Third Sunday in Advent
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Now suppose I actually started a sermon with those words some glad Sunday morning? What do you suppose would happen? Some of you would get all puffed up with self righteousness and say to yourselves, “You know, I’ve had just about enough of this stuff, I don’t need any more of this!” Others of you would no doubt recognize it as something having just come out of the Scripture passage that I just read, and some of you, and prayerfully most of you, would say something like, “Uh, Wayne, you just did. You just did start your sermon with those words!”
Oh yeah, you’re right! I did! Now what do I do? Should I back off? Try something nicer, something a little more pastoral, maybe something a little more on the Christmassy side since next Sunday is the Sunday we Baptists traditionally call Christmas Sunday.
The imagery here is that of a pack of snakes, and that’s already kind of unwelcome, but this is a pack of snakes that has settled into the relative warmth and comfort of a pile of wheat chaff, only to discover suddenly that the pile of chaff is on fire, and that now, horrifically, those snakes are being subjected to the burning heat and flames, and acrid smoke. Smart snakes would slither out of that pile of chaff in a hurry, if they valued their lives. And that’s exactly what would sometimes happen, when, after the wheat harvest, the piles of chaff would be set afire. And because very few people like snakes, it was often good entertainment to see those snakes fleeing from the wrath of the fire.
It is no secret, I suppose, that John the Baptist was a fan of the book of Malachi. If John were here this morning, he could probably recite the whole thing verbatim for us. John knew the spiritual condition of the people to whom Malachi was writing. John was well versed in the comfortable and warm, but spiritually dead place that the people of God had devolved themselves into in Malachi’s day. He knew that those people had not even the slightest interest in hearing from a messenger sent from God, and certainly even less interest in a sudden appearance of God in his temple. But from his study of the book of Malachi, John also knew this: he knew that he was the messenger sent from God that Malachi had predicted, and he knew that he was the one sent by God to prepare the people of God for the sudden appearance of God. And so it seemed perfectly proper to him to address his audience as a brood of warm and comfortable vipers about to be subjected to a horrible judgment.
So what did he do? He preached the good news of repentance and forgiveness, and he used baptism as a visible symbol that the people could participate in, that would indicate that they had repented of their sins, and that their forgiveness had been secured and assured. It wasn’t exactly what we would call “Christian Baptism” that John administered, but it was very close. And I think that that is wonderfully cool. And I think that, because when there is the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, the fear of judgment goes away, and it goes away completely. Warm and comfortable people who have no interest in having God in their lives can respond to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, even if that preaching is loud and fiery. And they can have their lives and their eternal futures secured, without any fear of judgment what-so-ever.
And it is to the warm and comfortable that John addresses his remarks. John sees absolutely no difference at all between Malachi’s audience and his own. Both have grown warm and comfortable, and he makes that abundantly clear in his opening statements. “Do not begin to say yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Don’t be telling me about your heritage, John is saying. Don’t be smug that you are a child of the covenant, or that you’re one of the elite, or that you have special privileges as one of the chosen people of God. Don’t be telling me you’ve got family connections. Heritage and special status doesn’t cut it anymore. God is now doing a new thing. God can get new children anywhere he wants. God can take rocks and bring them into his family, if he so chooses. And what a wonderful prophecy that was! The land of Israel is just peppered with rocks. They’re everywhere, and there’s nothing special about them at all. They’re just underfoot, and sometimes they’re a real nuisance. But guess what? We are the rocks that John was speaking about. But because we have repented of our sins, and because we have received forgiveness, we’ve been adopted into the family. Otherwise we’re just Gentiles, not even former rocks, really.
As always, with the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, there is a sense of urgency. When repentance and forgiveness is preached, now is the time to respond, now is the time to act. John says, “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.” John is saying the ax-man has found his spot. When I split wood, I rest the splitting maul on the spot on the log where I want it to split. And then I lift up the maul. When I rest that maul on the log, the log knows that it is about to be split. It is very short warning. When the maul goes up, and then comes crashing down, boom! The log is split. The same is true of the ax-man. When the ax is laid at the foot of the tree, there is a bit of a warning of what is about to happen, but not much. It is scant warning. Hence the urgency. Now is the time to repent and now is the time to receive forgiveness.
When the people responded to the urgency of John’s preaching, they naturally had questions. This is normal. We’ve repented, we’ve received forgiveness, where do we go from here? We can’t stay warm and comfortable, anymore, we know that for sure! You’ve just rescued us from our complacency. What is required of us? What is next? How then, shall we live?
And John had answers. To the common, ordinary folks John said, if you are fortunate enough to have two coats, look around for someone who can make good use of your other one. And do the same with your food.
Luke seems quite impressed that tax collectors showed up to listen to John. Luke writes, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?”‘ To the tax collectors John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” That would definitely be a change for the good. I think probably Luke didn’t like tax collectors very much, and that’s why he is so surprised and so impressed that they actually repented of their sins, and found forgiveness. I’m more impressed, though by the response of the Roman soldiers. The Roman soldiers hadn’t wandered out into the wilderness on their own. They were on duty, they were on assignment. Like tax collectors, Roman soldiers were visible representations of the much despised Roman occupation and oppression. They were there to keep an eye on this crazy, popular preacher, to make sure that he wasn’t gathering followers and stirring them up, and inciting the crowd so that they would be encouraged to pull off some kind of insurrection. But when the soldiers heard John’s preaching, they too, repented. And so to the soldiers John said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” This one was probably the hardest hitting of all, because everyone knew that Roman soldiers picked up a whole lot of pocket change by threatening people and by false accusations. It was much better to grease the palm of a soldier than it was to face the lions.
To everyone who asked, John gave very apt, but also very simple answers. And this, of course, makes it very easy for us to understand what John would say to all of us here this morning. How does this sound? “Find something of yours that you can give to someone who is less fortunate than you.” Or, “Act fairly and honestly and openly in everything that you do.” And finally, “Don’t take advantage of someone who has less power and less authority than you do, and don’t be greedy.” These are the things that John would say to us, because they are exactly the things that John said to the crowds when they asked him how they should live. These are very simple, very practical precepts that should be practiced by all who have been forgiven of their sins.
John’s powerful preaching stirred up the people, but not to commit acts of rebellion and insurrection, but rather to commit themselves to changed hearts and acts of mercy. Without question, this kind of attitude should be the hallmark of every ministry and of every community outreach that we engage in. When God’s people ask, “How then shall we live?”, ministry is the inevitable result, because all acts of mercy are ultimately the work of ministry.
John was such a powerful presence out there in the wilderness, that people began to wonder if he wasn’t indeed the Messiah, himself. Could this man, who has had such a powerful influence on our hearts, actually be the long awaited one? Has the Lord suddenly come to his temple?
Fortunately, for everyone, John had a very good understanding of himself and of his calling. He knew who he was, and maybe more importantly, he also knew who he wasn’t. And so John said, no I’m not the Messiah, I’m just the messenger, I’m just here to prepare the way. But when Messiah comes, look out. When Messiah comes, “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.” There’s those snakes, again John had a much more realized view of the end-times than we have. He believed that he was right on the cusp of all things ultimate, and eternal. He was, after all, preparing his world for the sudden appearance of the Lord in his temple, as he understood it from his studies in the book of Malachi. He didn’t see that there was a whole lot more time left for repentance. Things were coming to an end very quickly, and when Messiah arrived, there would be a crisis of judgment.
But God is merciful and loving and kind. And, it turns out that God’s primary aim is to collect the wheat, not to burn the chaff. And that’s good news. One day, the Lord will come suddenly to his temple, just as Malachi and John the Baptist predicted. But until then, we are the messengers of the covenant, we are the ones who are called to proclaim the good news of forgiveness of sins and eternal life to this broken and dying world. We are the messengers of hope and joy.