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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