Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:1-18
Good morning, you brood of vipers! I’m only teasing you. I gave you a nice, happy Gospel reading last Sunday and so, of course I’m back to the uncomfortable stuff. Actually, there were two readings from the Gospel of Luke last Sunday. I chose the hymn of praise in Chapter 1, but the other reading was Luke 3:1-6. I decided to include it in this morning’s reading for context—and I didn’t want to begin with, “You brood of vipers!”
Before we consider this challenging story, I want to start with an interesting idea that I picked up on Facebook; it’s the title of my sermon, “Tip It Forward.” How many of you are familiar with the concept of paying it forward? The idea is simple. When someone does something nice for you, instead of paying that person back, do something nice for someone else. In theory, it creates a cycle of kindness; it brings a bit of joy to each person who receives that expression of kindness.
In recent years, people have extended this to the drive-thru windows at Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Have any of you heard about this? Let’s say I’m at Starbucks, and I order my mega-venti-peppermint-spice-a-latte-mocha-chino, or whatever other 4,000 calorie monstrosity is on the menu. And then, when I get to the window, I pay for my drink and leave another ten bucks to pay for the next customer’s order. There’s no way the next person can pay me back, so he or she has the option of paying for the next order. Sounds really nice, huh?
I saw something on Facebook that I liked even better. The poster suggested that anyone who goes to Starbucks to order a mega-venti-peppermint-spice-a-latte-mocha-chino, or whatever other 4,000 calorie monstrosity is on the menu, can probably afford his or her coffee habit—it’s an affordable luxury. So instead of paying for someone else’s drink, just stick that money in the barista’s tip jar. That barista probably needs the money more than the person who gets a free mega-venti-peppermint-spice-a-latte-mocha-chino. That barista might be struggling to make ends meet and your generosity may do more good in that tip jar. Who knows, your barista might even be working through seminary. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t pay it forward in other ways, but especially in this time of year, if you tip generously, you will brighten the days of many service workers. It’s a way to practice joy in this season of Advent.
Speaking of joy, there isn’t a lot of joy in our reading from the Gospel of Luke. Instead of joy, we hear John the Baptist preach a message of imminent judgment. He’s preaching to a crowd of people in the wilderness and he calls them a brood of vipers—I’m sure that got everyone’s attention. Kind of like your pastor screaming, “serenity now!” from the pulpit. Note to self: the pulpit mic is really, really sensitive.
So, after getting their attention, John tells the crowd that God’s judgment is coming, and it doesn’t matter that they are descendants of Abraham, that is, it doesn’t matter that they’re God’s chosen people. John tells them: “Even now the ax 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.” If you don’t repent and bear good fruit, God’s ax is coming for you.
Predictably, the people in the crowd have a lot of questions for John. They want to know how to bear good fruit and they want to know if John is the coming Messiah. Of course, John’s answer is an emphatic NO:
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.
Again, there’s a whole lot of judgment imagery here: baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire, a winnowing fork, and burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire. It begs the question, how is any of this good news? Where is the joy in this reading on the third Sunday of Advent?
When I hear these passages that speak about God’s judgment, I’m tempted to think that they’re not about me. I always want to see myself as being righteous; everyone else needs to repent, not me. Of course, I know that’s not true, but the temptation is always there. I’m sure that some of you feel that temptation, too.
The sad truth is that we spend a lot of time living in our own little bubbles. We surround ourselves with people who look like us, worship like us, listen to the same music, and have similar political beliefs. Then, when we hear that someone who lives in a different bubble is criticizing something we like, we get upset. And we want to burst the bubbles that other people live in, completely ignoring the fact that we also live inside of bubbles.
We want to label people as hypocrites, broods of vipers, so we don’t have to listen to them. We want to offer messages of imminent judgment. We want them to see our reality; we don’t actually engage with the people in the other bubbles. We just yell at them. And when we’re busy shouting, we’re not busy watching and waiting. We’re not busy looking for joy or grace and we’re certainly not practicing joy or grace.
John the Baptist tells the people in the crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This message is simple and challenging at the same time. He is telling the people in the crowd to repent from their sinfulness, accept God’s forgiveness, and then live into the grace that God has offered to them. John even offers them some concrete advice for how to start the process of repentance: Be honest, be fair. Do not use your authority to short-change others.
The world can be a terrible place. The grace in this story is that a Messiah is coming, a Messiah who will set things straight and restore God’s order to creation. John is preparing the people in the crowd for this new reality, preparing them to live into the grace that comes through Jesus Christ. This is the joy in this story, too.
The other day, I read a post on Facebook from Roger Owens, who was one of my seminary professors. I think it offers some good advice for all of us, in this time when it feels like a challenge to live into the grace and the joy of the coming of Christ. Roger was driving his daughter to school one morning, when they had this conversation:
His daughter said, “Humans are such a mess.”
Roger replied, “Yes, we are. That's why Jesus came to help us heal, to make us better.”
Then his daughter asked, “Are saints a mess, too?” “Of course,” he said, “and they know it better than anyone. That's why they throw themselves on the mercy and love of God.” “But how!?” she asked. “I want to do that, but I don't know how!” Roger responded: “Whenever I tell my spiritual director that I want to love as God loves, to be filled with God's love, but don't know how, she always says, ‘You can't long for something you haven't already tasted; you can't want it if it’s not already inside of you a little.’”
His daughter said, “Nice!”
I was blown away by that story. It’s a simple reminder that we have already tasted God’s love and mercy and grace. We have experienced God’s generosity. Even if we don’t always feel all of those things, all of the time, we have felt them. That’s why I’m encouraging you to “tip it forward” and practice extravagant generosity in this season. I would also encourage you to practice grace and mercy by engaging with people who live in different bubbles—love them and listen to them. By doing this, we may begin to restore some of the joy in this season. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that in these uncertain times, we are called to watch and wait. Remember to tip it forward and practice joy and grace, then go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Roger Owens, Facebook post, 12/11/18: https://www.facebook.com/roger.owens.1088893/posts/2039327503023898?comment_id=2039688592987789&reply_comment_id=2039715842985064¬if_id=1544580865315234¬if_t=feed_comment_reply