Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 12, 2021
Luke 3:7-18 Commentary
Last week we ended with a consideration of the possibility that these two Advent weeks spent in chapter 3 could be viewed as the covenant obligations on display. Verses 1-6 highlight what God will achieve, and here in verses 7-18 we receive the invitation from God (through the prophet John) to respond to God’s activity. What does going through the process of repentance, understanding the power of forgiveness, and committing ourselves to being washed and cleansed (as symbolized in the waters of baptism) for a new way of living (as the Israelites did in the promised land) mean for us?
Or to put it in even more apocalyptic terms, since we are waiting for Christ’s return to usher in the new heaven and earth with the final judgement day, how are we to live knowing that the world is ending?
There is disagreement among scholars about the imagery John uses to describe those who come for the baptism of repentance. Mostly, “brood of vipers” (v. 7) is understood negatively: vipers are dangerously poisonous snakes that are never not dangerous to people. In this way, John’s question “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” is a biting indictment that these people have come under false pretenses. They don’t really care about being different, they’re desperate and fearful about their survival because something is in the air that alerts them to a threat to their future prosperity and power. They are perhaps hoping that their association (Abraham as their ancestor, v. 8) will be able to save them, they aren’t really interested in having to be different. John says to them, prove why you’re here by bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
But there is another way to understand the imagery—even if it is less agreed upon as the primary interpretation. A group of baby vipers, whether as a group of eggs or as recently hatched, were also referred to as a brood. They would stay together until they matured, unless of course, they were under threat—then they scattered because what was once a safe way of being for them is no longer so. Justo González prefers this understanding of the imagery because it helps us remember that even those who are up to no good can come to repentance. They may have the wrong idea about how it might be possible, or how they want to gain it (by associating with an ancestor, hoping to ride Abraham’s coattails), but they know that something against their way of being is coming and some sort of action needs to be taken. Their world is ending, so what are they to do? John’s “Bear fruit” command works no matter our understanding of the imagery.
The command works because the necessity is the same. The ax is at the root of the tree, ready to chop down and burn the parts that do not bear fruit. Verse 10 clues us in that this is a universal concern and not just one for the “vipers” in our midst. It’s from among the crowds that the question arises, “What shall we do then?” If the world is ending, how shall we live?
John’s depiction of the life that flows from the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the good news life, even as the world is ending, is a lifestyle of radical generosity and integrity. (John Nolland particularly highlights the generosity component in his commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series.)
We are to share what we have so that everyone has what they need. We are to do business honestly and without working the system so that others are manipulated and forced to give us more than we deserve. Why calls to ordinary goodness such as sharing a coat or a meal? It feels shocking when one considers that the world is ending.
But that’s the point. The world isn’t technically ending with Christ’s arrival, it’s being transformed. If anything, we need to add: the world, as we know it, is ending. The world where justice seems so often neglected and the winners are those who know how to work the system for their own gain—this world is coming to an end. The world that makes billionaires and people starving to death exist side-by-side is coming to an end. The world of police states and tax havens is coming to an end. The world where violence against women and children and the human cost of war is all too common, it is coming to an end. The world where evil, or even more sinister, a simple apathy to the common good can feel like it has the upper hand—that world is coming to an end. The list could go on and on…
Like the ax ready at the root, Jesus comes in the incarnation filled with the Holy Spirit, living a life of purity. He will come again at the final judgement where the Spirit will, again, use a purifying and refining fire to bring an end to everything in this world that does not belong to the good news Kingdom. The awful world, as we know it, truly is coming to an end.
So perhaps a different way of asking John’s question about fleeing the wrath to come is to pair it with God’s invitation enveloped in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins: When the world ends and all that’s left of you is what is of God and his Kingdom, will you be able to recognize yourself?
The refining fire of world transformation is coming, and it has already begun. Some of Jesus’ first words in ministry were, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” and John tells us to prepare our hearts to receive our Messiah. Now he adds that that Messiah is not only ready with the ax, but with the Spirit and purifying fire. Jesus is also ready with the winnowing fork at hand, burning what does not bear his fruit, gathering his harvest for the eternal new heaven and earth.
If the world is ending, it’s best to live the way of world that’s to come; because then, we’ll at least recognize ourselves when we’re in it. As people who are washed and cleansed by God’s own transforming hand, we’ve already begun to be different, living from the core of goodness that is Christ within us, rather than our selfish motivations which so often control us. We’ll see that the fruit of our ordinary faithfulness was actually the fruit of God’s kingdom coming, here and now; the purifying for eternity has already begun by the work of the Holy Spirit!
And because we do not fear the wrath to come, we can live a remarkable life in ordinary circumstances. Because doing so is a defiant proclamation that this world is not yet the way it’s supposed to be, or finally will be. Because we believe that the world is ending, but we trust in the beauty and purity and rightness of the new heaven and new earth to come.
We are meant to read this passage as an overall picture of the kind of good news message that John preached all around the region of the Jordan River (as discussed last week). “John said” in verse 7 is not in the aorist, but in the imperfect tense—the difference is that the aorist is a simple, one-time action whereas the imperfect is an ongoing activity (when in the past tense, they are both considered complete/done). Some scholars even go so far as to say that rather than thinking that John said all of these things at one time, Luke is giving us snapshots of sayings from various settings all compiled into one representative summary.
One of the undercurrents that pulsed through the Reformation was a sense of the Christian vocational calling of Christians, or the priesthood of all believers (in contrast to the separation and stratification of holiness and knowledge in the monastic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church). One of Luther’s teachings about baptism underscored that our baptisms are part of our calling into living the way of Christ—no matter our circumstances.
But this attitude wasn’t actually new at the time of the Reformation. Predating Luther by a couple of centuries, lay men and women in the Church had begun to transform the vita apostolica (lifestyle of the apostles as practiced by the monks) into the devotio moderna or way of Modern Devotion—they believed that the apostolic life was not just for monks, but for everyone who carried the name Christ. These ordinary men and women did not leave their communities, jobs, or family obligations in order to pursue this calling, but understood that the calling to live like Christ applies to everyone, everywhere, especially in how they conducted their lifestyles. Distinct associations formed: most well-known were the Brethren of the Common Life, as well as among women who were called Beguines. There were also third order movements more closely associated with Franciscans and Dominicans (two groups who were already making strides to renew the monastic way of life to be less recluse and more present with society).
Common to all of these movements were commitments to the kind of life that John describes to those who came for baptism: generosity and sharing with one another and others, integrity in business dealings, and a rhythm of communal worship and prayer. One has to wonder if their work and devotion was part of the way that God prepared the way of the Reformation… and whether a resurgence in the movement might be happening again. Throughout the world, communities of Christians are choosing to devote themselves to a careful life of generosity and integrity through formal networks, sometimes referred to as the “new monasticism.”
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