Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
Again we come to this meetinghouse looking for peace and hope in a dark world. The season of Advent is one that highlights the difference between and the battle between the light and dark. The season of Advent is during the darkest period portion of they year, and we today realize just how spiritually dark the world can be as we watch the news and wonder what went wrong.
We truly are sitting in a day of anticipation! I like everyone else looks out and say the world cannot get any worse and I think now would be a great time for the Lord to come. At the same time where my depression rises and darkness seems to overtake the light within, I see or hear a story that bring light shining back in the world. Just like the presidential election the news of today threatens to rip our communities and nations in half. Everyone has an answer that they feel will keep a tragedy from happening again. None of which solve anything.
I think about today’s news and I am reminded not of the future events of Apocalypse but of history. We think that everything around us is in total chaos but I remind you that there is nothing new under the sun. I grew up in Kansas so the stories of Dodge City and the Wild West have been part of my life. I have read stories of my own ancestors and the risks they took just to survive. Life was rough and dangerous. There was threats everywhere: rouge bandits trying to take advantage of sparse populations and little law enforcement, nature threatening through violent storms or vicious animals, and medical emergencies that today would be easily taken care of at home could then draw life short. Mankind is a rough bunch of people; we live in a world that equally challenges us. Yet we are also full of ingenuity and grace.
The history of our nation is not all that unique. I would venture to say that every nation has had a similar story, one of ambitious adventurers, privateers, pirates, tyrants, and benevolence. The main difference between our nation and that of others is our nation is young, we know our history, where other nations and cultures have existed for millennium. I would venture to say that the passage we read today took place in a dark time just as we feel all around us.
The people we read about in scripture we often gloss over the situations. For example we often forget how volatile the province of Palestine really was. Earlier in this chapter we are given a list of political leaders: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. Often we rush over the names of scripture because we can’t pronounce the names. But these names are important because there is a story behind each of those names. Herod and Philip were brothers, sons of Herod the Great who ruled over all of Palestine, which included all of today’s Israel, and parts of Jordan and Lebanon. This kingdom was split in thirds, not because it was so large but because it was so violent and unruly. It was not uncommon for riots and rebellions to break out in these areas on the last frontier of the Roman Empire. One state broken up into three, two of these states were ruled by the children of Herod, but the third was ruled by roman appointed Governor, appointed directly by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Also listed is the rulers of the province to the north and the south of Palestine, each listed because these are people that could be traced, tracked and confirmed.
Along with the list of political leaders of the provinces of the frontiers of the Roman Empire were the leaders of the dominant religion of the indigenous people of the land. We have two strong forces at work right before our eyes. The state and religion, the physical and the spiritual. The ministries of John and Jesus spoke deeply of these aspects. To separate government and religion is very difficult to do because both deal with two very real aspects of humanity. To remove one aspect can cause the empire to slowly crumble.
John’s ministry is right in the middle of a clash between religion and government. But it is not exactly what you might think. He has not taken a side with any of the officials listed; he did not side with the politicos or the religious leaders. His ministry is barely in Israel. It is on the eastern banks of the Jordan. It goes back to the stories of Joshua and Moses. Prior to coming into the land of Promise Israel is camped out in the east. They traveled completely around the land of Canaan, from Egypt. They could not enter the land because they were unclean; they were not holy enough to enter into the land so Moses and the children wonder for 40 years and again they camp on the banks of the Jordan. This second time they are committed to God and are willing to fully devote their lives to His ways, willing to live a lifestyle of Loving God and loving their neighbor. Only then can they cross the river and enter into the land. John’s ministry is calling the people to remember.
Remember what is most important. Remember why we are here. They gained the land by being faithful to God and governing their nation with justice, but they turned their backs on God and Mankind seeking selfish ambitions before justice and in the process they lost the land. John is telling them “We do not deserve this land!” The passage begins, “you brood of Vipers.” Not my countrymen, or my friends, but you cold-hearted snakes. You broad of venomous, sinister, death filled serpents of sin. Ok I guess my dislike of snakes has seeped into my sermon, I apologize. But not fully, a viper is poisonous. We know vipers; a viper there is similar to a rattlesnake (pit viper) here. They strike out at unsuspecting prey and consume them after they infect them with their deadly poison.
This is not a sermon to get people to fall in love with the giver of the message. He is saying everyone listening to these words is filled with venom: the religious, political, and everyone in between. “Who warned you of the coming wrath?” These people are pouring out of the surrounding cities to listen to this guy lay it all out on them. He says do not even begin to think because you have a great heritage that you are safe. The ax is ready to cut you down just like all the other snakes.
It is a pretty intense sermon. It is quite frightening if you really stop and think about it. It is saying that the land is filled with dangerous people coiled up ready to strike. No one is safe, no one is worthy of any grace, but everyone from the top down is infected with the venom of the serpent. Everyone is coiled up around themselves thinking “I am like a god myself, with full knowledge.” That is an image that will keep me up at night. I dislike snakes, I have nightmares of snakes and I will probably not sleep tonight because I’m talking about snakes, but to imagine that everyone is a snake has got to be the darkest most depressing thought I can have. I am not safe.
It is no wonder the crowds rush to the banks yelling across the waters what must we do? There are three people groups listed: common people, tax collectors, and soldiers. It is easy for us to look quickly at the soldiers or the tax collectors, so I will begin there. To the soldiers he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with you wages.” I ask you who are the soldiers? The soldiers are the law enforcement of the legal arm of the empire. In ancient Israel the soldiers were terrifying, they were often the judge, jury and executioners of the law. Today I want you to imagine not men and women defending a nation but lawyers and judges. Do not extort money, threat or falsely accuse. In our world we have warning labels on everything. Warning labels on a lawn mower stating that it is not to be used on carpet, our coffee cups warn us that the contents are hot; all these labels come from a lawsuit. Some are legitimate lawsuits, like the warning not to smoke while filling up the fuel tank of your car, while others we know are there because someone sued a company and won over things that they should have already known. “Be satisfied with your wages.” Or work for what you want, do not demand something that you have not earned and do not take more than you deserve.
The next group is the tax collectors. For our conservative friends I want you to notice that he does not condemn the office of tax collector. The government has all authority on earth to demand whatever taxes it deems necessary. When there is a government then there is a responsibility of the government to collect and utilize funds for the good of those ruled. What John says is, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” I want us to look at this as the government as a whole; do not take more than necessary to do what is needed. Remember that the people you rule must live. But in the same breath John is telling everyone else to pay what is required. Let us be realistic in our governing. Fund the things we deem necessary. Fund them fully or not at all. This goes for every governing body: a city, state, nation, or any other organization. Do not be a people ruled by greed; instead be a people willing to give.
The last group is the common people. This is the top group. This is the group that most of us would identify with. Most of us are not soldiers, most of us are not tax collectors, but we are all people. To the crowds John says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Think about this. If you have two coats give one away. John is literally saying only live on what you need, if you have any extra it should be given away. He does not say plan for the future, he says give it away, not tomorrow but now. Keep what you absolutely need to survive but everything else is to be shared.
I proceeded in reverse but I did so for a reason. If the crowds were doing what they were supposed to do, the governments would not be forced to do it for them, and if the governments were doing what they were supposed to do the soldiers would not be forced to extort. It is a cycle that starts with each of us. John is saying that this world is messed up. The venom of the viper has corrupted it and not one person is living the way that they should. It does not matter who it is talking they are all not living up to a standard of righteousness. Each person is looking out for themselves and in the process people are going hungry, houses are being repossessed, people are losing jobs, and many are dying of hopelessness. Tragedy has struck our nation and people are pointing fingers. It is guns, it is lack of guns, and I even heard someone say that it is the fault of drug companies. Not one of those answers gets to the heart of the issue. Our nation is what it is because our people are who they are. We are a nation and a people filled with venom, we are a people that will sue another to gain financially, we are a people that will strike to get wages we have not earned, we are a people that will take for ourselves before we pay our employees, we are a people that will hoard instead of share. John says you brood of vipers. Yet they came in crowds to hear his message.
They asked are you the one, are you the messiah that will bring in the kingdom of heaven? His answer is no, “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.” Imagine this. We all know water can clean. Fire can transform. It is in the fire that gold is purified; it is in the fire that ceramics transform from dust to rock. Water of baptism is a symbol, or a sign that says I recognize I’m dirty and need help. It is the life transforming fire of the Holy Spirit and a life devoted to God that transforms us into something new. No longer just a lump of mud, but something new.
How are we doing? I would say that the fires of transformation are all around us. I do not want to lessen the sting of the tragedies, I mourn with the families in Connecticut, and in Oregon. But these are just signs that we as followers of God have failed our communities. We will not solve the problems of our hurting nation by making laws, but only in repentance. Acknowledging that we have and are failing, admitting to everyone that we have not lived how we should. Then we need to bear fruit. We need to look at our communities and be moved by the Spirit to act. We need to become a people loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and Living Christ’s love with others. We need to start here, and let that grow to our community as a whole. We need to forget the things of the world and focus instead on the mission that God has written on our hearts. Let us lay down ourselves, lay down our claims to our own lives and let God be God. Darkness is surrounding us but the Light is coming, the Kingdom of God is near. The kingdom begins in each of our lives and will spread to those we serve. That is the true meaning of this season. There is hope in the hopelessness if we are willing to let the light shine.