Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Dec 16, 2018

    3rd Sunday of Advent

    Passage: Luke 3:7-18

    Preacher: The Rev. Ken Massey

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Advent



    A pastor was doing a children’s sermon, and it was going to be an object lesson because he knew nothing about child development. He wanted to tell the kids how the Bible warns us about some dangerous things. His plan was to use a smoke alarm, push the test button, make it screech, and then ask the children what the sound meant, hoping one of them would say, “there’s danger and you need to leave the house.” So he set off the alarm, kids put their hands over their ears, and then he asked the question; what does it mean when you hear that sound. And one little girl said, “It means daddy’s cooking dinner.”

                It seems to me that John the Baptist was trying to issue a warning too, but it’s a bit blunt and makes you want to cover your ears. As people were coming to him for baptism, he called them, not individually but collectively, a brood of vipers. What a charmer. I’m glad they didn’t add this wording to our baptismal liturgy. The candidates for holy baptism will now be presented. They are a brood of vipers. But they are so cute. In Matthew’s account of this story, John, like Jesus, calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers, but in this gospel he directs the description to everyone.

                Literally, the phrase refers to a family of poisonous snakes; reactive reptiles that among other graces devour their young. But scholars can only guess its colloquial meaning. Of all the explanations I’ve read, I think the saying harkens back to the wilderness experience when the Hebrews, having escaped slavery in Egypt, were tormented by vipers that bit them, causing great pain and sometimes death. So the phrase likely referred to our human tendency to inflict pain and suffering in God’s world, including torment that was self-inflicted. Which reminds me of something Baptists used to say about themselves. We like to form our firing squads in circles. We have met the enemy and it’s us.

                I believe John was telling the crowd that they were part of a system of torment that made them both inflictors and victims of suffering. They wanted to escape this wrath, this poison, which ancients always understood as coming from the gods, though John never said this was God’s wrath.

    John’s fruitless tree metaphor likely represented the culture of 2nd Temple Judaism. The religious and political system of that day was not bearing the fruit of justice for the people. It was not producing the fruit of peace and prosperity. In just one long generation later, Jewish zealots rose up against Rome to throw off their oppression, and the Roman army led by Titus, descended upon Jerusalem and ancient Israel, chopped it down like a tree and burned it, just as John warned.

    To his people who were suffering, John called for a change of heart and mind called repentance; signified in a sacrament called baptism. Repentance means a change of mind; a change of perspective; coming to a new realization about God and life that is transformative.

    John did not invent this practice of ritual immersion. He took a Jewish ritual of purification in water called a mikveh and repurposed it. Immersion in the mikveh was an ancient practice used to make Jews ritually clean. They would immerse themselves before going into the temple; before marriage; and if they were converts to Judaism. John changed the mechanics and made baptism something done to you rather than something you did to yourself; something you submitted to rather than something you controlled. What if repentance, like baptism is first something done to you, not something you do to yourself; that you later embrace and live into? What if it’s about who and what you really trust?

    Karl Shaw tells about a very young candidate named Hamish Nixon who ran for the New Zealand Parliament. His campaign slogan was, and I’m not making this up, Nixon—The name you can trust. After his defeat, Nixon spoke to a reporter, saying, I can’t understand why people laugh when I talk about the need for trust and integrity in politics. It’s as if they know something I don’t. (Karl Shaw, The Mammoth Book of Oddballs and Eccentrics, p. 125) John knew that the viper life, the life of self-seeking, was not worthy of our trust.

                I grew up Baptist and heard preachers talk about repentance all the time. It meant responding to an altar call; walking forward during a Billy Graham Crusade; saying a prayer and being saved from hell. Then it was turning away from all the really egregious sins like drinking, playing cards, dancing and especially mixed bathing. Now for those of you who don’t know about mixed bathing let me help you. It is not boys and girls in a bathtub, but in a swimming pool. We could not have mixed bathing because it led to something called fornication, a biblical word my SS teacher was unwilling to define. Can’t really blame her for that. In the defining, she would have unleashed it in our middle school imaginations.

                This gospel reading paints a very different picture of repentance. There’s nothing in our text today about avoiding these personal temptations and sins. Instead, John defines the repentance of baptism exclusively in terms of how we treat other people. This is how we stop being a brood of vipers; tormenting others and ourselves. We live into love instead.

    "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” That means if you just have one coat, you don’t have to freeze so someone else can be warm.

    Even tax collectors, whose greed tormented many, were coming for baptism, and they said, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Don’t enrich yourself at the expense of others. We are in this together.

    Soldiers also came to be baptized and they asked the same question; not what should we believe but 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." John tells them not to abuse their power to enrich themselves because that poisons the community and you lose your own soul in the process.

    Please don’t miss this point. John, in wanting people to be right with God, focuses on helping people be right with each other. We can either live like snakes, devouring others in our own creative ways, or we can live like humans created in the image of God who love others with abandon.

    I must say something briefly about the image of fire in this text. The fruitless tree is cut down and burned; the chaff is burned in unquenchable fire. I do not believe fire refers to punishment, especially to eternal punishment, though many do. Here are just two reasons. 1. Fruitless trees are never cut down and burned as punishment for their failure, because all of the reasons trees fail to bear fruit are beyond their control. If trees are fruitless, it is because: A. they are over-fertilized or pruned which makes them produce wood instead of fruit; B. their buds are exposed to and killed by freezing temperatures; C. they don’t get enough pollen; or D. they get too old or diseased. No one who knows trees blames the trees for being fruitless. Those who heard John knew this. You are a beloved child of God regardless of your fruit. But you and I are influenced by what is beyond our divine nature, which means sometimes we fail to produce the fruit of righteousness.

    1. The very words of John tell us that fire is not a metaphor of punishment but of purification. He says Jesus is going to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire; a metaphor of transformation, not judgment. We need to become what we truly are instead of what the world or our ego tells us we should be. Repentance is about the burning away of that which is unworthy of our full humanity in Christ.

    Advent is a time for this warning from John—a warning that makes us want to put our hands over our ears but that we need to hear so we can be ready for The Christ. We don’t want to poison our lives and our world. We don’t want to slither like snakes when we were made to soar like eagles.

    I have a friend who is a recording artist named Kyle Matthews. He wrote a wonderful song recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys called Fall to Fly. The song is about the vulnerable young eaglet that doesn’t yet know how to fly. The mother eagle pushes her out of the nest that is high on a cliff and the young one flaps its wings in panic, headed down, down, down, until the mother eagle swoops under her, catching her on her back and taking her back to the nest. The mother will keep pushing that eaglet out of the nest into a free-fall until the little one learns to fly. It sounds harsh; to fall is frightening; but flying is worth the transformation; the transformation from viper to eagle.

    Thomas Merton died 50 years ago this week. He once wrote “Why do we spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be if only we knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?” My translation: Why do we live like vipers when we were made to be eagles.

    I had a therapist who told me in a dark time, “you just need to hold on. This is the secret. Hold on. Whatever you do, just keep holding on.” A few years later, I met with another counselor who said to me, “there’s one secret to getting through the tough times; listen to me. You have to let go. It’s a free fall. Let go.”

    John is telling us about a repentance that is both. Hold on to who you are in Christ; your true self; the promises of God. Let go of the rest; the illusions; the ego; the sub-human life of snakes. You are eagles made to soar.