Sermon for December 16th, 2012
7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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." 10And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14Soldiers 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." 15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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." 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Prepare the Way: Looking Around
Can you imagine getting a Christmas card from John the Baptist? "Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!" The best line in this passage, however, is at the end, where John has just described the Messiah as coming with a pitchfork in his hands to separate the wheat from the chaff... "but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." I think Luke, who is telling the story, just couldn't resist the next line: "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."
I always thought this made John a good Calvinist Presbyterian -- after all, we believe in total depravity, or to put it in contemporary terms, that we are all thoroughly messed up people. But my wife pointed out that, no, John was actually a Baptist. As in...John the Baptist. I guess if he were Presbyterian, we'd call him John the Elder, or John the Committee Vice-Moderator or something creative like that.
Whatever we choose to call John, today's scripture reading shows him in full action, preaching up a storm to the crowds, interacting with them, and proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. This passage divides nicely into three segments, and I'd like for us to examine each one in some detail.
The first segment is verses 7-9. But before I jump in, you might recall that we've spent the past two weeks talking about Advent as a season in which we both look forward to the future and also look back to the past. John is about to turn that upside down. The past and the future are still important, but sometimes I think we have a tendency to get a little too attached to one or the other, and then we get stuck there. The Pharisees in the New Testament are often a great example of a people so focused on the past they neglect the present and the future. I imagine there may have been a few Pharisees in John's audience when he says (in verses 7-9) "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 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. 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."
These three verses are heavy with warnings to those who place too much stake in the past, starting with "brood of vipers." Brood means offspring, so he isn't insulting them nearly as much as he's insulting their parents. Hey, don't put too much stock in your family history, because it isn't that great anyhow! In verse 8 and 9, he's saying that even the few good ancestors you did have (namely Abraham) won't cut it for you if you aren't doing something worthwhile here in the present. Roots are ok, but if you have great roots and don't produce any fruit, your great roots might as well be chopped up with an axe. That's a great message for us to hear as individuals and as a church: All our achievements and our long, distinguished past mean absolutely nothing and are not even worth saving or remembering if we are not using them to produce something worthwhile today. Or to put it differently, we don't remember the past for the sake of remembering the past, or out of nostalgia, longing, or idle reminiscence. We remember the past because just as roots feed a tree, supplying it with nourishment, so too our past feeds our present, supplying us with wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Roots serve the tree and its fruit. The past serves the present.
The next segment is verses 10-14, but we're going to skip that and come back to it in a moment. First let's look at the final section, verses 15-17. If the first section was a warning about dwelling in the past, this section is a warning to future-dwellers: As 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."
By the time John arrives on the scene preaching this message, the Jewish people have been looking to the future, waiting eagerly for a Messiah for well over 400 years. With the Roman occupation, much of their past has been taken away from them. Much of their present is based in oppression. So they dwell in the future, hoping, anticipating, expecting a Savior--is it John the Baptist? Is he the one? John says no, but he does something else, too. On one level he reassures their hope in the future: Yes, the Messiah is coming. But before you get too excited about that, know that with the Messiah will come judgment. He will use his pitchfork to separate the wheat from the chaff. So your future might be safe in the barn...but it also might be roasting in the fire with the chaff.
The good news is that judgment is God's alone, and we have no control over it, even those spend a lot of time dwelling there. You might remember me saying a couple of weeks ago that we can't predict the future, at least not with complete accuracy. But we can prepare for it. But here's the funny thing about preparing for the future: The only place you can do it... is in the present.
And that brings us at last to the middle segment, verses 10-14. Sandwiched between the past and the future, you can probably guess what these verses are about. It's here that John's audience, having heard his message, ask a very practical, very present-oriented question: What shall we do? Not "What did our ancestors do to deserve this in the past?" and not "What will the Messiah do when he comes to save us in the future" but rather "What do we do? Here and now in the present?" Three different types of people ask the same question, and I love the simplicity and the consistency of John's answer.
To the crowd he says, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." To the tax collectors, he says, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." To the Roman Soldiers he says, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." Despite the craziness we label John with, he is being entirely reasonable here. When people ask Jesus this same question, he usually tells them, "Sell everything, give it to the poor, leave behind your whole family, and follow me." John just tells them to be content with what you have, don't take more than your fair share, and if you have extra, share it with someone who has less. What do you do here and now, in the present? You look around at the people who are sharing space with you in this world. You look around, and you show a little love.
Two weeks ago I mentioned 1st Corinthians 13:13. "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." As I said then, of these three virtues, hope is the future oriented one, the one that is forever looking forward in anticipation. Faith is forever looking back to the past--ours is an ancient faith which we inherit from our parents, grandparents, and all the saints who have gone before. But love is the present-oriented virtue, forever looking around for those whose need is right now. And love--just like the present--is indeed the one that holds the others together.
The past and the future both serve the present, and are meaningless without it. In the same way, faith and hope serve love. Our faith means nothing and isn't worth keeping if it doesn't produce love. If we aren't showing love to everyone around us, then the coming (or second coming) of Christ should be cause for fear and not hope.
But if we use our faith to teach ourselves and others how to love more, love better; If we let our hope inspire us to love more, to love better; If we put each of these things in its appropriate time and place; Then I think we--like faith, hope and love--will abide for a long time, and be a blessing to others.
If we put faith, hope, and love at the center of our preparation for Advent this year; If we can fully dwell in the present moment, looking around, always ready to help those in need; Then I think we will truly be like John the Baptist, pointing others to our savior,
Not through our words, but through our faith, hope, and love. Not just during Advent, but throughout the year and for many Christmases to come.