remember, they lived in an occupied land.  They were a conquered people.  It’s an easy fact for us conquerors to overlook.  

So it’s easy to believe that the people were flocking to John, not necessarily because of his preaching–but because he was acting like a Messiah.  Here was a leader they could give their allegiance to, a leader who was actively recruiting for his cause–actively baptizing people into his following, a leader who was openly critical of the powers that be and who was demanding change.  

Could it be, that when they asked the question, they wanted to hear John tell them to take up arms and follow him?  Could it be they could start with those Roman soldiers–that group right over there–the ones who were within striking distance of this crowd of disenchanted Jews who were fed up with Roman occupation of their land?  

Could it be the crowds were looking to John to lead them in the fight for their freedom, their fight against these Roman Soldiers?  

And here, he had the Soldiers right in the palm of his hand!  They were asking him what to do!  

How about an assassination attempt on Caesar?  How about a sneak attack under the cover of darkness?  How about turning a blind eye while our Jewish militia begins basic training?  

I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies, that I can think of a dozen tactics to fight an enemy who is bigger, stronger, and better armed than you are, especially when that enemy’s soldiers are asking you what to do!  

But John wasn’t interested in any of that.  

He just sends them on their way, telling them to be content with their pay and not abuse the power they had.  It must have been a tactic, a clever stall for time to continue gathering followers for the eventual battle, right?  

Repent, bear fruit worthy of your repentance.  

Be honest, be fair, share your stuff, and don’t abuse your power.  

That’s it?!  

Again, I’m not so sure I like this story.  There’s not enough action.  

I think the people were expecting a revolution…they were looking for a fight, for some justice.  

And you can see evidence of it in verse 15–

The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah… 

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.  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.”  

John’s message is not for the faint of heart.  It’s a message of eager expectation and radical change.  

And I know there are plenty of people who get all excited about the heavy-handed judgment that the imagery here seems to suggest.  Indeed, this passage is one that’s easy to use for ammunition as we make the case for people to see things our way.  

But I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the text.  

It’s first of all about expectations.  I’m not trying to explain away the judgment, I’m just trying to emphasize what we often don’t see here–that we who are baptized have accepted a radical change in our behavior…that we act out a different set of expectations than we used to, that our hope is not in the power of politics or violence or intellectual cunning or individual prosperity or the American Dream, or any one of the hundred other false hopes we are tempted to trust in every day.  

Can I suggest this morning that that’s the chaff?  Those false hopes and false dreams?  

The power of Rome is chaff.  The soldiers themselves are not.  

The power of money–the power of greed…that’s chaff.  The tax collectors themselves are not.  

The power of Christmas–of consumerism, of a retail economy–it’s chaff.  

Belief without behavior–chaff.  Love without commitment–chaff.  Compassion without humility, Righteousness without Grace, Mercy without forgiveness…it’s all chaff!  It’s all going to burn!  

Let me suggest this morning, that as we continue to wait during Advent, our time is better spent sharing our goods, being honest and truthful even with our enemies, than it is in pronouncing eternal judgment on ourselves or other people.  

Can I suggest this morning that the message we bring is essentially good news–news of hope–news of glad tidings and great joy!  

For even John’s message of repentance and fire ends by saying So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

The gospel is Good News!  Jesus, the true Messiah has come!

We have been given the task to share the good news of our great hope–that there is enough to go around, that we are not bound by fear, that because of the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ our Lord we have received a glorious inheritance to share with the world!  

The Advent of a different kind of kingdom has come near to us!  It is with us, in us, and among us!  

The good news continues to burst in and break out in mysterious and life-giving ways, one crowd, one tax collector, and one soldier at a time!  

Therefore we must rejoice in the Lord and Rejoice always!  For the Lord our God is near!   And whatever is praiseworthy, excellent, joyous–we will think about such things, for the great hope towards which we strive has taken up the flesh of our existence–Emmanuel, God with us.  


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