A Sermon for Advent 3; Luke 3:7, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers!”
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke 3:7 [pause] Yes, a brood is a family of young animals, born in one hatching. And yes, vipers are venomous snakes with long, hinged fangs that enables them to bite deep to inject their venom. But John isn’t calling the crowd a bunch of really poisonous snakes. About 4 decades ago I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors was about 6’6, weighted like 250 pounds, and was a city police officer. One Friday night I was at a party, with lots of people crammed into someone’s apartment. All of a sudden, the door burst open; it’s full of police blue, and a loud booming voice proclaiming “Hi ya’ll!” He had our attention.
The crowd – brood is every one Jew & Gentile, the powerful and their functionaries, and every-day folks. John’s chides the crowd for relying on their family relationship to Abraham for salvation. Yes, he was faithful, but that doesn’t matter, God can raise up another Abraham any time God chooses; besides, as we heard in Isaiah’s Canticle it is the faithfulness of their relationship with God that matters. Abraham can help, he can point the way, but their relationship with Abraham is not the saving relationship. I wonder if some folks don’t think of their church, the way the crowd thinks of Abraham, a sort of I belong so I’m okay membership card to God’s presence.
So yes, John has a prophetic warning to share, but more importantly John wants to get the people’s attention, he got it (Culpeper).
The change in wording from ‘crowd’ to ‘people’ is one sign he has their attention (Culpeper). Another sign is that they ask him what to do. There are three broad groups of people. Those who have plenty, who are symbolized by the two coats. It almost makes me ashamed of the number of coats in my closet. Tax collectors specifically, or more generally government or officials of any kind. Finally, soldiers, who actually function more like the police, their job is to keep the peace. John tells those with plenty to share. He tells the officials not to use their office for personal gain. He tells the soldiers, the police, to be satisfied with their wages. The summary is to quit doing things the way you want to, or the way society tells you is okay, and do it better, do it honestly, do it as an act of service for others; be truthful and above board in your work, be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform (Nagata; Hoezee).
In listening to the what is going on in the world I wonder who would be in the crowd today John directs his abrupt prophecy too? Who is John calling to be faithful,
- a county clerk treating people differently, because they are different than the clerk
- a doctor stealing million in Medicaid dollars, perhaps contributing to the desire of some government leaders to cut cost by cutting benefits,
- a college president kicking back state grant dollars to legislators who coordinated it,
- police and jail officers covering up the misdeeds of their partners,
- teachers, coaches, priests, and others who abuse the children in their charge,
- a secretary embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church whose books she keeps,
- builders taking advantage of disasters, offering work at inflated prices and lesser materials;
there were others Luke did not include in this Gospel story; there are others today.
John’s prophetic call is an Advent call, a call to reorient your life (Lewis); it is an invitation into a joyous companionship with God (Epperly). It is an invitation made to all of us.
All of us, not everybody, but all of us know the gifts under the tree represent God’s gift of Jesus to all of us. John reminds all of us that what matters is how we live our lives, not as points earned, but an outward and visible sign of the inner, spiritual relationship with our creator God (Lewis).
The Christmas story is the beginning of God changing the world, all of it, all the universe, everything, every living creature in it. John gives us peak ahead, by letting us know the change is happening one life at a time. The people were not called to try and change the world on their own, or start the newest spiritual practice, or begin an ambitious project; they were called do what they had been doing all along; just do it better, in righteousness and justice (Hoezee). Neither are we and so are we.
All this is hard work. It is hard to look at our own behaviors, to strip away all the social, religious stamps of approval, and see with divine eyes. It is hard to give up the benefits our culture gives us. It is hard to give up the advantages we’ve been lucky enough to have, or clever enough to claim. It is hard to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. It is hard to be transformed from a crowd, into a community of God’s people. The authors of today’s collect know this, which is presumably why they begin with the phrase Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. God listens, God hears, and God is ~ stirring things up; right here, right now.
Culpeper, R. Alan. The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Mark 16. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. OliveTree.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. Commentary on Luke 3:7-18. 12 12 2018.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 12 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 3:7-18. 16 12 2018.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. The Time Is Now. 16 12 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Nagata, Ada Wong. “What Should We Do? Advent 3.” 16 12 2018. Sermons that Work.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.