I must admit, I had some fun trying to imagine what would happen if I opened my sermon this morning, by calling you snakes and vipers, deceitful, dangerous and unpredictable. I’m not sure I’d have many of you left in the pews; and I started imagining the stiff letters of complaint you would be writing to our Bishop. You might even start writing them out on your phones before you got home.
So please, let me reassure you, that isn’t where I’m going to start.
John the Baptist’s message (Luke 3:7-18) is sharp and full of warning. He is the wild man, living in the wilderness. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been preaching about John’s message of the end times, his apocalyptic prophetic words that are intended deliberately to make people stop and pay attention.
John is speaking to you and me today, here, now. He warns those around him, that being born a ‘child of Abraham’ is no guarantee of salvation.
He uses a striking metaphor to drive home the point: If being offspring of Abraham is all God is looking for, God could use the river stones to fill out the electoral rolls of those who could be included among the Jewish nation. God doesn’t need that particular membership category.
John is declaring, as he stands at the edge of the River Jordan, the river that traditionally separated the exiled from the promised land, that you and I will go no further if we do not recognise this point and this place of decision.
What is happening will divide us.
We cannot stand in the middle and be mildly committed and enjoy belonging to a socially acceptable club with others who think and dress and live like us.
John is highlighting what later came to be called by Christians, a ‘status confessionis’. This is when faithfulness to the God of Abraham depends not upon simple affiliation or mild affirmation but requires us to respond to this moment by making sense of God’s call to repentance and forgiveness and then acting in repentance and transformation. John reminds us there is no more time for procrastination or delay.
Luke presents John’s ‘either-or’ call as the opening act for Jesus’ ministry. Luke’s description of John, the wild one, preaching in the wilderness, and the arrival of Jesus is critical. John clearly shows how everyone must turn to Christ, whether the turning is quiet or dramatic, life-long or sudden. Vague acknowledgement is not enough.
As John calls into question the honesty of those who have turned up for his baptism, he insists they have to do more than just present themselves. Turning up on Sunday to feel comfortable and conform is not enough.
No where near enough.
Repentance needs more than just inclination. It requires a Christian ethic, paying attention, hearing the warning and living the acceptance is what John preaches.
I can imagine John looking out and seeing the old divisions still evident in the crowds coming for baptism, with some sheltering themselves from the sun while others burn, or some bullying their way to the front of the line by claiming privilege.
Perhaps some are insisting their pedigree exempts them from the full force of John’s baptism. I can imagine them explaining they don’t need the water really, perhaps they can stand and be splashed without ever going in.
Seeing all this, John takes aim at all who are listening and he is really, really clear.
And yet, the confusion and perplexity of the crowds in response to John’s insults may be familiar to us as well, as we experience the tension between complying with the law and God’s grace given unearned.
Are we saved because we make changes, or are we saved because we accept unearned grace?
Like the crowds, we ask the exasperated question: “what then should we do?”
This question is asked three times in this gospel reading. ‘What then should we do?’
It is asked by the crowds, when John criticises those who claim their status as children of Abraham is enough to save them. It is asked by the tax collectors; and finally, by the soldiers.
These three groups include us today. Those of us who believe because we are Christians already, having declared our commitment, believe we are ok; we have the right membership and abide by the law of the land. We’re good people, right?
The next group are the tax collectors, who move between the occupied Jewish community and the occupying Roman authority. They are agents of the political reality, making decisions of self-interested compromise every day. You and I live like this, owning or working for companies that break ethical norms, which stretch the laws, we don’t pay ‘unnecessary’ taxes and like such companies, claim self-righteously the law allows such behaviour.
We criticise and blame the unemployed for not having jobs and resent paying welfare.
We scapegoat, vindictively and vigorously punishing the refugees and asylum seekers – how dare they ask us for safety and access to our resources which we didn’t earn either.
We protect the wealthy and follow them.
We ignore the poverty of the first nations people.
We refuse to accept our responsibilities and we pride ourselves on our virtue. As tax collectors we do our job and live our lives well.
And the third group comprises the soldiers. The occupiers. They cannot claim Abraham as their ancestor nor do they live in between. They wield the sword of the world’s powers instead with pleasure.
How many of us do likewise?
We enjoy our privileged place in the world, in a democracy that is killing God’s creation through its abuse of the resources and our sense of power over others.
Nonetheless, we enjoy being victims and feeling hard done by, we listen to our preferred politicians and leaders and blame others. We seek more power, more control and we operate through fear.
We listen to the fear and so drown out God’s words of love and the fruits of the Spirit.
Notably, John does not demand any of these groups, or us to leave their ‘places’. They are to remain where they are, but they are to be different where they are. We may change our life vocation or we may transform our current life-vocation, but ethically as Christians we cannot stay as we are.
From those who claim the protection of status, affiliation, or membership, John demands generosity replace self-interest. The needs of the ‘other’ should take higher priority than one’s own protection or security (v.11).
This is Jesus’ demand repeated throughout the New Testament.
The soldiers, like the tax collectors who have learned survival skills and make the world work for them, John demands integrity (v.13). No more stealing, no more gaming the system, no more ‘everybody else does it’ excuses. They must demand less for themselves so others may be treated fairly. This is particularly important for us in today’s consumer led, market-driven economy.
From the soldiers, whose tool is neither status nor gaming the system, but power and fear, John demands respect for others (v.14).
John tells each of these groups and us, the fruit of their repentance will not be seen in personal gain but in true modesty.
They and us, will have less, a holy price to pay for treating others as they would like to be treated and as God would like to be treated.
No more extortion, deception or threats. No more commanding or being driven by fear.
It is not birth lines, membership cards, power, entitlement, rights or savvy behaviour, but bearing good fruit which ensure salvation.
Genuine repentance flows into acts of social justice to those around us. These are the fruits of repentance.
What we do flows from faith, expresses our repentance and includes sharing resources, honesty and just treatment of those over whom we have worldly power.
Genuine faith is not separated from good works, but good works are the integral expressions of genuine faith. What we do reveals whose we are.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, John’s message is very clear. You have heard the answer to the question, ‘what are we to do?’
Today it is time to repent and transform. Today we rejoice. We know and understand that sitting on the fence, being comfortable or fearful are not good enough reasons.
We have been standing together at the edge of the River Jordan seeking John’s baptism with water. Now we start to hear Jesus’ call to new life and new birth by baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. Christ makes the impossible, possible for us as we now prepare and look forward to celebrating his birth with excitement and joy.
The Lord be with you.