December 12, 2021
Sunday Between December 11 and December 17 Inclusive
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Luke 3:7-18, The Message or Luke 3:7-18, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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Contrary to Arthur Paul Boer's excellent advice, Never Call Them Jerks, I often have to resist adding as a personal aside while reading Verse 7, "You brood of vipers (and you know who you are) ..." But just as with Jonah and the Ninevites, it turns out that even vipers can heed warnings and repent.
However, as Malina and Rohrbaugh helpfully point out, this phrase would also be understood as, "you offspring of vipers." And since all of one's social standing derived from one's parents - this is a high insult indeed. An insult that would be strenuously challenged by those listening to John - and a challenge that John anticipates and cuts off by saying, "Don't say that Abraham is your ancestor ..."
Indeed by going further with his image of the axe cutting at the ROOTS of the tree - as compared with cutting at the trunk of the tree - John is deepening the meaning of repentance to be RE-ROOTING. Luke does not explicitly expand on this in this text, but the practice of baptism for the Christian community would very early on become not just a rite for repentance for the forgiveness of sins - but more crucially, a rite for re-rooting one's identity away from one's birth family into the community of followers of Christ's way. It is this baptism of RE-ROOTING as a child of God that Jesus undergoes.
What Luke does expand on is John's message of repentance. And so, probably the best sermon title for this week is, "New Roots That Bear Fruits of Repentance." (Verse 8)
That is, in Biblical terms, repentance is not about feeling sorry or forgiveness - nor can it be inherited - it is all about changing behaviour. Verses 10 to 14 give specific concrete examples of the type of changes to make, and invite challenging self-examination: Anyone here have two coats?
Thinking through what might be the fruits of repentance for each of us - and for the congregation as a whole - might be all the work that needs to be done this Sunday.
Verses 15 to 18. Somewhere back in the mists of my memory, someone said that John is our model. Like John, we too proclaim the good news to the people, we too point to Jesus and his ministry.
I also am reminded of Mr. Rogers whenever I read a separating-the-wheat-from-the-chaff passage. As Mr. Rogers often pointed out even people who are bad most of the time will be good some of the time; and those who are good most of the time will be bad some of the time.
So the wheat-chaff separation is not separating people into two groups of "bad" persons and "good" persons. It is separating the good that is within each person from the bad that is within each person. May it be so. (Especially you vipers out there. Just kidding. Sort of.)
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pages 235-236; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
7 John said 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 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. 9 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."
10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "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 fire. 17 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."
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke 3:7-18 (The Message)
7 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? 8 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. 9 What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire."
10 The crowd asked him, "Then what are we supposed to do?"
11 "If you have two coats, give one away," he said. "Do the same with your food."
12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, "Teacher, what should we do?"
13 He told them, "No more extortion—collect only what is required by law."
14 Soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He told them, "No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations."
15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, "Could this John be the Messiah?"
16 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. 17 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."
18 There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.