- Luke 3.7-18
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? 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 axe 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?’ 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.’
15 As 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.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Advent, of course, is a time of looking forward to the coming of Christ, both his coming at Christmas and his coming again at the end of time. And today our focus is on John the Baptist. So who was John the Baptist? Well, firstly he was the Herald of Jesus, the one who told us the good news that the Messiah had come at last. Secondly, he was the last of the prophets. Most specifically, he undertook the ministry of Elijah who, according to the Old Testament, would be sent to herald the Messiah when he came.
And prophets are often thought of just as fore-tellers of the future, but more fundamentally they are those who listen to God and speak his word. And that means that they unfold God’s promises for us, but it also means that they speak God’s challenge to us. They hold a mirror up to us to see where we are now, alongside the promise of where God will take us. And the contrast is often very stark – a deliberate ploy that both makes us aware of the danger of our current predicament and of the glory of what God is promising us.
Now we know that at the time of John the Baptist, there was already a fever of expectation that the Messiah might be about to come. And John poured petrol on the fire by explaining that his baptism was just the precursor to the Messiah coming.
And why were the people so keen for this Messiah to come? Well, there were many reasons. For some it was simply that they were desperate. Living under foreign occupation meant that everything they earned would be stolen by tax collectors and used to fund the Roman Empire. Living under pagan rule meant that they were not free to worship God or to practice their culture and customs. And it also meant that they were disconnected from their own land, unable to plan or settle, to plant or develop, because they could be moved on from the land at a moment’s notice. And yet this land had been promised to them by God.
And for them, it was a matter of great comfort that the Messiah, when he came, would bring God’s judgment on the world. We tend to feel a little uncomfortable about that idea of God’s judgment. Perhaps you raised an eyebrow at the end of our Gospel reading when it said:
“But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Thus he proclaimed the good news to the people”!
It doesn’t sound much like good news that, does it? But in the Bible Judgment is good news. It is portrayed in entirely positive terms – it is judgment for God’s people, not against them. It is judgment for the poor and meek of the earth. It is judgment for a people who were despised and rejected, of no account, a people who were suffering, though they were God’s servants. To them, God promised a Messiah who would share their lot, who would suffer with them and be rejected, but who would hold up what God valued and show up the values of this world, where might was right, where the rich had their reward and where the unjust prospered at the expense of the weak. God’s judgment was good news for the poor and the people were longing for it.
And part of our spiritual discipline during Advent is to re-cultivate our longing for it – for God’s rule of justice and peace, for his judgment for the poor and meek of the earth and for our vindication as God’s people.
But there was another strand to their expectation – one that saw the coming of the Messiah as an opportunity, an opportunity to be at the top of the pile, instead of at the bottom, or who saw it as an opportunity for revenge on their oppressors. And so John, at the very point where he was proclaiming the moment of judgment and vindication, came down on them with a stark warning. Speaking to the very people who thought they were going to be okay when God’s judgment came, he said:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Brood of vipers? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it John? Not a very respectful way to speak of God’s chosen people (John’s own people, after all!) But John was teaching them the true nature of their vocation as God’s chosen people. Being God’s chosen people is not about being superior to every other race on earth. It’s about being a light to the nations, showing the earth what God can do in humanity when people follow him as their king.
8“Don’t say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
Just being a biological descendant of Abraham isn’t what it’s about. Yes, the Messiah is going to make good on all God’s promises to Abraham, but God can make anyone into one of Abraham’s heirs. Being God’s chosen people is not about us being special, it’s about God being special; it’s not about our faithfulness and goodness, it’s about God’s.
Being God’s chosen people is not about being privileged above other people, it’s about showing the world a different way of living, a different set of values that is only possible when God is our king, when instead of being god of our own lives, we serve the true God. And so it’s about bearing the fruit of repentance, demonstrating that, when we turn away from trying to be king of our own lives and place God back on the throne of our hearts, the most wonderful life becomes possible for us and that, through us, God will bless all the families of the earth: here, now and forever.
And if you start living God’s way, you will live by a different set of values to those around you. Those of us with two coats will share with those who have none. Those of us who were stealing from others will collect only what is due. Those of us who are strong and have the capacity to coerce others will stop throwing our weight around and be content with what we have. And those of us who wanted to keep God’s kingdom as a private club, for people like us, will recognise that outcasts like the poor, that traitors like tax-collectors and enemies like Roman soldiers are in fact our brothers and sisters – that far from being superior to them because they are sinful, we are in the same boat, just as much in need of forgiveness and saving.
And once we realise that, God’s judgment comes to us as good news. Because we realise that we too are the poor and meek of the earth; that all our worldly wealth and power and respectability is of no real value, is incapable of saving us or of buying us God’s favour; that we are chosen by God to be part of his kingdom not because we are faithful or good, but because he is faithful and good. And when we realise that for ourselves, we begin to long for it for others too. Once we receive the Light of the World, we begin to long to shine with that light for others.
And we also begin to long for the chaff of our lives to be burned away: the sins that separate us from our neighbour and from God; the evil that deceives us and corrupts us, that diminishes the people we are; the tendency within us to rebel against God, to want to be the god of our own lives (when that just leaves us dependent on our own puny resources) and the tendency to hold at bay the only true love that our souls most long for. All of that can gladly be burned away – the removal of a terrible burden. That indeed, would be good news.
And in its place would be the good fruit, the wheat of new life: the worthwhile things we do, the love and goodness of which we are capable when we give ourselves to God’s will and God is given our permission to work through us.
Now we, of course, are lucky compared with the people in our Gospel reading, because our Messiah has already come to us – and he will come again. So Advent, can we be filled with expectation? Can we re-cultivate our longing for God’s rule of justice and peace, for his judgment for the poor and meek of the earth and for our vindication as God’s people? Can we bear fruit worthy of repentance and receive his kingdom as Good News?
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Preached: – Crosby Ravensworth 16 December 2018, third Sunday of Advent