Luke 3:2-22 3rd Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M Deibert 13 December 2015
When I heard from Rebecca Brettle Shively that she and husband Tim wanted Peyton to be baptized on this particular day because her godfather would be in town for a visit, I was excited! A baptism always makes me happy. A baptism near Christmas is wonderful, as we are googly over little children at Christmas time. And then as we got closer, I remembered that John Baptist is usually the reading for 3rd Sunday of Advent, and that made it even more perfect. And then I read John’s harsh words to the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And I said to myself, “Humm, now those words are not so sweet for a baptism.” John is known for being a crazy guy, the wild cousin of Jesus, living rough in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. John is the one who prepares the way. He’s the ground-breaker, plowing ahead of Jesus, loosening the soil so the seeds of God’s love in Christ could take root.
Remember that John did not get this vision, this courage apart from faithful parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who helped him to become the courageous man of faith he was. If Zechariah and Elizabeth had not actively taught him the faith, how would he have known? They took their responsibility to nurture him in faith, and then when he became an adult, they released him, and scripture says, “He was in the wilderness until he began to preach.” We heard part of their story last week, focusing on Zechariah’s announcement of a coming Savior, who will bring light to darkness, guiding our feet in the way of peace.
Today we hear the courageous preaching of John, the response of the congregation gathered around him, and the confirmation of his truth by the voice of heaven who spoke after Jesus had been baptized.
During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" 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. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (NRS)
The word of God comes to John in the wilderness. John has learned to listen for God because Elizabeth and Zechariah told him the stories of Jewish faith. John like Jesus was probably taken to the temple many times. He was given the foundation of faith upon which he could develop his voice of faith to announce good news. So it is crucial for us – that we not just claim blindly the faith of our ancestors, but as John announces so forcefully, we must be ready ourselves to bear fruit. John is harsh about trees that do not bear good fruit. They are cut down. John says, “God can raise up faithful people however God wants. It’s not about being part of the good family – it is about living out your faith.
Now Peyton will be riding on the wings of her parents’ faith for few years. Without their commitment and effort, she will not have the chance to experience the building blocks of faith, and the security of affiliation -- knowing she belongs to a larger family, the loving family of God. Those who have these foundational experiences, whose sense of belonging is solid by strong participation and by a loving congregation find it much easier to navigate the later stages of searching and owning one’s faith. At every stage we circle back, but just like language develops by exposure, so the Christian faith by observing others living it out.
And what does living out the faith look like according to that radical John? It means turning toward love – God’s love. The word “repent” means to turn. So if we turn toward God, there should be evidence in our lives – good fruit. And then the crowds say, “What should we do?” and John answers very specifically. Share what you have with those less fortunate – clothing and food. To the tax collectors, known for their tendency to greedily abuse others, he said, “Collect no more than you should. Do your work honestly.” To soldiers, he said, “Do not threaten others, falsely accuse others, or take money from others. Be satisfied with your wages.” In summary, be content, be generous, be kind. They are the essential rules of the playground. Share. Play fairly, and don’t be a bully. If you say that you love God, then show the fruit of that by loving your neighbor. Someone once said that repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change in action.
But John wants to make sure we understand that he is nothing compared to Jesus. People are hanging on his every word. They are coming in droves to be baptized by him. But he says that baptism they need is the baptism of Holy Spirit and fire which Jesus brings. The fire John speaks of is fire that burns away the rubbish, so that what is good remains. That’s what Jesus wants for all of us, to peel back, remove all the unnecessary things that crowd our lives. Oh we get ourselves so busy, we crowd out what really matters – loving God and loving neighbor. We can get so busy in this season, we forget the reason for the season. I went to a presbytery committee meeting the other day, and another middle-aged woman handed me this Christmas list. Number 5 can be interpreted in many different ways, but the point of the whole list is that Christmas is about love – the love with which God gifted us, the love that we hear in the Baptism of Jesus. God says to you, “You are my beloved.” And God calls you to treat others as beloved. Those gifts around the angel tree tell people they are beloved of God.
A friend of mine who has just returned from teaching at a seminary in India, after having done the same in Ethiopia and Kenya for year. She and other and some other missionaries went caroling this week in a neighborhood of Shiite immigrants. They went round singing, hoping that their presence would be experienced as caring and kind, but they did wonder how they would be received. Hear what happened: But then one young man came out to meet us on the sidewalk and invited us into his mother’s house. And from that point on it was just plain fun. At the end, after lots of conversation and prayer for the family, our new Muslim friend said, “This is like a small miracle. Today I was looking at social media and feeling bad about how terrible things are in the world. Then I heard your music and saw you outside. Thank you for coming.” Another team reported that an Arab woman in a fluffy blue bathroom invited them into her home, fed them and told them, “I’m so glad you weren’t afraid to come inside. We’re not all terrorists, you know.” (Stephanie Black, Theology on Safari)
I’d like to think that on this Sunday when we are celebrating Advent love, that we would be more like these Christians, and more like the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, than some politicians in this country, who claim the Christian faith, but are stirring up quite a bit of hatred. Trudeau was a witness for love, harmony, honor, and hospitality. When John preached and when Jesus came, it was hard for the faithful Jewish people to accept that the good news was for ALL the people because they always had understood themselves to be God’s special beloved, but as the shepherds heard from the angels, what we celebrate this time of year is “good news of great joy for ALL the people.” So that means we have to keep turning toward love. What does love look like? Hear from the Apostle Paul to the Romans, chapter 12:
NLTRomans 12:9 Don't just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God's people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you. Don't curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don't be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don't think you know it all! 17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. 19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, "I will take revenge; I will pay them back," says the LORD. 20 Instead, "If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads." 21 Don't let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. (Rom 12:9 NLT)
The little baby born in a manger conquered evil in an ultimate way by doing good. We are called to love like him. It is a journey of commitment and trust in our relationships with others, as we move through ages and stages of life, as we come week by week to search and own the Word of truth and to belong and experience the Table of grace. God is not asking us to earn love but to learn love and we keep turning toward Love, and finding in that Love a life full of meaning.