"What Should We Do?"
16 December, 2012 – Advent 3C
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, pastor
West Walworth Zion United Methodist Church
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? 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. 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
“You brood of vipers.”
So much for,
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable unto thy sight, Oh, Lord, our God.”
“You brood of vipers,” John pronounces upon the crowd.
This is not exactly hospitality evangelism.
Calling people snakes generally doesn’t substitute for greeters, coffee, cookies, and an attitude of welcome home to Zion!
“You brood of vipers.”
John the Baptist calls the crowds,
Who journeyed from the city to find him in the wilderness
A bunch of slimy,
If anything could drive away a crowd
And bring a prophet’s work to a screeching halt,
It would be calling the people who you’ve been sent to serve
A “brood of vipers.”
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
And yet, the crowds came.
Crowds of Jews, soldiers, tax collectors
- Common people, every last one of them -
Left the comfort and security of their Jerusalem homes
To travel straight into the wilderness to find John
And to be baptized by him in the Jordan.
They traveled a dangerous, bandit laced switchback road;
Took the risk of overnighting, where temperatures could easily fall below freezing
And they could die of exposure;
To assemble for the last and greatest of prophets of their time, John the Baptist;
Only to be called a brood of vipers.
Why do they take the risk?
Why do they stay?
Why are they seeking John’s baptism?
1. They came to flee the wrath to come.
Every member of the crowd is running.
They are running FROM the judgment they are convinced will soon take place.
Guilt is dripping from their fingers like Lady McBeth washing her hands.
They are the condemned waiting for the judge to pronounce their sentence.
Their conscience is weighing heavily
And doom feels unavoidable.
Wouldn’t you feel the same way if you walked past someone who had no coat
And you were wearing two?
Wouldn’t you be likewise filled with guilt if you looked away from a starving family
While your cupboards are stocked full of food?
Tell me honestly,
Wouldn’t you be tormented with guilt
If you overcharged every poor person who sought your services,
Just because they were a woman, a child, disabled, widowed, or vulnerable
And you knew you could get a away with it?
Soldiers in the business of raping and stealing and extorting money
Know the Devil has to be paid his due
And the wrath is certain to come.
Soldiers are in the punishment business.
They know exactly what they are running from.
Why do these people take the risk to flee to John?
Because they’ve weighed the risk v reward factor.
They know they are guilty.
There is no other choice than to flee
Axe and fire.
There is no other choice than to flee the flames of hell.
2. They stay because the hope of a redeemed world is better than the current world.
The current world is messed up.
It is filled with nut jobs who shoot up shopping malls, class rooms, and movie theatres;
Who act with selfish indifference as they spit on a Salvation Army kettle ringer.
The current world is filled with smash-and-grab people who assault the greeter at Walmart.
Today’s world has a darkness about it
That will knock you down,
kick you bloody,
steal your last dollar,
and leave you for dead.
We all come to John the Baptist because of the guilt we each share,
- because, at the end of the day,
we know our individual responsibility for messing up the world -
Yet, we stay because we hope the world can be transformed into a better place.
John baptizes with repentance.
Too often we associate repentance with an individual approach;
Rightly so, it means that we make an individual decision to
Stop the hurtful behavior,
Decide to make better choices,
Ask for forgiveness,
And vow never to sin again.
Yet, many times, we fail to explore what community,
or what collective repentance, would look like.
When the neighborhood is baptized by John in the river Jordan,
Everyone’s collective hope is that we can return home
And build something better.
We can create a world where, here-to-for, has only existed in our dreams.
The water of repentance washes yesterday away and gives us a fresh slate
To build a world that God would be proud of.
Repentance releases the hope of the world
And becomes the opportunity for something better.
3. They came knowing they had to make changes in their lives.
Individual and collective redemption washes away yesterday’s sin,
At the same time,
The garbage still needs taken out tomorrow.
Live goes on.
Avoid the temptation to simply conclude:
Well, Jesus comes, and all is now right with the world.
The baby Jesus isn’t born with a “Get out of jail free” card in his hand,
All ready to just hand over to you.
“Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap,” my dad was quick to quote.
Changes need to be made.
We can’t repent and go back to doing the same old thing.
Where do we begin?
“What are we to do?” the crowd asks John.
“What are we to do?”
The preacher’s lament is
“Oh, if every congregation was this open and receptive to pastoral direction!”
When it comes to John the Baptist,
Common people, asking common questions, receive simple, straight-forward, plain talk, common answers:
It is clear, John was not like the run-of-the-mill politicians
who like to duck answering questions.
He gives it to you straight up;
He doesn’t beat around the bush.
John’s prophetic nature isn’t mamby-pamby,
let’s discuss your feelings,
and sit around in a circle singing “Kumba ya”.
John was a breath of change, the apparent fulfillment of what everyone was looking for.
It was certainly natural for the crowd to ask if John might be the Messiah.
There is a huge difference between those who can envision change
And the one who is coming to carry out the change.
Prophets are not messiahs.
They are not saviors.
The voice of God is not God him/herself.
John was the last and greatest prophet.
He was the last conduit through whom God would speak and share his prophetic will.
Going forward, God would be made flesh and dwell among us.
John the Baptist had certainly discussed this with his mother, Elizabeth:
About her divine revelation,
About her motherly expectations.
John was forged as the one who completes the final preparation of the world
For the world to receive the Divine Savior
Whose coming is imminent.
It’s almost comical: “Me?” John asks.
“I baptize you with water,
But the Messiah,
The one coming after me, will baptize you with FIRE!”
Jesus is coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire;
And he is going to burn down the house.
John begins with calling the people vipers,
Then he tells them that the coming Messiah is going to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire,
And he ends by proclaiming Good News.
If this is good news, man, wow;
Stay away from that bad news!
Take heed, follow the example: flee from the wrath to come!
Of course we know the Good News;
Christ’s coming is to gather the wheat into his granary.
Christ is coming to create the world we’ve been hoping for;
A world free from suffering and pain
A world free from hunger and homelessness
A world without violence
A world filled with love
A world healed with redemption
A world completed with salvation.
This is our hope.
This is our anticipation.