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Repentant Living in an Age of Empire

December 16, 2018


December 16, 2018 (Third Sunday of Advent)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR


Luke 3:7-18

7 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.’

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’14Soldiers 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.’

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,* 16John 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. 17His 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.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  


O God of the exiles and the lost, 
you promise restoration and wholeness 
through the power of Jesus Christ. 
Give us faith to live joyfully, 
sustained by your promises 
as we eagerly await the day when they will be fulfilled 
for all the world to see, 
through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In a sermon titled “Dirt Work” I suggested that we can better understand what John the Baptist was talking about when he spoke of preparing the ‘way of the Lord’ by thinking about the work required to build roadways.  Think of what must be done to “prepare” any road, street, or highway.  The land must be measured and surveyed to determine where the road will be built.  Trees, bushes, and other foliage must be cleared.  Rocks must be removed.  The topsoil must be removed and more groundwork must be done to pack and smooth a bed for the road.  These things are part of every road construction project.  


People in the construction business use the term ‘dirt work’ to describe this process.  ‘Dirt work’ must be done before workers show up to pave the road.  ‘Dirt work’ must be done before traffic lanes are marked.  ‘Dirt work’ must be done before road signs are erected for directions, speed limits, and to inform travelers about the distances to destinations.  Before people can travel any highway, ‘dirt work’ must be done. 


According to Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist did ‘dirt work’ before Jesus emerged in salvation history.  John the Baptist did the tree-cutting, bulldozing, dump truck hauling, and road grading work to prepare his place and time before God’s Messiah came along.  But John’s message is also declares that repentant living is necessary “dirt work” people must do to fulfill God’s plan for our living and God’s world.  


Sermons involving John the Baptist may seem out of place for Advent Season when people are talking about getting in ‘the Christmas spirit.’  After all, in today’s lesson, the fellow called people who came to hear him preach ‘a brood of vipers.’  Most of us don’t want to think about snakes during Advent, let alone a bunch of young poisonous snakes.  Where’s the ‘good news’ in this passage from Luke 3?  What makes it appropriate for us, let alone during Advent?    


Advent is about preparing for the arrival of God’s Messiah who will liberate humanity from sin and every diabolical, deceitful, and deadly thing sin produces.  Followers of Jesus believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah.  We believe that Jesus lived, died, rose again, and that Jesus that he lives in holy union with our Creator and the Holy Spirit.  We are not preparing for the arrival of a holy infant to be named Jesus, but for the return of the risen Jesus, our Lord and Liberator.  


John’s pointed message from Luke 3 is right for Advent because John preached about repentance to prepare people for Jesus!  Like John, we who follow Jesus are inspired to proclaim to people that Jesus is coming!  God’s Liberator is coming!  The King of Kings is coming!  However much this passage may challenge us, what we read about John the Baptist shows what people must do to be faithful to God’s grace, truth, justice, hope, and peace.  John affirms that we must quit being pawns of political, cultural, commercial, and religious empire and, instead, become people in step with God through the lordship and liberation of Jesus. 


Like John the Baptist, followers of Jesus have prophetic work to do.  We must awaken people to their moral and spiritual condition by a clarion call to repentance.  We must assist people who seek help understanding what repentant living involves.  And we must assure people that the call and life of repentance is God’s ‘good news’ for humanity.  


We must awaken people.  When motorists see people driving the wrong way down a one-way street in the face of on-coming traffic we don’t shrug our shoulders and act as if it doesn’t matter.  We honk horns and flash headlights to warn the hapless drivers that they are in danger, and that they are dangerous.  We do those things to awaken the wrong-way drivers to the danger they pose and the harms their driving are certain to produce unless they change course!   We do these things to prevent head-on collisions.  We do it to save lives.  We do it because we care.


This is how to understand John’s scathing description of his hearers as ‘a brood of vipers.’  Vipers are poisonous snakes.  A brood is a family of young offspring.  When John described the multitudes who came to be baptized by him in the wilderness as a ‘brood of vipers,’ he was describing them as moral and ethical offspring of Satan, who is described in the Adam and Eve account in Genesis as a serpent.  John was saying that the moral and ethical condition of his hearers was not hellish rather than holy and diabolical rather than divine.  Jesus later used the same term – ‘brood of vipers’ – (at Matthew 12:34) to describe the religionists who opposed his teachings and ministry.


 John was, in a prophetic sense, flashing his headlights and honking his horn.  When the multitude heard John describe themselves as ‘a brood of vipers’ and ask who “warned you to flee from the wrath to come,” they might have recalled what snakes do when farmers burn their fields after harvest.  Snakes leave the fields to escape the fire.  


Advent season reminds followers of Jesus that we, like John, should be flashing our prophetic headlights and honking our prophetic horns to awaken people from “wrong-way lives."


“Wrong way” describes people who believe that ethnic, national, political, or social identity makes them morally and ethically superior to others and right with God.


“Wrong way” describes people who believe that power is to be used for personal advancement rather than to promote the well-being of all, including those who are vulnerable, needy, and marginalized.


“Wrong way” describes people who believe that God doesn’t hold us accountable when immigrants are mistreated.


“Wrong way” describes people who believe that God doesn’t hold us accountable for poisoning the air, soil, water, and lives of people and animals in God’s creation.


“Wrong way” describes people who think that being religious is the same thing as being righteous.


In the same way that we flash the headlights and honk the horns of our automobiles to alert drivers about the dangers of wrong way driving, John the Baptist shows we are called to flash our prophetic headlights and honk our prophetic horns to awaken people about the dangers of “wrong way” living.  


But wrong-way drivers must do more than stop their vehicles on the road.  They must change directions!  A wrong-way driver doesn’t become a safe driver by stopping in traffic!   He or she has to turn around and head the right way.


That brings me to John’s call for his hearers to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance.’  Fruit is produced in a plant that has a healthy relationship with good soil.  When that relationship is broken, no fruit is produced.  When the relationship is corrupted, fruit is stunted or contaminated.  


John’s statement that ‘the ax is lying at the root of the trees’ forces us to remember that orchard owners cut down trees that don’t produce any fruit and trees that produce worthless fruit.

Barren fruit trees and fruit trees that produce bad fruit are cut down because they are worthless.  


Repentant living is not a call to merely stop producing worthless fruit.  John’s call for repentant living declares that none of is entitled to merely consume the blessings of grace without producing grace-worthy results!  


We are called to assist one another in repentant living.  Like the people who asked John “What then should we do,” we need directions and assistance to live repentantly.  Luke’s account identified three action steps that John presented.


The first action step John mentioned involved indiscriminate generosity.  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  


Generosity always involves using power to benefit others.  John told his hearers what we should always remember.  Whenever we have more than we need we have the power to be generous.  The power to be generous carries with it an obligation to be generous.  


One example of bad fruit can be seen in the way immigrants are treated.  Across the world immigrants are risking their lives to find safe places to live and work.  At every turn, they are being turned away by people who have versions of “two coats” and “food.”  People in this society and elsewhere have refused to show generosity and hospitality to immigrants. Why?


Selfish devotion to national and political empire motivates some people to treat immigrants as threats to national security and public safety.  Selfish devotion to personal and commercial empire motivates some people to treat immigrants as threats to their jobs and incomes.  Selfish devotion to religious and racial empire motivates some people to treat immigrants as threats to cultural identity.  


Whatever the reason, refusal to welcome and show generosity to people seeking asylum, fleeing from violence, calamities, and people who hope to find somewhere to raise their families in peace is an abuse of the power those who have “two coats” and “food” have to do justice and show mercy.  Refusal to welcome and show generosity to immigrants, refugees, pilgrims, and other strangers violates God’s command that we love God and love one another.  


People who refuse to welcome and show generosity to strangers, immigrants, and refugees are on a collision course with the God’s justice and mercy.  They are driving the wrong way!  And those of us who know this must say so.  We have no right to turn away from the damage they do God’s immigrant children and our immigrant brothers and sisters.  We have no right to act as if God doesn’t care that immigrant children are sick and dying because our policies prevent their parents from entering the country.


 ‘Good fruit’ living produces justice.  ‘Good fruit’ living produces compassion.  ‘Good fruit’ living involves more than walking around looking sanctimonious.  It requires that we care about others the way God does.  It requires that we care about others indiscriminately, as God does.  And it requires that we honk our horns and flash our headlights to warn people who are going the wrong way that they are on a collision course with God’s Lord of Liberation and Justice – the risen Jesus.


‘Good fruit’ living also requires that we stop using power to rob others and enrich ourselves.  That is what John meant by his message to the tax collectors and soldiers.  Like the tax collectors and soldiers of John’s time, we are tempted to take more than we deserve, even when we know we are taking it from people who need it.  Politicians (and their supporters) who want to deny access to affordable healthcare to struggling people are, in a real sense, like the tax collectors and soldiers of John’s time who used their power to rob others.  


Some may say that these issues are not related to living for God.  John the Baptist shows they are wrong.  It is wrong when we will not speak of them.  It is wrong for us to claim that refusing to welcome immigrants and refusing to provide access to affordable healthcare doesn’t matter to God.  It is wrong for us to act as if we don’t have horns and headlights.  It is wrong for us to turn our headlights off, silence our horns, or – even worse – to join those who are driving the wrong way. And it is wrong for us to not think and speak about this at Advent.


Finally, John’s call to repentant living is part of God’s assurance that repentant living is “good news.”  It is “good news” when people who are driving the wrong way on a one-way street hear the horns and see the headlights.  It is “good news” when they turn around and begin driving in the right direction with God.  It is “good news” when we join God in living with indiscriminate generosity and extravagant hospitality.  It is “good news” because this is what Jesus, the coming Lord of Liberation will expect to find us doing when he arrives, and what the Holy Spirit will empower us to do until he comes.




©Wendell Griffen, 2018