7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.” 10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” 14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” 15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. (CEB)
What Should We Do?
What should we do? It’s often a question of urgency. This past week, Joy and I were asking that question a lot. We had planned to drive to Fort Wayne to visit her family, but I was lucky enough to come down with a sinus infection just before we were supposed to leave. Joy and I were asking the question, What should we do? Should I suck it up and go on the trip, or stay at home and try to recover? We went back and forth over it. Finally, I decided that I couldn’t let Joy go on a trip without some measure of parental support. I spent the entire trip in bed at the Bed & Breakfast, but at least I was a parental body whose presence made it possible for Joy to do things like unload the van.
On Monday, Joy drove the kids out to her brother’s house in Ohio, and the van started shaking down on the way. The check engine light started flashing. When it comes on, it means you need to get something check out. When it starts flashing, it means stop driving immediately before your vehicle self-destructs. She called me and asked What should we do? She called Triple A and got the thing towed to the Kia dealership in Fort Wayne. She figured out how to get herself and the kids back to the Fort without the van, and then how to get her brother’s car back to Ohio without having to drive it herself. It was an adventure.
Then, we had to figure out what to do with ourselves. We hadn’t planned on staying another night at the Bed & Breakfast, but we weren’t sure if we would need a place to stay the next night. The Kia service people told us they probably couldn’t even diagnose the problem until Tuesday afternoon. And we wondered, What should we do? Thankfully, the repairs went faster than expected. After $700 in expenses, we were on the road by about mid-afternoon.
This text from Luke is somewhat unique. Last Sunday we got to hear a little about who John the Baptizer was, and we learned about his role in preparing people for God’s arrival by calling us to repentance. This week, we get to hear John’s message. It’s fairly short, only twelve verses. And not all of those verses are John’s words. And some of you are probably thinking, Well, if John the Baptizer’s sermons were that short, why can’t yours be?
John’s message is a marriage of eschatology and ethics. It combines the coming kingdom of God with the practicality of how we are expected to live in the light of its anticipated arrival.
He starts his message in a strange way. He addresses the crowds who are coming to him for baptism by saying, “You brood of vipers!” (Lk. 3:7b, NRSV). Now, I want to look at this in parts, because there’s a common misunderstanding about this. John doesn’t actually call the people snakes. He calls them a brood of snakes. In other words, they are the children of vipers. They are the progeny of snakes. They’re the fruit the vipers have borne. They aren’t the vipers themselves. What John means is they have learned from the leaders among their people, and those are people who actively resist and plot against John’s message, and ultimately the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Then John asks, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It probably was not the vipers, i.e. the religious leaders of the people. The irony is, it was probably John who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. They heard about this wilderness preacher, and they’ve come to him because they felt drawn to his message. They wanted to hear what this desert prophet had to say.
John continues, “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. 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.”
The people had put stock into the fact that they were children of Abraham. But John said that didn’t matter. He basically repeated the message of every prophet who had come before him. It doesn’t matter who you are. What matters is how you live. God expects people to behave, not merely believe. And repentance is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God.
It’s not enough to be a child of Abraham, nor a good American citizen. We don’t get to hide behind our traditions, or positions of privilege, nor our national identity, nor even our church identity. We will be known by our fruit. What we truly value in life will be known by what we do and how we live. It’s on these matters that we will be judged. This is what makes repentance necessary.
Repentance means to turn around. It’s an about-face, a U-turn, a reorientation of one’s life toward God. But, for John, repentance has less to do with how passionately, enthusiastically, intensely, or often one prays, or goes through other religious motions. Repentance has everything to do with how we handle our wealth and possessions as faithful stewards of God, how we give to others generously, how we’re uncompromisingly honest, fair, and just in our work.
This is arguably the most difficult part of John’s message for people to accept. When the people started asking John those questions, What should we do?, the answers he gave seem ridiculously simple. So much so that we can be left to wonder, That’s it? That’s all there is? But as any child learning the difference between right and wrong can tell us—or show us—knowing the right thing is only the first step. It is doing the right thing that often proves to be the more difficult of the two.
What should we do? The crowds asked. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must to likewise.” I can tell you, I have more than two coats. I have more clothing than I’m able to wear in a week. And there’s plenty of food on my table every day. There are also a lot of people who don’t have what I have. The way we provide for others is by giving generously of what we have. One means of generosity is tithing. Another is directly giving of our selves by serving those in need in person. What if, in addition to funding ministry, we got personally invested in ministry?
What should we do? The tax collectors and soldiers asked. John’s response is that we should be honest and satisfied with what we have. We should not lie or lay false accusations against others. Dishonesty, cheating, fraudulence, corruption, these things are not acceptable to God. And God will judge us for them. That’s why it’s necessary to repent, to turn around, to turn away from these things and do what’s right.
Life should be lived as ethically as we can live it. It isn’t always easy. Just like the tax collectors, we’re dependent upon unjust systems and structures. There are ways around them, but we participate in them anyway because we don’t like the cost. Coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity in the world. It’s a horribly unjust system, where hard-working farmers are kept poor so we can enjoy cheap coffee. Yet, we purchase coffee brands like Folgers and Maxwell anyway, because certified Fair Trade brands like Equal Exchange are typically more expensive.
So maybe, in addition to not cheating people in the work we do, John would demand that we look for ways around the unjust systems upon which much of Western society is built. Maybe we should be concerned about where the stuff we’re buying is coming from, and whether it was made and traded fairly.
John warns us that the ax is lying at the root of the tree. But if you think about it, that’s not really a bad thing. In fact, this whole message is technically Good News. A little pruning is good for us. We could all benefit from allowing the Son of God to chop a little greed, pride, hypocrisy, decadence, and the like out of our lives with a divine ax and have it all tossed into the fire of God’s judgment. The freedom repentance can bring us is a hopeful thing.
John’s message is ripe with urgency. This isn’t something he suggests we do when we feel like it. The time for repentance is now. The need for repentance is now.
John’s message isn’t about ethics without eschatology with the simple goal of making the world a better place. And it isn’t eschatology without ethics, like the fundamentalists who only want a safe-exit strategy from the world so they don’t get “left behind.”
John’s message is eschatological, but it’s also rooted in this world. We believe Christ is coming, but God expects us to act like Christ when it comes to how we live. We’re called to bear fruit as part of our repentance. When we repent, God restores us.
John called his hearers to repentance in order to prepare the way for the Advent of God’s Son. His message of repentance is the same for us. The Saints of the Church have long spoken of the two Advents of Christ. The first was when Jesus came as a human being and bore our sins upon the cross. The second is when Jesus comes again to burn away the chaff with unquenchable fire and gather the wheat into his granary.
John’s message reminds us what repentance—this reorientation toward God—is really about. Repentance requires living in such a way that our core values include honesty and concern for those in need. We all have need of true repentance. John reminds us that our need is urgent. I could sum repentance up with the first two Rules of Methodism: Do no harm, and Do good. It’s so simple.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!