Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
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? 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.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”
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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
I get a lot of email every day.
My hunch is that it is somewhere around 200 or 300 emails every day
Although it seems that during this holiday season, my daily emails have close to doubled.
Of those --- many end up in my spam folder --- but I still feel the need to at least quickly go through the folder to make sure something important didn't end up in it.
And then all those other emails --- somehow I have to go through them --- because who knows --- one may be telling me that I have a friend in Africa who has recently died and wants to leave me a few million dollars.
How does one know when we have received something that is truly special and just for us in terms of a spiritual message?
How do we sort out our spiritual messages --- how do we separate the spam from the authentic message from God?
In our passage this morning from Luke --- the message from John the Baptist sounds pretty similar to what one hears on the street corners of Chicago or any other large urban center.
"This is the Word of the Lord ---- Repent and Believe!"
I don't know about you --- but when I see one of those people standing on the street corner shouting out their messages of doom and gloom --- I kind of chuckle and walk on by.
It seems to me just like spam email
But John seems to be calling us out in this passage.
YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE!
Despite the hard message from John people seemed to flock to hear him.
In Matthew's telling of the story it is only the Pharisees and Sadducees that come out to hear John.
But Luke wants us to understand that it was "crowds" --- common folk who were seeking John's guidance
Listen how The Message translates this:
"crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do"
Even though it was "the popular thing to do", John demanded something of his hearers.
Most of us don't like people telling us what to do
We don't want a lot of expectations on us
As your pastor I am allowed to make suggestions
But to speak like John did . . .
Most of us would not be very happy
Have you noticed the attacks that have taken place toward the Pope because of his recent messages about financial inequity.
John's message to us seems to be rather simple ----
If we want to claim to be godly --- then we should be
And he went so far as to explain exactly what that means in a language that the people of his day could understand.
What should we do? --- the people asked
· if you have two coats ---- give one away
· if you are a soldier ---- don't intimidate or coerce
· if you are a tax collector ---- don't collect more than is your due
John simply seemed to be saying ---
God has told us what to do and be --- DO IT,
and don't pretend to be something you're not
But John seems to be raising another issue as well
It is the whole question of faith vs works
John said that we will be evaluated by our fruits and not our roots
don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life.
Now, the interesting thing to me is that nowhere is John asking the people (who had come into the desert to hear him) --- nowhere is he telling them that they needed to join him in the desert eating grasshoppers.
John was asking his hearers to return to their everyday lives --- to where they had been planted ---- and to begin to bear fruit!
The interesting thing is it is not an either or question
Its not that we can be a person with deep roots and no fruit
Or be a person with fruit but no roots
(Jesus will pick up this theme with the parable of the sower)
John calls us to develop deep --- lasting --- significant roots in God
But he also says we must bear fruit
One of the great Scottish preachers of the past was a man named George Morrison. He was pastor of a great congregation in Glasgow.
He once told the story of a dream that he had
In the dream he died and went to heaven
He was standing before St Peter, who asked him: "Who are you?"
"I'm Morrison." he said
"Who?" replied St Peter
"George Morrison, the preacher"
"No record of you here, I'm sorry" answered St Peter
"It can't be!" protested Morrison. "For 25 years I have filled a great sanctuary twice on Sunday morning and every Sunday night, where I am told that I preached with power and beauty and poetry and brought people to conviction and conversion."
"I'm sorry, No record of you." said St Peter. "What did you say your whole name was again?"
"George Herbert Morrison"
"Oh," said St Peter, "I do have a notation here. It says: 'One night he sat up all night long with somebody who was dying.'"
I love that story
In other words, we need to put our faith to work in specific and costly ways.
John seemed to be set on destroying peoples sense of false confidence.
To get right with God --- you have to admit that --- you're not right with God.
But the real crux of John's message was not repentance
It was JESUS
For Luke, the whole point of telling us this story about John (that we have looked at these last two weeks) was to prepare us for what was about to happen.
For Luke --- with John's ministry the curtain was just about to rise to begin the greatest story that the world has ever witnessed
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus
And John wants us to make sure we understand that God has no grandchildren.
The Pharisees thought that their salvation was secure because of Abraham
John reminds them that is not the case.
Abraham's descendants are not God's only children.
Faith is not inherited
It doesn't matter how devote or faithful your mother or father were
It doesn't matter if you are a righteous Jew
God's children have one distinguishing mark --- and that is --- they bear fruit.
Henry Drummond a scientist/evangelist once said to a group of college students:
“do not touch Christianity unless you are willing to seek the kingdom of God first. I promise you a miserable time if you seek it second”
Today we remember Nelson Mandela --- Madiba (father of his nation)
Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he stood up to apartheid
One of my favorite quotes from him was made a few years ago at a lecture in Soweto:
"As the years progress one increasingly realises the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which you live."
Mandela seems to have understood what John was talking about.
That both roots and fruits must be demonstrated in one's life.
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
As we continue our Advent journey
John begs us to: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
We do that not by resting on our laurels
God has told us what to do and be --- we need to DO IT, and not pretend to be something we are not
This is message from John is not spam email
He is trying to get us ready for the greatest adventure that is just about to begin