“You brood of vipers!” “You group of snakes!”
That’s not a good way to begin a sermon, or what you should be telling people who have come to be baptized. You wouldn’t want a speaker like this to be in a charge of pastoral care or to lead a youth group. You wouldn’t ask someone like this to be the face of your church.
But this is John the Baptist. And he has a unique agenda. He’s a wild character. In Matthew, it says he wore clothes of camel’s hair and ate locusts. He certainly would have caught people’s attention, in both his appearance and his words.
Now, John does have some very strong statements. It may be hard to hear any good news in what he's saying. But they’re words we need to hear, and there's good news in here somewhere. I think John’s startling comments in this text deserve our full attention.
He tells the crowds who are waiting to be baptized, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” In other words, you are not perfect, and there are parts of your life that need changing! This is true for us too. Repentance means examining your life, seeking God’s forgiveness, and committing to transforming your life for the better.
In the Lutheran tradition we have a beautiful focus on God’s grace and unconditional love. It is true that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace and love, but this doesn’t mean that you are unchanged by God. Being in relationship with God and having faith naturally lead to a new kind of life.
So John is telling us rather sternly that repentance -- which includes change -- is an essential part of this life with God.
But perhaps someone thinks, “Well, my family has been Christian for hundreds of years. I’m good to go. I just need to keep showing up each Sunday because that’s already more than a lot of people do.” John has some words for this, too!
He tells the crowds, “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.” Being a descendant of Abraham was a valued identity for these people. But John is telling them that this alone isn’t all that it takes. Likewise, your family having been Christian for generations and attending worship regularly, while important, and wonderful, are not the whole story.
Again, repentance and a changed life are central to being a Christian. Repentance is a turning, a change of direction into God’s truth.
There are things in each of our lives that we need to repent of, to ask God’s forgiveness for. Maybe the time you’ve spent online and using electronics has taken away from your relationships with family and friends in ways that you never intended. Maybe you have neglected to take care of yourself and so your ability to live well and serve others has been negatively affected. Maybe you have been deceitful. Our society has things it needs to repent of and change as well, like systems of injustice, abusing creation, hoarding of resources. All of these things require honest examination, admittance, forgiveness, and transformation.
But we don’t like to admit that we’re wrong. I know that’s difficult. And things like forgiveness and reconciliation and real change aren’t exactly the most popular in our society. We like immediate results, but profound change takes time, attention, and hard work. Most of all, it takes an honest examination of what’s wrong and a willingness to hear and see the truth, even if it’s hard or if it hurts.
But we need this. We need to repent and we need God’s work in us to help us live differently. This applies to us not only individually but as families, as neighborhoods, as the whole body of Christ.
John also offers answers to the people when they ask “What should we do?” You might ask, “How should I live?” Essentially, he comes up with things that hopefully we all value - integrity, compassion, fairness, honesty, kindness. He tells the crowds to share their excess of coats and food with those who have none. He tells the tax collectors to collect only what they’re supposed to. He tells the soldiers to not extort money from people and to be satisfied with their wages.
These aren’t ground-breaking, exemplary actions. They’re good ways to live based in what God intends and desires. And yet these actions of compassion, integrity, and honesty are so often beyond us.
“As long as there’s one homeless child in America, we have no room for refugees.”
“Close all U.S. borders to Muslims.”
“Give everyone a gun.”
I’ve seen these comments a lot the past few weeks. They are the opposite of compassion and integrity. I’ve also read this statements going around claiming that there is room for but one loyalty, one language, one allegiance in the United States, and that immigrants are only to be treated equally if they assimilate themselves completely to the American people, whatever that means.
All of this terrifies me. We close ourselves off. We seek safety with placing guns in the hands of people who may not properly use them. We perpetuate violent stereotypes about Muslims and immigrants even though we would never say “All white men should be locked up because one may be a mass shooter.” We tell Mexicans “learn English!” when it’s likely our immigrant ancestors were unfairly assimilated too. We claim to want diversity and to learn from other cultures and yet we aren’t willing to cross boundaries or really love each other. None of this is consistent with our faith or our God.
If we would live with honesty, compassion, and integrity with God the world would be different.
So we need to come to before God, on our knees if we must, because we can’t do this alone. We need to repent. We need the filth in our lives to be swept out. John says God will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Racism, deceit, sexism, hatred, abuse … these are the chaff that needs to be burned away.
Verses 16-17 in the Message version of the Bible say, “But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
This isn’t about casting people into damnation for eternity. It’s a refining and transformation of who we are and what’s in our lives.
This is scary and big and different. But coming before God and admitting what’s wrong, being forgiven, and living in response to this forgiveness is powerful. Incredible. Real.
If you don’t know where to start, start with looking at your positions in life. John told the tax collectors and soldiers to use their positions with integrity and fairness. If you’re a teacher, teach to the benefit of your students. If you’re a parent, raise your kids with love. If you’re a man, use your privilege to stand up for the equality of women. If you’re a supervisor at work, set the example of what’s expected.
Or start with an honest examination of yourself. The point isn’t to degrade yourself or to make you feel terrible; the point is to be real about what needs changing and to ask God to guide you more fully into the life he intends for you.
These might not seem like big things but they matter. And when we all do this together, we can create real change, starting in our own lives, our own homes, our own communities. We can be rid of all that needs to be cleaned out, and be filled more and more with the truth and ways of God. This is good news indeed. Amen.
Vicar Katelyn Rakotoarivelo
Faith Lilac Way Lutheran