Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon for December 16, 2012: Luke 3:1-18, Jesus and the Brood of Vipers

Luke 3:1-18

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “

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 axe 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.


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I’m not really a big fan of John the Baptist.

I know he’s from the Bible.  I know he’s related to Jesus, and his father was a priest, and his birth was announced by an angel.  He’s supposed to be a holy guy.  But he just kind of gives me the creeps sometimes.

Matthew and Mark’s gospels tell us he wore camel’s hair and a leather belt, and ate locusts and wild honey.  He’s dressed in this oily cloak, with a rough belt, and basically eating what he can gather from the rocks and caves around the river.  It’s gross.  He’s out in the wilderness, away from civilization, shouting “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” like the guys who stand outside the Twins stadium and declare that God is a vengeful God who hates all of us for our sin.  When I think of John I think of the schizophrenic I met last summer in the hospital, who told me the whole world was divided into Cains and Abels -- good people and evil people, saved and unsaved, and if you were a Cain, there wasn’t a thing that could be done to save you.  A very black-and-white way of looking at the world.  There is chaff, and there is wheat.

I’ve never really liked that way of thinking, because after a while, it became clear to me that I was going to get that “sorted into chaff” someday.  For not reading the Bible enough.  For not praying hard enough.  For not telling enough people about Jesus.  There would be some valley in me that I’d forgotten to fill in, some hill I’d neglected to make low.  Something crooked that wasn’t made straight.

So whenever John the Baptist Sunday comes up and he points his bony, dirty finger at the people to say “Even now the ax is lying at the foot of the tree,” I feel sick, because sometimes it feels like he’s pointing that finger at me.

And then I wake up in a world where twenty children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, went to their elementary school on a regular Friday, and now will never come home.

Suddenly pointing a finger doesn't seem so hard.  When unspeakable evil occurs, suddenly it is much easier to identify with the wheat, and to hate the chaff.  In the face of horrible tragedy, of atrocious violence, I suddenly feel a lot less sick about drawing lines.

We want to draw lines between us and evil.  We say, Adam Lanza was "not like us."  He had a personality disorder, he was a goth, he was a nerd, he was a genius, he was a sociopath.  There’s something that made him different from us.  We’re on one side of the line, and he’s on the other.  Chaff, and wheat.

But we don’t just do it to him.  Even before we knew any details, broadcasters and politicians and commentators and people on Facebook took up their banners.  More gun control!  Get guns out of unsafe hands.  Less gun control!  Put more guns in citizens’ hands.  Get prayer back in schools.  We need to make mental health care easier to access.  Homeschool your kids.  Private school your kids.  Don’t have kids at all -- the world is a mess.  And everyone gets in a tussle at the dinner table or in the comments on Facebook, drawing lines and pointing at the “other side” and shouting, “You brood of vipers!”

And in the middle of it all, John the Baptist stands in his oily camelhair coat, with his bony, dirty finger outstretched.

But his finger is pointing to Jesus.

Because in that crowd that comes to be baptized, the crowd that John calls a brood of vipers, also stands the son of God.

See, Jesus was baptized by John, too. He came out with the crowds from Jerusalem. The promised powerful one, with the winnowing fork in his hand, is instead standing there alongside the river, getting his sandals muddy and his toes wet. Jesus came to John for baptism, for the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  In Matthew’s gospel, John will try to turn him away -- “I should be baptized by you, Jesus, not the other way around.”  But Jesus is baptized by John, in the same muddy river that the brood of vipers came to, in the same water that all the sinners were washed.  Maybe when John looks at the crowd and cries, “You brood of vipers!” he looks at the sinners, and the evil ones.  Maybe he looks at the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter.  But he maybe also looks at us.  And maybe he also looks at Jesus.

This is the audacity of Christmas -- that when we cry out for someone to separate the chaff from the wheat, God sends a tiny baby.  When we look for the Messiah, we find him standing on the riverbank, shoulder to shoulder with us.  Jesus comes to us, to be with us, to live with sinners and dine with tax collectors.

In Advent, we cry over and over again, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  We remember his birth at Christmas, and we await his future coming in glory.  But it is a dangerous waiting.  Because when Jesus walked among us, he threw out every category we had, and crossed over every line we drew.

He argued with the religious leaders.  He called sinners and tax collectors as his disciples.  He touched lepers when it would make him spiritually “unclean”, and he healed on the Sabbath when no work could be done.  He talked with women, with Gentiles, with centurions and demoniacs.  All the people that the religious leaders and holy people wanted to be separate from are the people Jesus was found standing beside.

When we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” sometimes what we mean is “Come and sort out the chaff and wheat.”  But what he hears is, “Come and turn our lives upside down.  Come and cross all our carefully drawn lines.  Come and be counted with the brood of vipers.”

That’s a whole different kind of Christmas than the one we’re getting ready for.

What should we do?  How do we prepare for this kind of Messiah?  How do we get ready for our lives to be turned upside down?

Like the crowds, we turn to John the Baptist for answers.  What does our baptism mean?  How do we live now?  What kinds of trees are we?  What fruit do our lives bear?

John does not have a complicated system for living into our salvation.  There’s no step-by-step guide to becoming the very best tree with the very best fruit.  John doesn’t say, “Prove your worthiness.  Do even more.  Wear yourself out.  Dump everything you have into making sure your spot in heaven is secure.”

John’s answer is much more simple, and much more difficult.


Love your neighbor.  Love the one who is cold, and needs a coat.  Love the one who is hungry, and needs food.  Give to them, out of your own abundance.  Love the ones who have less than you -- love them, and care for them.  Love the ones who have things you want.  Love them, and don’t steal from them.  Stop cheating others to benefit yourself.  Act out of love, not out of fear.

Small steps, really.  These are the kinds of things you learn in kindergarten:  share your toys, play fair, don’t hit.  But we get sold messages of greed and indulgence and “looking out for Number One,” and we forget.  We keep our abundance for ourselves.  We focus on our own needs.  We let fear run our lives.  And we draw lines in the sand, between Us and Them, between Good and Evil.

And John the Baptist stands by the bank of the river, with his bony finger pointed, crying out:  Prepare the way of the Lord.

Maybe when John declares that the threshing-floor is ready, it isn’t about separating good from evil, innocent from killer, sinner from saint.  Maybe it’s about the work that God does in us, every day.

Because getting ready for Jesus is not really something we can do alone.  The real leveling work?  The smoothing out of rough places, the difficult made easy?  That’s the work that Jesus takes on for us.  Preparing the way of the Lord.  Notice the verbs?  “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”  They’re passive verbs.  Something is being done to the valleys and the mountains.  And Isaiah doesn’t say who’s doing it.

What if God is the one who works a way into our hearts?  What if the first step in preparing the way of the Lord is to listen?  To do what we already know is right, and to wait for the Messiah.  To look among the brood of vipers for the One who comes in power.  To wait for the One wants to clear everything useless -- everything that holds us back from love -- from our lives.  To hear the Lord who longs to whisper words of comfort, of peace, of joy.

And so we wait, and listen.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.


Monday, December 10, 2012


Last week, my internship church learned that our solo pastor has been called to a new position.

She will become the Director of Evangelical Mission for the Minneapolis area, and she will be amazing at it, and it will be deeply fulfilling for her.  But there is grief.  And I am grieving, too, for a community that will have to face a hard transition, and for the people who lose a beloved pastor.  And in full honesty, I'm grieving for myself -- for losing what has been an essentially perfect supervisor-intern relationship.

Today we learned -- on the Monday of our finals week -- that our seminary president has resigned.

This comes on the heels of, just this semester:  shutting down the textbook section of our campus bookstore, closing a major on-campus dorm due to unlivable conditions, our Dean of Students (who I love) leaving, our beloved professor of church music leaving, the Master of Sacred Music program going to temporary hold for review, the Augsburg Fortress portion of the bookstore closing, our VP of Finances abruptly leaving, and the interim Chief Financial Officer announcing that we are projected to lose $1.5-$2.5 million in this fiscal year.

It has not been an easy semester on the campus of Luther Seminary, and it has not been an easy week for my church.  And in full honesty, it has not been an easy day for me.

But papers are due anyway, and for one class I had to reflect on some readings, offer a critique, and then state a reconstruction or resolution to the critique.

I concluded:

In this moment I have no choice but to depend entirely upon the mission of God. I have been taught that God makes promises, and keeps them. I have been taught, and have repeated, that God does not forget us. I have been taught and have repeated and believed, because my life has no meaning without it, that God is at work in us for greater things than what we imagine. 
It is to this teaching that I must turn, at the end of a long semester, and it is in this promise that I must hope. It is appropriate to leave it here, unresolved, as we wait in Advent and turn our faces to the promise of an incarnate God come to carry out a mission of mercy and compassion. There is nowhere else to leave the broken world but at the side of the manger.