By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 16, 2018
Luke 3:7–18 (NRSV)
7 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? 8 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Of all the characters of the gospels, John the Baptist is one of the most mysterious and intriguing. He is an individual that does not quite fit with his time. It is as if a prophet from Israel’s history was intercepted by a time traveler and carried centuries into the future to preach along the banks of the Jordan. We are told that he wore clothing made from camel’s hair, and he survived on a diet of locus and honey. I have heard several explanations about his uniqueness, and most are fascinating to read, but the air of mystery remains. He was a prophet, he was a teacher, he was this religious fanatic that unabashedly proclaimed a message by the river. And the craziest thing about it people came from miles around to listen to this raving preacher.
Every time I read about John, I sit amazed. Why did people listen, what drew them out to that place to listen? I have pondered this all week, I have pondered this for most of my life, from the first moment I read the gospels. I was not like he was going out into the community inviting people to listen to him. He was screaming down by the river, and people came out to him, at least that is what the recorded account imply. We know that he came from an honorable family, his father was a priest, not only a priest but a priest that served within the temple. His father was visited by an angel while he went into the temple to burn incense and the angel foretold John’s birth. Not many people in the world are told that they will have a child before the child is even conceived, to be honest it would be nice if that would happen, so we could all plan ahead a bit, but John was announced. John’s parents are said to be righteous and blameless, they were held in high regard even in their advanced age and yet childless.
As I consider John and reflect on his life, I would imagine that he would have been a cherished child. He would have had everything he would need to grow in knowledge and wisdom. He was a child of a priest, and since boys took on the trade of their fathers, I am certain that John was probably well educated and positioned to take on that type of role. But there was something along the way that made this man move away from the religious system he was born into and enter into a different lifestyle.
We know that John was only a few months older than his more famous cousin, Jesus, so at this time he would have been around thirty years old. In this culture around the age of thirteen boys become men in society. They begin to take on the trade of their families. According to the law, priests begin their service at the age of twenty-five and they serve till they are fifty, unless they were high priests then they would serve longer. I would imagine that from the age of thirteen to twenty-five the sons of priests would be engaged in intense study, so that when their time came, they would be ready to serve. John was thirty, if the time line of Jesus is correct. At this age John should have had five years of priestly service under his belt. Yet he is not serving God in the temple like his father, he is on the banks of the Jordan yelling at people and calling them to repent. Have we ever thought about this? Have we ever wondered what would have driven John to leave such an honorable position within their society, to wear camel’s hair clothing and subsist on foraged foodstuffs?
He is out there in the wilderness. He is out there rejecting the lifestyle that was available to him by birth. He is out there in the wild, with full knowledge of a system he rejects. Imagine if you were his righteous and blameless parents at this moment. Imagine if your only son, your divinely announced son rejected your life and took a different path.
This is image is probably not one that is too hard to imagine. We might be the child that fills John’s shoes in our parent’s lives, or we might have a child like this. Churches across the world are filled with individuals who wring their hands over the youth of today, wondering why they are not taking up the mantle of the previous generation. It is not only our imagination, but it is a reality. It is part of the anticipation and holy anxiety we experience most acutely during this season.
Something was in the air of Israel. Something was changing. Something was about to happen. Everyone felt the anticipation, they sensed the righteous anxiety, they knew but they could not put their finger on it. And then a priest’s son was noticed out in the wilderness. A priest’s son that they knew and had heard stories about. They had wondered about him because he was not where they expected him. Maybe people regarded him as apostate. Maybe some in the family were shamed because of his choices. But he was a devout man, a man that loved God, so why was he in the wilds instead of serving God?
Their curiosity brought them out of the city, out of the towns and villages. Their curiosity and this cultural anxiety that they were all experiencing this anticipation of a dynamic shift carried them to the banks of the river to hear what this man had to say. And they listened.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Consider this. There is great imagery in this statement. There was a moment in history where vipers nearly wiped out the nation of Israel. According to the traditions of scripture, these vipers were a curse that was brought upon the nation as a direct result of their attitude. They complained. They complained that God lead them into the wilderness, they complained that they only had manna to eat, which was a substance that God provided for their nourishment. They complained and as a result vipers began to infest their camp, and bit anyone who came near. The nation lived in fear of venomous death, until God commanded Moses to design and cast a bronze image of a viper and place upon a pole, then when the venom of the snake entered the bodies of Israel, they could turn to this image and claim God’s protection. Everyone in the camp had to willingly turn to this image, everyone had to repent of their sin or face the judgement of their bad attitude. Their complaints were keeping them from a life with God and were redeemed by turning.
The viper’s venom coursed through the veins of Israel. It courses through the veins of every person because that story is a literary representation of where a lifestyle void of God leads. When John says, “you brood of vipers,” to those that are listening he is highlighting the very problem they are experiencing. The venom that once threatened Israel in ancient days is present again. They feel it burning in their hearts and they are seeking redemption, but they do not know where to go?
The religious system of Israel has never been as strong as it was in that day. The temple of God was massive. The very courts could hold nearly around twenty-six football fields. The stones were huge, perfect and so white the reflection of light could nearly blind you. Sacrifices were offered daily, not just by the people of Israel, but people from across the known world would approach the priests to give offerings on their behalf. The temple truly was a light to the nations, yet this son of a priest was out in the wilderness calling people vipers.
The scene actually breaks my heart. Israel was more righteous than they had ever been. They had pure heritage, they were devout in keeping the law, they did not, they did not, they did nothing that would discredit their faith, yet still a shadow hung over them. Something was not right, in all their holiness they sensed that something was amiss. They tried harder. They offered more sacrifices, they looked even deeper into the law to determine where they might provide greater righteousness. determine where they might provide greater righteousness. They worked harder, they prayed with greater intensity, they developed the greatest religious machine the world has ever known. And they lived in constant fear.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” John says, “and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as a father.’” John was onto something; their hope was not in their faith but in their heritage. They believed, they even lived a righteous lifestyle, but their hope was not in God but in their lineage. They had in their mind that if they conformed to a certain system of rules, they were fine because they were children of Abraham. John says no. You are a brood of vipers. Your heritage is nothing more than venom spewed from the fangs of a snake. Without true and complete repentance, they like their ancestors will become bleached bones in a deserted wilderness. He says this because their system was built on what they can do to gain God’s blessing, a system built on human works. If they could save themselves there would be no need for the temple. Their system was a construct of man, it was something of this world and John is saying NO.
Jesus said before Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” The past few weeks I have reflected on that one word, from. What he is saying is that the kingdom of heaven is not derived or based on the values of worldly systems, or systems derived from the human mind. It is something from somewhere else. We cannot get to that kingdom when we approach it from our worldly systems. No matter how nice the doors we construct are, not matter how beautiful we make a religious system if it begins from a perspective of man, it will always have the same result. It will always be filled with the venom of a viper and become a dead end.
“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” John says. Israel was saved from the vipers in the desert when they turned from their complaining which was keeping them from God and looked up to image lifted on the pole. They were saved not by their own actions but by turning and accepting the grace provided by God’s action. It was turning to God, seeking his ways instead of their own that they were saved, and the prescription has not changed.
“What must we do?” the crowds ask. And John, like his cousin after him says, “if you have two shirts give one away, and if you have more food than you can eat give it away too.” It might sound legalistic but consider the systems of mankind. Often our lives are built on excess. We want more, we carefully plan everything so that we can maximize the return so that we can build an abundance. There is nothing wrong with profiting from our labor. But if our focus is totally on our own profit, we are self-centered, and when something distracts us from ourselves, we complain. The venom of the viper takes hold of our lives. John is telling those that will listen to turn. Stop focusing only on yourselves but become relational. Live your life not for your own profit but focus on how you can encourage those around you.
Even tax collectors come to listen, and they ask what they should do. John tells them not to collect more than they are required to. And soldiers ask what they should do, and they are told to be content with their wages. Often, we get caught on the image of the tax collector when we get to this part. But the response to them and the soldiers is very similar. The tax collector represents the system of man, and the soldiers are those that are given the task to uphold the system. John does not tell the tax collector to reject their payment, but to only take what is required. That would be the required tax and service fees. They are encouraged to be mindful of others when determining their cut, do not attempt to extort more than is necessary for their personal survival. The soldiers are also tasked with enforcing the law, they could use their swords for personal benefit above their wages, John says no. We are to be relational beings, turn from the systems of man where personal profit is king and focus on others. Be mindful of others and live your lives in such a way that there is mutual benefit. Each equally profiting from the services of each other. If there was a doctor in the crowd John might have told them something like that of the tax collector. If a factory owner was there, he would have told them that they should charge enough to cover their expenses and provide for their reasonable needs.
John is calling them to a different lifestyle. A lifestyle of repentance or return. A return to the ways of God. Where we love God with everything we have and our neighbor as ourselves. It is the exact same message that the ancient prophets proclaimed, it is the same message that Moses proclaimed, and it is the same message that Jesus taught. It is a message where we must first focus on God, and then focus on humanity, both ourselves and others. It is a message of mutual profit and benefit. It is the lifestyle of community and peace. No extortion, no exploitation, but mutual respect and honor.
The people left the cities and the villages seeking something. They longed for something they could not explain. They were caught in a vicious trap, plagued with a poison that was slowly draining life from them. And John clearly tells them the answer. Repent, turn. You want to get somewhere but you are going the wrong direction to get there. Our hope does not come from the system of mankind. Every system of man will eventually fail. Just look throughout history and the ruins of mighty empires. The Mayans, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, Sears, Ford, Enron all empires of human construct. Every one of those systems are either dust or bankrupt. Why?
Life was created, it was given. We did not and will not ever be self-made. Our very existence is based on the gift of others. If we look closely nothing, we have even though we work for it is truly ours, others are involved. They hire us, they buy our goods and services, they encourage us, they gave birth to us, and they taught us. We are the product of numerous investments of others. Which all began with God, who loved the world so much that he gave his only son not to condemn the world but to save it. And we are saved not by how much we please God but by simply turning from our ways and returning to him. It begins with God, who before the foundations of the world were formed predestined Jesus to be born Christmas morning, to live a full human life with us and for us, and to die to take that venom out of our system. All we have to do is turn.
Today, this third Sunday of Advent, we like the people of ancient Israel are in a state of holy anxiety. We wonder and are in anticipation for the next chapter of life. All around us we can sense that change is in the air and we either fear it or embrace it. As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy let us consider why we are here. Let us consider why those we love may not be here. Let us consider if we are embracing the systems of mankind, or if we are living in a kingdom from somewhere else.