Luke 3.7-20 | Advent 3C

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke

7 He (John) 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. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

Luke 3:7-20

The Gospel of the Lord

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent observance is also our Anglican way of becoming re-formed to the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. The Church’s observance of Advent was established, perhaps, as early as the year 380. It seems to me the Early Church Fathers recognized in the culture an ache. During Advent ancient texts give voice to hope in hearts of people longing for the promised savior. Advent observance, like Lent, would be a time of reflection and prayer, a time of letting go of things cluttering one’s life, a time to take a break from a culture’s excessive scrubbing away of religious content, a time to prepare one’s life for Christ’s coming, past, and future. Advent, then, finds its spiritual mark when it reaches the hearts of those who are waiting for the coming of the Son.

Please turn in your Bibles or tablets to Luke, ch. 3. The Gospel lesson this morning follows on from last Sunday’s lesson where Luke introduced John the Baptizer to Israel. In the opening chapters of the Gospel, Luke frames up the Baptizer’s story inside this real world, replete with all its unhappy events and apparent signs that chaos is in charge.  Having made it clear grand, galactic events were afoot, Luke now throttles us back a bit reminding us faith must cling to God’s plan when things aren’t nearly as obvious as angels dancing in the skies. John himself is the embodiment of another prophet, Isaiah, who declared: “A voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way for YHWH; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of YHWH will be revealed, and all people will see it together” (Isa. 40.3-5). 

John’s words, like Isaiah’s, were clearly associated with turmoil in Israel. One part of “making the highway straight” was about correcting the crooked thinking present in people’s minds and telling the difficult truths about what was occurring. That inner landscape in which people were living, the valleys, the mountains, and the hills, needed tumultuous transformation to prepare the highway. Lord knows each of us knows how difficult it can be to change any one of our behaviors, to turn in a new direction.

So, John’s baptism for the repentance of sin was about taking a first step in a different direction in the belief YHWH will break into Israel helping them to see, know and experience salvation. We too live in a culture filled with turmoil just as much as in the time when John wandered in the wilderness inviting people to repent. In our Advent observance we look with hope to the Lord to bring transformation in our lives personally and to the larger society. The ancient Advent texts intend to bring clarity to the first coming of Jesus and the promise he will come again to help us see beyond our current experiences and be a transforming presence in the society.

In our lesson, Luke’s narrative moves us to the content of the Baptizer’s message. Here’s how I would summarize the message. When a person’s heart and mind are changed, actions change too. Words are empty if they don’t result in deeds. If the community of faith identifies itself as the Lord’s through a rite such as baptism but does not bear fruit, the Lord is always capable of beginning again with people who are willing to listen and obey.

John’s words “Dad gum it, you durn, nest of sidewinders, who put the heat on you to run from the fury about to break on your heads?” sound harsh to modern ears. But I’d like to suggest to you we’ve got the tone wrong because while we don’t have the verbal cues, we do have the scene. The Baptizer is a wilderness man identified with Isaiah placing him within the Jewish prophetic tradition. Yes, he was coming to upend everything. And yes, his mission was to warn the multi-lingual, multi-national, perhaps, multi-faithed crowds coming out to him of the consequences of their current path.  Unless, of course, they change direction toward covenant obedience. May I suggest to you while John’s sermonic rhetoric runs to the hot side of prophetic love, he knows the landless poor, tax collectors and soldiers in this scene. They are the people of the land, sinners. They are in the view of the Elites, deplorables, marginalized in the land. And they know how they’re viewed. But as we will hear, they don’t hang their heads or grumble.  As for John, he accepts them into his flock in their lowly status. Because he knows forgiveness, mercy and acceptance by the Lord is available in truck loads specifically to those who repent.

Repentance is about changed ways of living.  If any in the crowd thought a dunk in the Jordan would get them right with God, they are sorely mistaken. If they really want to be on God’s side, don’t talk a good game – change. Don’t learn the language of repentance as a cover up. Rather, show evidence of the inner changes by your behavior changes. Baptism is the gateway to ministry so one needs to produce actions worthy of repentance.

John turns his attention to the Jewish folk in the crowd (vs. 8-9). One of the central elements of the covenant is ancestral promise, begun with Abraham and extended to them as descendants (cf. Exodus 3:6; Jeremiah 33:26). The only points John makes are: 1) claiming Abraham’s covenant promise without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. Ancestry alone is no big deal. Replacement may not be that difficult. So for comic effect, John observes the Lord can make Abraham’s children out of rocks. Now if you ever have a chance to go to Palestine, may I suggest you put on a good pair of walking shoes. Get off the beaten path. Go beyond city limits. Go out into the Shfelah, the Judean Wilderness, into the Jordan rift anywhere between Hazor and Arad or into the Negev around Beersheva. Then you’ll know. There’re rocks everywhere!  And 2) they (and with your permission, we) can become very slippery with the truth and evade needed changes. So, he employs the image of a diseased tree being cut down and burned. This is a way of protecting the health of the orchard. Producing good fruit, to use the imagery, grows out of having repented, having a changed, heart, mind, and behavior. The imagery implies they (again with your permission, we) will have branches pruned a bit here and there. But the uncomfortable implication is there will also be an inspection of the inner trunk and the roots. The hidden source of one’s life. As I stated in my summary: If the community of faith identifies itself as the Lord’s but does not bear fruit, the Lord is always capable of beginning again with people who are willing to listen and obey.

Well, don’t you agree he’s got everybody’s attention? Here’s where I suppose an aching hush has fallen over the crowd. Notice rather than the common responses to prophetic speech, slithering away from or being angered by it, three groups in the crowd ask a refreshingly pragmatic question: “We want to produce something. We want to do what the Lord would have us do. What should it be?” (vs.10, 12, 14). It is the people asking for guidance in living obedient lives after baptism. John doesn’t recommend grand things or practices. He doesn’t give them ten easy steps to follow from his best-selling book. Neither does he advise people to eat as he does, or wear animal skins, as he does, or come live where he is living. Basically, he sends every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation. Repentant, obedient life is lived in everyday life.

John does pull the rug out from under them, however. In vs. 11-14, he asks for actions exposing self-centeredness lurking in the comprehensive nature of greed. Turning to the Lord in repentance and baptism asks for radical commitment. It’s not just doing good things for others, but about doing them from Spirit directed guidance. With the same energy, Paul will tell the Philippian church “my dear friends, as you have always obeyed continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to choose and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2.12-13). All that gets in the way of love for the Lord and neighbor must go. Measuring others by their circumstance and priorities not by mine illustrate “fruit worthy of repentance”. This is timeless teaching. So much so listen to Bob Dylan, our contemporary Baptizer-like voice crying in the Wilderness to a generation gripped in intravenous consumerism “People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting. Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it does to give it. They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions. They talk about a life of brotherly love. Show me someone who knows how to live it”. (Slow Train Coming. 1979).

Gospel fidelity does not have to be heroic. There are opportunities to do the Lord’s will, to be the Lord’s people, all around us.  These opportunities are shaped by our context; the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted. Opportunities abound. John may draw us out into the wilderness, but make no mistake, the crowds — and we — live in towns, villages, and marketplaces, and these, too, are places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity through service to our neighbor. Even the bare minimum of what we have is to be shared with others. That’s a revolutionary statement in our culture. Currently status, prestige, power, recognition, and influence are almost exclusively tied to one’s possessions.

It seems like a long time ago. I participated in a weekly evening prayer ministry for the homeless and working poor. Out of this very text one evening came a startling Gospel action. Standing up, one of the working poor in the little flock was saying how difficult it was for him to give to others in need. When he looked around there were needs everywhere. And he felt he had so little. Now it was my practice to walk down into the midst of the folk. It was an opportunity to listen and to develop the conversation further for everyone. This night the words I heard over my shoulder were nothing less than eternal, sacred. When I turned around, Rich, one of the homeless folks, had taken a quarter out of his pocket, and tossed it to the speaker, saying “take this and learn how to give it away”!

May the Lord richly bless us, my Beloved.

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