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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, December 14, 2003


Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Luke 3:7-18

“You Brood of Vipers!”

Well, good morning to you too, John! Now, there’s a way to say hello. Can you imagine? People-- crowds, Luke tells us, people coming in droves-- coming to John the Baptist to be baptized; and how does he greet them?

“You brood of vipers!”

Holy cow. I mean, John was never one to mince words, but he was sure in fine form that day. I’ve got tell you, that would not be the first greeting that came to my mind in the same circumstances-- and if it were, I can pretty much guarantee that as a seminarian I’d soon be having a chat with the Commission on Ministry, not to mention the bishop, regarding appropriate pastoral interaction.

But good old John didn’t have any such oversight. And not only does he begin by name-calling, but he keeps going. “Wrath to come...” “...the ax is lying at the root of the trees...” “...burn with unquenchable fire.” No warm and fuzzy images here.

And after all this, how does the Gospel writer finish? “And with these and other exhortations... (there was more? Geez, like that’s not enough?)

“And with these and other exhortations, he shared the Good News with them.”

“Good News.”
This is Good News? This is the 3rd Sunday in Advent: the Sunday with the pretty rose candle in the wreath. We’re looking forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ child. The arrival of a cuddly baby sure seems more like the image of good news than snakes and axes and fire. What’s good about that?

Well, since that’s what Luke calls it, let’s try looking at this from Luke’s point of view. Each of the Gospel writers has a different point of view; a different perspective, and uses different ways to share the details of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. One of Luke’s favorites is journeys. Matthew also tells of the trip to Bethlehem, before Jesus’ birth; but it’s only in Luke that we hear of Mary’s earlier visit with Elizabeth. And only Luke tells us of Jesus’ early journeys to Jerusalem: as an infant, when he is recognized by Simeon and Anna as the Messiah; and as a 12-year-old, when he stays behind to bedazzle the Temple leadership. Then Luke focuses over half of his story-- more any other writer-- on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. As my teenager would say, Luke is all over journeys.

The passage we read this morning is, in a sense, the beginning of another journey story. These are the events that happen right before Jesus comes to be baptized. After that, he’ll spend his forty days in the wilderness, and then return to Galilee to begin the journey, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” that will lead him to the Cross. But this is where it starts for us: we are first prepared for the pilgrimage, not with Jesus’ baptism, and that beautiful dove descending, but first with John’s tongue-lashing.

Well really, when you think about it, that’s a good place for us to start. It reminds me of the proverbial tale of being lost, and stopping in a strange place for directions, only to have some guy tell you, “You cain’t get there from here.” We have to know where we are, in order to understand how to get where we want to be. We need to see our spot on the riverbank, before we’re ready for the Spirit’s descent.

So that’s what John does. He reminds us, very emphatically, where we are-- way far removed from the perfection of God. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” It was true then, and it’s true now. John calls us to account; not asking for, but demanding repentance, turning away from the sins and evil that we are so determined to cling to.

And he doesn’t want to hear excuses. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” Now, as Christians, we don’t talk about Abraham so much; but we do sometimes hear similar sorts of things.

If I tried to play that game with John, for example, it might sound something like this:

“I was baptized, confirmed and married in that parish.” “So?”

I’m a cradle Episcopalian; 5th generation.” “Big deal.”

“My grandmother’s family put in those stained glass windows!” “Who cares?”

Harsh words to hear; but the unvarnished truth. Heritage doesn’t matter. What matters is, are we “bearing fruits worthy of repentance?” It’s not about where we came from, but where we are, right now.

That’s part of why this sounds so harsh. If we’re honest-- really honest-- we know this. Like the crowds coming to John, we keep asking: “what should we do?,” but we already know the answers-- many of them, anyway.

And we know we don’t measure up; that we are, in one way or another, deserving of God’s judgment.

But my brothers and sisters, there’s the Good News in John’s message: It’s God that’s doing the judging. As one of my professors noted recently, “God will make clear who’s been on base and who’s been off. Not me. Not you.” The ax and the winnowing fork are in the hand of the same gracious Creator who loves us so much as to have stuck with us through the whole ugly history of human abuse, and neglect, and sin; who chose in Jesus to accept a common birth and disgraceful death and to rise beyond it all, on our behalf; and who continues to walk with and within us as the Holy Spirit. In spite of our very “snakiness,” God provides a wonderful destination to the journey, in the salvation offered to each and every one of us, free for the taking. We can’t earn it; and we don’t have to.

Do those things sound like a contradiction? To say on one hand that what we do matters to God-- and on the other, that God’s grace is unconditional, free for the asking? On the surface, maybe; but not really. As a mother, the love I have for my children is not dependent on whether or not they’ve done anything to deserve it; it’s just there, all the time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hold them accountable for their behavior. On the contrary, it’s because I love them that I have expectations for them.

Think about one of the favorite arguments of every child, at one time or another: “But why not? Jenny gets to!” or “But why? Jason doesn’t have to!” And the standard response: “I’m not Jenny’s mother.” The same is true here. If we claim “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Mary; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” as our God, then that’s what we’re saying. We are rejecting “someone else’s mother or father,” and choosing to accept the grace that God offers. and to follow the the path God sets before us to walk.

Here’s one more Good News thing: just as John gave directions to those who came to him, so we have been given a set of directions for our path, if only we will use it. A Bible’s not as easy to read as the maps that AAA passes out, I’ll admit; but life’s a more complicated road than the one I took from Dyer to Warsaw.

That’s why we are also to have companions on the way. There’s a crowd on that riverbank, remember? We don’t walk this path alone, and we are not expected to try. We are given the gift of others to walk with us, to care and be cared for, to disagree with and struggle and work together, to listen for the Spirit’s guiding in the middle of it all. Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be among us, the best of all possible guides.

Wow. Look what John’s harsh words have shown the “brood of vipers” this Advent morning:

We can see where we are.

We can see where we’re going.

And we have a road map, and companions for the journey, and a Guide to depend on, every step of the way.

Sounds like we’re ready for a journey. Good news, indeed.


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