Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-18
We might describe Preacher John as clear, focused, and painfully honest. We certainly would not describe him as a preacher of the cotton candy gospel. Although I have often heard how important it is for pastors to love the people whom God calls us to serve, at first glance, it appears John neither loves nor likes his audience. It’s worth noting that Luke clumps the “crowd” together as one entity, referring to the whole lot as a brood of vipers, while the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has John referring specifically to many of the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John sees coming for baptism. So, even though John directs his venom to some in the crowd, it’s not necessarily all of them. Still, this is strong language. But when John looks out at the people, he sees them for what they are—instead of who they are pretending to be. So, Preacher John offers a reality check: “You think you’re something because of your pedigree…because you can trace your bloodline back to Abraham. God can make children of Abraham out of these stones.”
“Even now,” John says, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In the original Greek, the word for “bear fruit” comes from the root word “poieo,” and it means “to make, be the authors or cause of, to prepare, make ready, to produce, to do…” John looks at the crowd and says they must bear fruit. Their bloodline doesn’t matter. Wealth and possessions are of no regard. Every one of God’s children must bear fruit. Period.
The crowds ask, “What then should we do?” Interestingly, the word here for “do” is the same word John uses for bear: “poieo.” As a result, the question might be understood as “What then should we bear? What fruit are we responsible for producing?” The tax collectors ask John the same question. “Then what should we do?” Finally, soldiers come forward, “Then what should we do?” Three times John is asked to clarify “What should we do?” and, in the words of one commentator,
The preacher from the desert addresse[s] the crowd, tax collectors, and soldiers, with an uncompromising demand for fairness and justice. Generosity and unselfishness [are] the proper ‘fruit’ of repentance. This is nothing less than a mental and spiritual U-turn, true metanoia [repentance]. For the Baptist, repentance [has] less to do with how fervently one prays or faithfully attends the worship service; instead, it [has] everything to do with how one handle[s] riches, execute[s] public service, and exercise[s] stewardship.[i]
But, truth be told, don’t you imagine those who pose the question already know the answer? After all, the people of Israel grow up with a steady diet of Hebrew Scripture. From the birth of God’s chosen people until the very day John stands by the River Jordan baptizing, words of prophets like Micah resound in their ears: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Most of us, most of the time, we know what to do, don’t we? We know as believers in Jesus, we should be defined by generosity, fairness, and justice. We know what to do, still, too many times, we fail; we may even give up hope. But John the Baptist proclaims a new message of hope—a new way of living made possible through Jesus.
When John the Baptist appears on the scene, Israel has been waiting 400 years for a word from God. We don’t know much about John, except that God’s hand is upon him before he is born, and John is called to an important task—one to which he devotes his entire life. The people are used to a different kind of teacher, though, someone sitting safe and sound in the synagogue or temple, someone wearing long-flowing robes and boasting of their own righteousness. But here comes John, wearing his camel skin and eating his insects and wild honey. Yum…yum… John gives up a comfortable home and a comfortable life because he is filled with a message that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops and proclaimed by the water’s edge. All that John does and says points others to Jesus. It might be said that John serves as a hinge of our faith history—closing the door of one way of thinking—and cracking the door open to a new way empowered by the Holy Spirit—a way made possible through Christ.
John the Baptist does not come to claim some high and mighty position. No. Filled with the Spirit of God, John comes to serve. He comes to “bear fruit” of the eternal kind. In the new kingdom breaking forth, pedigree matters not one bit. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. It doesn’t matter who your mother and father are. It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are. What matters is how you live your life—how you behave. Sure, it’s great to believe—but the question is—how does your believing affect your behaving?
While studying this text, I found Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message to offer a fresh perspective. I invite you to hear it now:
When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”
Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”
But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!
Can anyone tell, by observing our lives, that we bear the mark of Christ? Are we governed by honesty and concern for others? In our heart of hearts, though we know what to do, we cannot do it on our own. We must be changed from the inside out—something that begins at the waters of our baptism and continues until we draw our last breath.
There is a story of a pastor who makes a habit of addressing an infant after he has baptized her: “Little child, you belong to God; you always have and you always will, and now the mark of Christ is upon you.” The church of Jesus Christ believes that the baptismal waters cleanse, renew, and change us forever.[ii] Furthermore, we believe we are sent from the font out into the world to serve—to do justice—to love kindness—and to walk humbly with our God. Yes, we know what to do!
[i] Feasting on the Word, Veli-Matti Karkkainen, 68.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Kathy Beach-Verhey, 73.
*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission