Monday, December 17, 2012

Snakes In a Grassfire

   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?   Bear 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.  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." 
    And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"  In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"  He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."  Soldiers 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."
    As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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.  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."  So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This day is traditionally called "Gaudette Sunday." It means "rejoicing Sunday," from the Latin word, gaudere, to rejoice.  The text doesn’t start out that way – rejoicing.  It starts with John calling his congregation a bunch of slithering vipers.   He says that in coming out to him for baptism they remind him of what happens when there is a grass fire in the wilderness; the snakes take-off in all directions, hoping to avoid becoming serpent-barbeque. 

Now, had I been there I could have told John that’s not the recommended opening for a sermon about good news!  And, if you want to keep your job as pastor to the First Wilderness Jerusalem Church, you need to let up on the leadership just a little! 

However, keeping his job held little interest for John.  What drove the man who wore rags rather than “Botany 500” was being true to God’s calling on his life – making certain his generation understood genuine faith and power.  There have always been a lot of mistaken ideas about that.

What constitutes genuine faith and power?

For John the answer to what produces genuine faith and power was without question the fruit of personal repentance, not in a person’s pedigree or position!

John knew that the average person standing in the crowd awaiting baptism had been misled to believe that because they were born into Abraham’s lineage, born a Jew, they were “chosen” and, because of that heritage, they had their ticket punched for the heavenly train.  John told them they were wrong.

He said (v.8), don’t even begin to tell me that…don’t even go there…that you’re alright with God because your great, great, great Grandfather was Abraham.  John was trying to help the crowd understand that they were staking their eternity on the dusty records of who begat whom.  The Baptist told them that if they depended on their family tree to get them to heaven, they’d missed the point – the sharp axe that would make that tree a non-issue was already chopping up a cross for Golgotha.

What constitutes genuine faith and power?  Don’t trust in your pedigree.  Faith and power are not found in the records of your family tree.  People say proudly, well, OUR family….  You may have a nice family; they may have settled here eight billion years ago and run the whole county, been president of the world and grand Poohbah of the ladies’ auxiliary to the governor’s cleaning crew – it’s a nice fact of history, it has no power of faith in heaven; absolutely zero!  Your family tree cannot put you in right-standing with God!


John also pointed to positions of power (the rich, elected officials and military leaders), and he said:  humble yourselves!  He said, stop hoarding, stop oppressing and stop your extortion!

Now, you may be thinking…hey, I’m not a player like that.  I’m one of the “little guys” here.  I’m not rich, elected, and I don’t even look good in a uniform.  Friend, it is all relative here – everyone is in a position to hoard, oppress or extort someone.  Your ability to do those things may be relatively small, compared to Donald Trump or President Obama, but all of us are both capable and likely to “play the position card” if we have opportunity. 

Genuine faith, and the power it brings to trust God, bless others and stand strong in an evil generation, is the fruit of repentance, not position – not pedigree.  Helping, even in the smallest of ways, to build a more generous and just world, where compassion for the powerless overflows and power is used for good rather than personal gain – this is John the Baptist’s picture of repentant people.

John said your repentance will lead to fruit worthy of true humility; that means your life changes in the ways of which God approves…repentance brings right-standing with the Lord.

Unpacking “Repentance”

What does repentance mean?  Metanoia (repentance) comes from two words in the language of the Bible.  “Meta” means change, and “noia” means mind.  It is closely related to "metamorphosis", like what happens to a butterfly.  So the kind of change John is calling for is a radical change, a transformation.  He was saying change your souls in the same way that a caterpillar is totally transformed, inside-out, to become a butterfly.

How?  The caterpillar doesn’t change itself….there is a process that takes over…the bug simply weaves the cocoon and waits.  Our cocoon of new birth is repentance.  We place ourselves in God’s hands when we repent of our sins, and God brings about the changes in us to make us reborn – new creatures, ready to walk with God; or to follow the analogy of the butterfly, to fly with the Lord! 

He changes us; we don’t change ourselves.  He only waits for the repentance in us – admitting that we are sinners, bound for an eternal hell, unable to save ourselves and dependent on Him!  That’s the cocoon, He makes the change!  He makes us right with Him.

Questions and Expectations

     Now, we all bring some questions and expectations to the table when we talk about getting right with God.  John’s preaching was crystal clear; with John you found yourself on one side of the fence or the other. 

This morning, let me be just as clear as John the Baptist.  This prophet, in proclaiming the good news told us not to trust in our pedigrees or positions.  John taught us two realities about the Good News with his sermon that day; two facts that are answer to why we don’t trust in our pedigree or position:

we have SOMETHING GREATER than pedigree or position

Every one of us human beings on planet earth knows deep-within that there is God…something, some-One greater than us – a person in control of history and the universe.  There is someone who drives this bus of life and eternity. 

John’s finger points in the direction of the one coming over the hill, one coming after him.  He is pointing to Jesus, Messiah, the Christ; he points to the One who is our heart’s desire, the “something greater” for which we look.

we have SOMETHING SURER than pedigree or position

Every one of us human beings – in light of the undeniable knowledge within that there is God – wants to be certain that this God is loving and kind, and that we are OK with Him.  We want to be certain that we are placing our faith in the right place.

John said you folks are coming to me for baptism with water; I’m telling you that you would do better to look for the One who will baptize you with the Spirit and fire!  The people of John’s day were trusting in ceremonies of purification and certificates of pedigree.  He told them they needed the Christ of Power. 

Ceremonies are good.  They help us celebrate and remember and dedicate…all good things.  But they are not God; neither are they the entry way to God.  They are tools, aids to help us in our expression of faith and community. 

The only entry way to God is Jesus Christ.  The baptismal ceremony He wants you to have is with the Spirit of God and fire.  We aren’t talking about fire, as in burning a stack of wood; fire is the Bible’s way of describing the Spirit of God taking over your life and leading you in those sure ways you’ve been searching for all your life.  This is why John pictured the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers scattering – to them having the Spirit of God take over was too scary; they wanted nothing to do with the real God who will lead you into uncharted waters.  You have to let go in order to let God!

Spirit and fire – these are the genuine marks of the “something surer” for which you are looking.  And the truth is…you ARE looking for that, even if it scares you to death.  We are all part Pharisee or Sadducee…Spirit fire is dangerous!


The Luke passage said John “proclaimed the good news” to the people.  Proclamation is like a king’s messenger reading a statement, a decree from the king’s own hand.  It demands attention and response.  It means you don’t just hear it and go on your way; it means you do something about it.

So, what do you do about Spirit and fire?  Accept it! 

Friends, this was a hard thing for Israel to hear; it may be harder today for us – good folks of The United Methodist Church (et al) to hear:  insiders must change also!  Sometimes we can become so enamored with our “mainline-mantle” (as if we are the new insiders; pity the poor folks who haven’t yet arrived) that we forget the fruits worthy of repentance never grow on proud trees.  What you DO find in proud trees are broods of vipers. 

Today I must ask us all in preparation for the coming of Messiah…will we come down from our lofty places of pedigree and position and take the humility of repentance, from which grows good fruit? 

If so, it is good news, joyful news, indeed!

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