Third Weekend of Advent (C/RCL)
Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
December 12-13, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Hard to believe, but today’s Gospel, starting out with John the Baptist calling his listeners “You brood of vipers!” made it onto commercial TV. On Friday night I was watching an old episode of Chicago Fire. One of the firefighters was full of regret, shame, guilt, for allowing a drug dealer to die in a fire; he was sitting in a church while the pastor read this Gospel from the pulpit. (I don’t think the screenwriters worship, because they had the congregation seated instead of standing for the Gospel.) The more the priest read, the more the firefighter cried. Each reference to fire cut deeper into him:
· “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.” (Luke 3:9)
· “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 with 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.”
The firefighter fled before the sermon began. Thank you for staying .
Because of the relationship of fire with hell, that dreaded furnace where the dead wood is burned, where the chaff is consumed, we often associate fire with punishment and destruction. But John the Baptizer’s prediction that the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire should remind us that fire isn’t just used to punish and destroy; it’s also used to purify. Have you ever used a needle to pry a splinter out of your finger or foot? I learned to hold the needle in a flame first, to kill the germs. Before electricity was invented, fire was used in ovens, not just to bake bread but also to heat metal and separate out the impurities. The concept of Purgatory, that supposed place of suffering where fire purges away sin, combines the themes of punishment and purification. (Historical/theological footnote: Luther taught that there is no Scriptural basis for belief in purgatory; that became yet one more reason for his condemnation of the sale of indulgences, which were sold on the premise that they would lessen a loved one’s time in that place of torment.)
When John called the crowd a brood of vipers fleeing from the wrath to come, he was conjuring up a picture of snakes slithering away like quicksilver from a field fire. The wrath to come was God’s approaching judgment. Like we said about St. Paul last week, John the Baptist was not all sweetness and light. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He named the people’s sins and told them in no uncertain terms that those sins were out of line with God’s plan for their lives. That was the bad news. The good news that he preached was that God was willing to forgive their sin, to cleanse their lives, to give them a new beginning. He didn’t hold any punches; the consequences for continuing to live the old life were grim:
“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 said the Lord was coming, but he certainly wasn’t out there in the wilderness singing “Jingle Bells.” He spoke in such a way, he lived in such a way (wearing his camel’s hair garment and munching on his honey-slathered locusts) that he grabbed people’s attention. What he said worried them. They were good students, because they voiced their puzzlement:
“What then should we do????” (Luke 3:10)
Interestingly, John didn’t tell them to run for their lives, to head for the hills, to form a commune of like-minded people, or to despair and die. He told them to live holy lives, right where they were already living and working. That’s what the Holy Spirit is telling us, through John’s message, this 3rd weekend of Advent in the year of our Lord 2015: live a holy life, right where we probably are already living and working.
You’ve gotta love St. Luke. He’s so practical! His Gospel is populated with people just like us. St. Luke is the only 1 of the 4 Gospels that includes this conversation between John and the crowd about what it means to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) For instance:
· “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
“Radical generosity” is how that’s described by those who study and analyze Scripture. “Radical generosity” means allowing blessings to pass through us to others. Repentance means turning away from sin and toward God, away from darkness and toward the light. A sign that we are turned to the light like sunflowers, that we are serving God and not self is that we reject a “Mine, all mine!” mentality that hoards money and other material blessings. A sign that we are worshiping God and not wealth is that we see money as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Our donations to the food pantry aren’t just the gift of fruitcake or marmalade that you might not have liked anyway. Our donation-from-the-heart includes tuna and peanut butter, cereal and spaghetti sauce that we intentionally put into our cart for others in thanksgiving for the rest of the goodies in the cart that will go into our cupboards and fridge at home.
· Notice that John didn’t tell the tax collectors to quit their hated job working for the Romans and take up a decent profession. He told them to be honest and collect only necessary taxes. He didn’t tell soldiers to find a non-violent occupation that wouldn’t require them to carry and use weapons. He told them to serve with integrity and not whine that they weren’t paid enough.
How much more practical can you get than that?? If John’s first way to bear the fruit of repentance, of renewed, God-rooted life is to be radically generous, his second way is to be faithful in whatever our vocation is.
Those of us worshiping together today work in a lot of different jobs, study a lot of different subjects, play a whole array of sports, enjoy varied hobbies in our free time, and invest ourselves in many worthwhile volunteer positions. Is the Holy Spirit asking us to adjust our attitude in any way, to go about our work, our studies, our leisure or our volunteering any differently so that we’ll be living a holy life, or a more holy life? Maybe you know all-too-well what the change is that God wants you to make. Maybe you wish you didn’t know, because the cost of making that change seems too great and it’s painful to even think about it. Maybe you don’t have a clue about what you could do differently. If you care about bearing the fruits of repentance, like the people who listened to John cared, than pray about it. Ask God. Take Paul’s advice in this weekend’s epistle from Philippians. “Don’t worry. Pray!” (Philippians 4:6)
Maybe living a holy life at work simply means smiling at the customer. Maybe it means clock-watching less and working more. Maybe it means being honest, even when no one’s looking. Maybe it means remembering that your work, whatever it is, is your holy vocation in this world. Shine brightly with the light of Christ. Say a silent prayer for the grumpy shopper, the angry patient, the impatient teacher, the frustrated coach, the player on the other team, the tired parent, the confused adolescent, the frightened child, the lonely senior. Practice radical generosity, and not just with material blessings. Share the bounty of faith, hope and love with which God has blessed you.
John’s mention of the Messiah baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire points us ahead to Pentecost, when the wind of God whirled around the disciples in the Upper Room and tongues of purifying, enlightening fire appeared over their heads. Here is a Pentecost prayer for each of us:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come as the wind and cleanse.
Come as the fire and burn.
Convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and Your great glory,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham