Every year around Christmas we have celebrate by singing carols and reading scriptures that highlight the advent and birth of Christ. This Sunday we are having that celebration. We hope you are able to join us!
Carol 1: O Come all Ye Faithful
Carol 2: Once in Royal David’s City
Lesson 1: Genesis 3:8-15, 17-19
Carol 3: O Little Town of Bethlehem
Lesson 2: Genesis 22:15-18
Carol 4: O Come O Come Emmanuel
Lesson 3: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
Carol 5: It Came upon a Midnight Clear
Lesson 4: Isaiah 11:1-5, 6-9
Carol 6: Mimi Mweney Hatiya Nikikombolewa
Carol 7: Ikawa Siku Kubwa Kwangu
Lesson 5: Luke 1:26-35, 38
Carol 8: Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Lesson 6: Luke 2:1-7
Carol 9: Away in a Manger
Lesson 7: Luke 2:8-16
Carol 10: Angels We have Heard on High
Lesson 8: Matthew 2:1-12
Carol 11: We Three Kings
Lesson 9: Matthew 2:13-23
Carol 12: The Coventry Carol
Carol 13: Asubuhi Na Mapema
Lesson 10: John 1:1-14
Carol 14: Silent Night
Carol 15: Joy To the World
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 19, 2021
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Luke 1:39–55 (ESV)
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
I have been reading the narrative surrounding the advent of Jesus my entire life. Well nearly my entire life, there were a few years that I could not read, but after I learned I have read it ever sense. At times these stories become so familiar that we forget the amazing features within. This is probably why I love the arrangement of Silent Night that Rend Collective produced. They add a chorus to the familiar carol that says,
“Be still my heart
Be still my mind
May I still see the magic of that silent night
Fill me with wonder
Keep mystery alive
May peace on earth be my song tonight.”
May I still see the magic of that silent night. The reality is that the night was far from silent. Any mother could tell you that, and any father that has held the hand of their spouse while she was in labor can tell you that silence was not the way to describe the event. But magic yes. There is something supernatural about new life. All the screaming and muck and yet we love the little one that caused such pain.
May I still see the magic of that silent night. I like this chorus because it truly captures the scene. Magic of course is not how most of us would explain it. When we think of the word magic we tend to think of pagan rituals being performed to manipulate the cosmos around to meet our selfish desires. But there is another aspect of magic that we tend to overlook, wonder. The term magic comes from the magi. The magi we meet within the narrative surrounding the birth of Jesus. The magi were interesting people. They were priests, scientists, and advisors. They were the educated class of the ancient Persian culture. And yes they dealt with the things that were unknown by most people so everything that they did seemed to cause awe and wonder. And since we did not understand we referred to their deeds as magic. The interesting thing about Magi is that they were a respected class, they had great knowledge and without the luxury of our modern technologies they were able to do remarkable research. When Judah was taken into exile, some of the wise men among them were taking into this class. Daniel is probably the one that most of us recognize the most. Daniel was a magi this prophet of God, would have been seen as a magician by his contemporaries. And his teachings most likely directed not only Israel into the future, but also the remnant of Persian scholars that remained after the conquest of Alexander.
But we are not talking about the Magi today. We are not even talking about the birth of Jesus today. We are still in that period of time where we are waiting in holy anticipation, holy expectancy, or holy anxiety. We are waiting and expecting God to move.
“In those days Mary arose and went with Haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah.” If we were to read the verses prior to today’s scripture reading we would see that Mary had just been visited by an angel. This angel told her that she had found favor in the eyes of God. I do not know how most people would have responded if some shining angel just randomly showed up in your room, but if it were me I would probably be freaking out. My greatest fear as a child was aliens, and of course my sister’s favorite show was Unsolved Mysteries where almost every week there would be a story of alien abduction. Which means I had a nightmare about aliens nearly every week, I do not think I ever really told anyone about it, but aliens really freak me out. And if you were to ask me to describe the scene of Mary’s encounter with the angel, it is the stuff of nightmares in my mind. I think I am probably not far from the truth because the first thing the angel says to Mary is do not be afraid.
Anyway, the angel explains that God is going to do something amazing, and basically tells Mary that because she has found favor in the eyes of God, He wants her to participate. This of course scares and fascinates Mary. She does not understand how any of this can happen but she also does not deny that God can do what God wants.
We often assume that ancient cultures are not as advanced as we are today. They may not have the same level of expertise as we do today, but they were not ignorant. Mary knew how women became pregnant. She knew that in the natural world what the angel was saying would have been impossible. She also knew the oral teachings of their religion. She knew that there was an anticipated king from the house of David. She knew that this king would have to be miraculous because by all human rendering the line of David was broken, cut off, impossible. The royal line had been killed off by the various invasions because that is what invading armies did in ancient cultures. They would execute those within the royal line if they wielded great influence or they would emasculate them so that they would become a person of ridicule and folly instead of power. The line of David was no longer a viable option. When Israel gained their independence from the Hellenistic kingdoms it was not David’s line that claimed the throne, but someone from the linage of Levi a priest.
Yet even though it seemed unlikely the people of Israel still held hope that the line would be restored, and they believed this because their prophets told them that. These prophets told them many things that had happened, and yet some of what was taught remained unfulfilled. They had been exiled and they had returned to their land, just as the prophets said, but they were still waiting for something else, the return of the king.
The angel spoke to Mary and she accepted the word of the angel, not because the angel made sense, but because Mary trusted God. Mary did not have to understand the science, all she desired was to do her part because she loved her God. She trusted but inside her psyche there was doubt. She said Let it be to me according to your word, but there was still a touch of gray within the silver lining of hope. The angel knew this so this angel told her that her barren relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant in her old age.
This is where we find Mary today. This young confused betrothed girl, who was just visited by this spiritual being, need to prove to herself that what she just experience was real. So in those days Mary arose and went to this town where this relative lived. The first thing about this whole story that is amazing to me is how did she get permission from her parents. Mary was not that old. Most believe that she would have been somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and I do not know about you but I would not be likely to let a preteen girl go on a journey alone. She most likely was not alone. So Mary had to have told her parents at least something about the angelic encounter. Which she probably would have had to do anyway because she probably woke everyone up with the screaming when the angel first appeared.
So Mary told them about the encounter, and then she said that the angel had told her that Elizabeth was pregnant. Everyone knew Elizabeth was barren, so everyone in the house probably wanted to see what was going on. Mary had just received the message. There was no reason to believe at this moment that she herself was pregnant. So they go on the journey to Judea, mainly to help provide assistance to their aged and pregnant relative.
This is the scene. They go because that is what families do, that is what communities do. When there is a problem we come together and help. If there is a joyous occasion we come together and we celebrate, when there is sorrow we join together and share the burden of the loss. Elizabeth was beyond the traditional child bearing age, she would need help. And Mary’s family would need to be there to help, and they also needed confirmation of Mary’s story.
Mary at this point may have only been with child for a couple of days. Even today we have no way of detecting a pregnancy that early. As far as Mary is concerned she is not pregnant and everything about this story is just a weird dream, but when they get to the town and greet Elizabeth something happens. They enter the house and Mary greets her cousin. There is nothing spectacular to this, even today we say something as we enter the residence of relatives and friends. We do not just enter the house silently. We do not know if Elizabeth was expecting this visit, in reality I am guessing that this was a total surprise, so Mary comes into the house and cries out her greetings and Elizabeth is beside herself with joy.
We are told that the baby within her womb leaped with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. We all know that fetuses can respond to things going on outside. But the interesting thing about this is not so much that the baby is moving but why.
The message that Mary received from the angel was at least four days old. We are told that Mary left in haste, meaning that she did not spend a great deal of time planning the trip. And the angel said that that Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy. In the fifty-sixth verse we are told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before she returned home. What all this is telling us is that Mary did not spend a month at home, she went to this town in Judea within a week of the announcement and she stayed with Elizabeth until after John was born. This might not mean much to everyone, except for this one fact, Mary went to visit Elizabeth before the first month of pregnancy. There is no way an ancient person could actually know if Mary was pregnant or not. Mary would not even know at this time if what the angel said would happen actually had. As far as she knew she was just a preteen girl with her entire life ahead of her, looking forward to that day she would be married to Joseph.
But when that baby inside of Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice something happened. Elizabeth knew that the baby inside of her was acting in an unusual manner. The baby inside of Elizabeth was excited to be in the presence of Mary. Then we are told that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” I want us to stop here. How did Elizabeth know? Humanly speaking it would be impossible even today without extensive testing to know if Mary was with child mere weeks into the pregnancy, and yet Elizabeth knew. She knew that the young woman standing before her was not only pregnant but was carrying a child of great importance.
There is no way that Elizabeth could have known Mary was pregnant. And this is why this interaction is so amazing. I have read this story countless times throughout my lifetime, and not once did it occur to me that Elizabeth could not have known about Mary’s pregnancy prior to the meeting that day. It is highly likely that Elizabeth even fully understood the implications of her own pregnancy but God was active. Elizabeth not only calls Mary blessed, but she goes on to say, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This is also a profound statement. Although the term Lord has a variety of meanings in Greek culture, among the people of Israel the use this term only for unique situations. It is the term that they use almost exclusively in reference to God. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures the term we translate as Lord, is always used for the divine name. Not only does Elizabeth recognize that Mary is in fact pregnant but that the child that she carries is of divine origin. And the confirmation of this in her mind is the fact that the child within her own womb is leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.
We do not know how much Zachariah and Elizabeth communicated during her pregnancy, Zachariah was mute from the moment he left the temple until John was circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth. But is clear that he found some way to explain to his wife the unique place their son would have in God’s emerging plans. John was destined to be the voice calling out in the wilderness to prepare the nation for the coming of their long awaited king. When John started leaping he confirmed the revelation in Elizabeth’s own heart that the young woman standing before her would become and was the mother of not only their messiah, but God incarnate.
And Elizabeth looks Mary in the eye and says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This is a somewhat enigmatic statement, but I want us to consider the greater picture. Elizabeth is actually comparing Mary to Zachariah. Zachariah did not believe when the angel came to him, and the sign that he was given was an inability to speak. Mary on the other hand, believed. She said to that angel, “may it be done as you have said.”
Does this interaction speak to you? The first people to bear witness to the gospel of God, was a pre-born fetus, and women. The very first person in the New Testament to be recorded as being filled with the Holy Spirit is a woman that for her entire life was cast in shame because she was unable to bear a child, and now she is celebrating the presence of her God who is embodied within the womb of the child standing before her. And that child is call the most blessed of all women, because she had faith. She trusted the word that God had given to her and she moved forward within that hope.
This story tells us many things. One might say that it gives us insight to when life begins because Elizabeth recognized the unborn child just barely implanted into the lining of Mary’s womb. But is also shows us the awesome power of the Spirit of God.
How many of us would be so bold as to look at a child and make the proclamation that Elizabeth made? It did not make sense that Mary of all people would be pregnant. She was not yet married, she was still living within her father’s house, and Mary said she had not been with a man. It seemed impossible, and yet Elizabeth did not hesitate to speak the proclamation.
I want us to consider that. I want us to let the story sit within our hearts and our minds. We sing the song Mary did you know, but maybe we should sing Elizabeth did you know. We have two very unlikely women, one barren and the other a poor unwed girl both standing together as the first witnesses of what is about to happen. And what do they have to say?
Luke 1:46–55 (ESV)
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
They say we are willing to believe. We are willing to walk forward even when we do not understand. We are willing to trust God. They are willing to stand and walk in their faith with the hope that God will do all that he has promised and are willing to do their part.
What do we say? The magic of that silent night is right before us. This young woman just days into a pregnancy goes to visit her barren cousin who is now in her sixth month, and even before modern science could prove the reality that was unfolding they knew God was at work in a real and unusual way. Do we believe? Do we believe that God came down from heaven and clothed himself in humanity to change the course of history? Do we believe?
I believe. I believe because I have watched as people that call upon the name of the of Jesus have come together and done things seemingly impossible. I have watched as our community has come together to help others that we do not even know because something inside us has prompted it. I have seen the results of the magic of that silent night. I have seen people turn their backs on selfish interests and instead worked toward peace. I have seen the results of the child that Elizabeth announced that day. That child grew to become a great teacher. That child is Emmanuel God with us. That child grew, lived, and took my sin and shame for his own, and he bleed and died so that I could be restored. And that child has called me to participate in his kingdom. A kingdom that transcends the kingdoms and wisdom of humanity. A kingdom where we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others. The magic of that night is that God come to us so that we could once again become the people he created us to be. Do we believe?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 12, 2021
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Luke 3:7–18 (ESV)
7 He said therefore 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 in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to 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 shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
We all look forward to Christmas. If you happen to have presents already wrapped and under the tree, you might have an urge to open just one. If you happen to have a child you have probably said no to the question of opening one every evening since you put them out there. This is a symbol in that. There is a recognition of the holy anxiety seen within our secular traditions. We know that there is something in the future. We know that there is something exciting and desirable. We do not know exactly what that is, but we know that we want it.
There was a longing in the ancient world as well. They were not waiting for Father Christmas to come visit their homes, but there were other longings. For many within the Jewish community they longed for Messiah. This term is something that is a bit of a mystery to many of us. We have heard it our entire life so we assume we know what those ancient people meant by the term. The word Messiah simply means anointed one. This term was often used while speaking of the kings. Saul was messiah, David was Messiah.
As time went on and the kings of Israel failed to reflect the anointing of God, the prophets began to be characterized as the anointed. We do not really like what prophets have to say, because prophets tell us what we do not really want to hear. The prophets would speak to the kings and let them know that they were no longer anointed. Who really wants to know that? Who wants to have some prophet coming over to a party only to stand there saying this king is nothing, but you know what the real guy he’s coming later.
A few years go by and everyone realizes after they have been shipped off to Babylon, that the prophet was right. That king was not what we thought, but hey maybe the prophet is also right about the true anointed one coming later, I wish we would not have killed that guy before we asked a few more questions.
This is the mindset. There is this anticipation. This waiting, hoping, longing, but there is also this desire that nothing changes. We want something life altering, something that will change our entire course of life, and yet we do not want to change.
John the Baptist was out on the banks of the Jordan. He was out there preaching. I want us to get a good idea of who this guy really is. His dad is Zachariah. Zachariah was a prominent priest serving in the temple. Priest like that are not as common as we might think. You have to be someone of importance to have that job. You work your entire life for that opportunity, and then you wait for a random lot to be drawn. Zachariah got that chance. He goes into the temple and he does the priestly thing. And he is in there a bit too long. The others do not really know what to think at this point, because there are rules about this sort of thing. You do not go into the temple without doing everything right. You have to make proper sacrifices, you have to put blood on specific pieces of furniture, so that the sacred space is not infected with the corruption of humankind. And if something is not done properly the priest could die.
Zachariah is in the temple a bit too long. And when he comes out, he cannot talk. Everyone knows that something spectacular has happened. It is pretty amazing with anyone serving as clergy is unable to speak when you ask a question about something going on in their place of worship. We all like to speak about it, yet John’s dad is speechless and the entire community knows this. He remains speechless until he writes the name John down during the circumcision ceremony nine months and eight days after Zachariah spoke his last word.
John was known. People would have been watching John as he grew, and then something weird happened. Right when this celebrity priest son is supposed to be following in his father’s footsteps, he goes into the wilderness. And no one really knows why.
I want us to think about this for a moment. He had everything going for him. And he leaves. Only to show up dressed in camels’ hair and a belt, with honey and locus on his breath. He is out on the banks of the Jordan preaching. This part does not really sound all that weird, but where he is preaching is. He is basically standing outside the promised land calling people out to the water. He is basically telling those that are listening that they are not worthy of being in the land their ancestors inhabited. They are not really who they say that they are.
People come out of the cities to hear what this man has to say. “He said therefore 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?’”
In Luke, John says this to the generic crowds, but in Matthew’s account he says this to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This means that these people were not just random people within the community. These were educated religious leaders, and John looks at them and calls them a brood of vipers.
I want us to consider what John is saying to these people. You probably should not go around saying this sort of thing to people. This phrase instantly congers images in our mind. Images that are not exactly pleasant. A viper is not exactly a creature you would want to encounter in the wild. I am not saying this because in my mind every snake is a potential risk to my life, I am saying this because they are literally a risk to your life. But this is not a single snake, but a brood. A brood of vipers is a nest. There might be a number of reasons for multiple snakes to congregate in one area. One might be they had recently hatched from their eggs; another might be that adults have gathered together for mating, and a third might be that they are congregating in a single place to hibernate. I am not a scientist that studies these sorts of things but those are the reasons that I have come up with. In any case, coming across a brood of vipers in any of those cases would not exactly be healthy.
The venom of a newly hatched snake is more potent than that of an adult, and the baby is apt to be more aggressive because it is vulnerable. This vulnerability causes these vipers to be unpredictable, they do not necessarily act like they would in any other situation. This makes it even more dangerous. The same could be said about the other two scenarios. In most cases snakes are more afraid of us than we are of them, the rattle snake will generally give a warning before it strikes, but if this same snake is in a vulnerable position, it might strike first, seemingly without even thinking.
This is a brood of vipers approaching John. Most scholars will liken this phrase to the nest of offspring and claim that John is calling the approaching scholars of Torah the offspring of vipers. Let that sink in for a bit. These religious leaders are the offspring of vipers.
I have mentioned often that the religious environment of the first century is interesting. The worship of Israel’s God is a big deal. The temple was not something small and insignificant, but it was one of the greatest and most richly adorned religious complexes within ancient Rome. People from across the empire would make pilgrimages to this one temple to offer sacrifices and give alms. In fact, it was required by Jewish Law that three times a year a devout practitioner of the faith would come to the temple for this very reason. This was an important complex. And the priests within the complex were efficient and profitable. They had the courts of the Gentiles filled with booths of moneychangers and livestock vendors. This was important because they were not going to allow anything unclean to enter the holy place. You had to exchange your roman currency into the only form of currency accepted within the temple, and if you have ever had to exchange money you know that the exchange rate varies. And since this was the only place that the currency was accepted chances are great that the odds were in the temple’s favor not the worshipers. Then you had to have perfect animals to offer. You could bring your own offering, but what if you happen upon a corrupt priest that is getting a portion of the profits of one of the vendors selling sacrificial animals? It might be safer to just purchase an animal once you got to the temple. This massive complex that required all people worshipers to come to worship three times a year and investing a great deal of money each time was efficient and effective. This temple is probably the most efficient complex of worship known to humankind. And the leaders within this system were walking to the banks of the Jordan to speak with the priest’s son that walked away.
Let us consider the pharisees for a moment. We often see these people in a negative light, and it is justifiable since people like John and Jesus call them a brood of vipers. But I want us to really consider who these men are. During the exile in Babylon when there was no temple for the worshipers of the one true God to bring their offerings and say their prayers, what were the people supposed to do? It was the Pharisees, well their forebears that preserved the faith during that time. They were the ones that basically formed what we now know as rabbinical Judaism of which all contemporary expressions of Jewish faith today can trace their roots, and if we want to be fully honest all churches as well, because our faith is a form of Rabbinical Judaism. The pharisees were teachers, they were preachers, they had scripture memorized and were able to pass that knowledge to the greater population. The pharisees were the people within the community that devoted their lives completely to a lifestyle of faith. These are the people that you would want to be in your synagogue because they were the ones that made things work. The Sadducees were similar to the Pharisees, except they expressed things a bit differently. The Pharisees were more charismatic they like things like the writings of the prophets and some of the books we might call the apocrypha today, where the Sadducees might have taken a different approach. They tended to only accept the Torah as scripture and the rest of the writings were not as important.
Even within the ancient Jewish religion there was denominationalism going on. But there was one thing that they did agree on, the temple. Everyone that could trace their linage back to certain people within their history and had performed all the correct rites could worship at the temple.
And yet they come out to see this runaway priest in the desert. And he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” God can raise up children for Abraham. How many of us have stopped and considered what John said at that point? We often get the idea that the Hebrew faith is one of heredity, but that is not at all what it is about. God has always accepted converts. If you were to look at the history of Israel you can see this throughout. Some of the greatest names within are children of people that if heredity was the most important aspect of the religion, never should have been there. The great king David was the grandson of Ruth, a Moabite woman. Their greatest king, the man that God said was after his own heart was the grandson of a convert. John the Baptist is telling the people, this brood of vipers that their interpretation of the Law is wrong. If God can raise up children for Abraham from stones, what else can God do?
You brood of vipers. You offspring of the serpent. Do you catch the glimpse of what is being said? The wording sends our attention back to our first parents and the garden. It speaks of all the failure of humanity and even of Israel the chosen nation of God. It tells us that even the most devout and educated among us can be deceived and can become instruments of destruction instead of harbingers of truth. Even the most righteous can be the offspring of the deceptive serpent.
This is not a storybook. This is not a hallmark holiday classic. These words are not the words that would be broadcast on most religious networks. These are the words of accusation and condemnation. John is not out there in the wilderness to make friends; he is being brutally honest. And it is no wonder that this type of honesty cost him his head.
The crowds look at John. They hear what he is saying. They are not comfortable with the concept that they might be as much of the problem within the world as their Gentile overlords. They know that the prophets said that the anointed one is coming. They had been hoping for this day for centuries. They had been taught that Messiah will come just as soon as everyone got their act together and worshipped correctly. This is the major arguments between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But John is saying that that is the problem. It is not that the gentiles are corrupting the land it is us, we are the poisonous venom that plagues the nation. And they cry out “What then shall we do?”
That is the question. What then shall we do? Even today we look at the world around us, we listen to the news. We hear reports of earthquakes and wars. We see the culture seemingly turning into a rubbish heap. And we have religious leaders from all over giving us the answers. Some tell us not to worry because Christ is coming. Others tell us we need to get more active in social justice. Others just tell us to have more faith and we can have everything we dream of. John is telling us that we are a brood of vipers, vulnerable and filled with venom. How many people want to cuddle up to that?
John’s words stab me in the heart. These words cause me to question everything I have done my entire adult life, because I have been a pastor for most of that time. I stand here today like that crowd; I listen to those words like those that listened to them on that day. And I ask the same question. What then shall I do?
John tells them to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Several people from many walks of life came out to John that day: people with means, tax collectors, teachers, and even soldiers. Its baffling when you really consider who is there. These people represent all of society, and the message is clear all aspects of culture need to bear fruit in accordance to repentance. If you have two tunics you should share the excess. If you have an abundance of food, share. If you are a government official you should not take more than authorized, and there is a double-edged aspect to that. Tax collectors are authorized to do just about anything they deem necessary. So what John is telling these government officials is that we should be mindful of what we are doing and the burden we are causing to those around us. The solders are the strong arm of the government. Interesting to note that. We basically have employers, government officials, and the police. These keepers of the peace are told not to extort money or falsely accuse. He is saying do not go out looking for reasons to use your power, simply do what you are paid to do, serve and protect.
What John is saying is that if you claim to be a child of Abraham then live like it. Your mind should be focused on the things that God deems important not the things that we think are important. I have sat with this over the past few years. What is most important to God? When God scattered the nations after the third catastrophic sinful event of Genesis, he handed the nations over to the sons of God, but he called Abraham to become his inheritance. God gave away the entire world and chose a person. And from that person He was going to build what was necessary. It is the people that God deems as important. People that are willing to listen to His voice and follow Him. Abraham was blessed because he listened to God. Not because Abraham was great but because Abraham’s God was. What is important to God is that his people listen and act according to the example that God revealed to us.
We sit here in anticipation wanting to see the great future that God has instore for us. We long from his day to come in the clouds. And we wonder why has it not yet happened? Israel longed for their Messiah they taught if only we were good enough, so they went around teaching the law because they saw that it was the neglect of the law that caused the exile, if we are good enough then God will send the anointed. We are never good enough, even the Pharisees and the Sadducees could not agree about scripture and they had a couple thousand-year head start before Catholics and Orthodox, who had a thousand-year head start to the Protestants, who had a half of a century head start to most of us Evangelicals. We are still arguing about what we should do, and yet it is has been right there in front of us the whole time. God wants us. He wants us to love Him with everything that we have and all that we are. And he wants us to love our neighbor just as much as we love ourselves.
How do we do this? We admit that we are wrong. We admit that the vast majority of our actions are based on our own selfish desires and we repent. Then we examine our lives with the assistance of God. We look at how we are living and what we are doing and we try to turn every aspect in our lives into a way to bring honor and glory to God and not ourselves. It means we come up with ways that we can become a blessing to other. It means we recognize the value others have to God and we honor that of God in them. It means we stop thinking about our rights and we begin to think of the rights of others instead. And guess what that is hard. It’s impossible in ourselves. And John knows that when he said that he baptizes with water but the one that comes after him, he is so great that even John is not fit to loosen the straps of his sandals. We cannot do what God wants us to do without God’s leading and direction. We cannot do it without his strength and his resources. But if we come together in his name. If we encourage each other to become a people Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with Others, we are unstoppable. What then shall we do?
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