A reading and reflection for Friday, December 14, 2012.
The thirteenth day of Advent.
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Luke 3:7-18 NRSV
The following is an adaptation from the upcoming sermon, "The Road We Travel (Pt. 3), to be delivered on December 16, 2012 at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca. You may download the audio of that sermon by visiting here the following day.
Sometimes we get a warning.
You’ve been there, you know what I mean. You’re driving along, at night, the hum of the car on the road, the darkness of the winter night suffocating your vision. The heat in your car is on full blast and you begin to feel your eyelids grow heavy. Suddenly, a deer bolts across the road right in front of you. Adrenaline counteracts your tiredness, and you slam on your brakes, screeching to a halt in the middle the road, while the deer ambles to the other side. You breathe a sigh of relief and continue on your journey, very, very wide awake.
Sometimes we get a warning. Something that grabs your attention, sobers you up, makes you feel on edge and in nervous anticipation. Warnings, like that near accident on the highway, tend to focus your attention. Warnings make you alert.
And right from the outset of today’s Gospel passage, John begins with a harsh warning. An attention-getting, sharp-tongued, “pay-attention” message that gets the adrenaline going and makes you open your eyes a bit wider. He opens with a vindictive, dripping accusation: “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?”
Essentially he says: You’re a tangled mess of humanity who is entirely too preoccupied with your self-preservation. When you sense danger, you become unpredictable, when you smell fear, you scatter. And now, you’ve heard a prophet in the wilderness and you come running. You’re like snakes.
And John goes on in a dramatic monologue: “ Bear fruits worthy of repentance, don’t even think to yourselves that you’re righteous before God because of who your parents are, for God can make these stones into children of Christian parents.”
“Right now,” John emphasizes, “right now the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and any of these trees that isn’t producing fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
The object of the holy life, according to John, is to produce good fruit. In preparation for the coming of Christmas, for the coming birth of Christ, John says, it’s time to clear this forest of dead trees. It’s time to present your offerings to God.
The only offering we can present to God is the fruit which comes from our own tree. And that fruit should reflect a tree that is growing. A dead tree produces no fruit.
The story then turns into an object lesson for ethics. John’s message was harsh, a deer-running-across-the-road wake up call that caught everyone by surprise and filled them with questions. Three different groups ask questions about what all this means for them. And to each group, John makes a specific reply. What is interesting about his replies is that John asks neither tax collectors nor soliders to stop their collecting and soldiering. He says, do your job, but with discipline.
To the crowds, John says: “If you’ve got extra clothes and food, give them to people who have none.” The implication is that you would go out and seek out people who have none and give them away. Simplicity, generosity, hospitality, compassion. These are the virtues which produce good fruit.
To the tax collectors, John says: “Don’t take more than what is prescribed for you.” Tax collectors were renowned for taxing at the rate the Roman Empire demanded but then adding additional charges to pad their own pockets. You’ll recall the famous tax collector, Zaccheus, the wee little man (and a wee little man was he). Once he realizes who Jesus is, he goes out and repays all the people he overcharged. Here, John says, don’t rob from people.” Simplicity, honesty, integrity. More virtues which produce good fruit.
And to the soldiers, John says: Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or lies, and be satisfied with your wages. More integrity and honesty. Being content with your wages. Boy, that’s hard for some of us, isn’t it? Whether you’re a teacher, or a line worker, or a retiree living on a small pension: it’s hard to be content with your wages, sometimes. But contentment produces peace, which frees you to be generous toward others. Be satisfied with your wages.
These responses contain the nitty-gritty, hard-stuff, action-oriented stuff of Christian discipleship.
You want to be a member of a Christian church? Great! Here’s the kind of stuff we do: We give away our stuff, we don't lie to people, or spread rumors, we don't complain about our wages or our pensions or our retirements, we look to honor God in everything we say and do.
Wait, you say, I thought membership was just a privilege, something bestowed on anyone who wants it? Wait, I thought being part of the church was something to put on my life’s resume, something to belong to, a chance to have friends and a social group.
We are called as a church to be people of God, people whose lives reflect our commitment to the things of God. We are Christians because we heard the good news that God gave out forgiveness when he should have given judgement and we think that message means something for everyone.
This Advent, we’re growing fruit. We’re chopping down the bad trees, we’re tearing out the old soil, and we’re harvesting ripe fruit. And we’re giving it away so that when Christmas comes, we might be so used to the practice of giving and mercy and compassion, that we would see this tiny, fragile, baby boy not as just another child born to a teenage mother, but that we would peer into the manger and see the face of our God, the face of a God whose mercy extends into our very midst, and whose compassion involved coming among us that he might save us all.
1. Imagine that John the Baptist was preaching today. Who do you think the "crowds", the "tax collectors" and the "soldiers" would be? In light of our political and economic issues here in the United States, who do you think these groups of people would include? What do you think John's message would be to them?
2. Does the phrase "brood of vipers" make you anxious? Does it make you pay attention to or dismiss John's message?
3. Luke says in the closing verse of today's text that "with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people." What is good about John's message? What sounds like good news? Is bad news ("you brood of vipers!") sometimes actually good news?
Today's ACTION may involve more than just today. That's okay. Do it when you can.
Visit your local food pantry and drop off a couple grocery bags of non-perishable food items. If you have children, consider inviting them to pick out some food and carry them into the pantry to drop them off. You may want to call the pantry first to see if they need certain items over others.
Know also that most pantries receive food from local food banks and sometimes a financial donation is more helpful. As you think about the ten days left until Christmas, try to identify ways in which you can set aside $25 (or more, if possible) to be used by food pantries or homeless shelters in their ministry to those who are unable to make it on their own. Perhaps a Christmas present to your children could involve making a donation to these groups