When was the first time I set a basketball hoop on fire? Good question. I was in middle school. I was hanging out with my buddy Zach, and like all good middle school boys we were burning stuff with magnifying glasses. And we happened to get a good pile of kindling together on the base of the basketball hoop in my driveway and one thing led to another and it caught fire. Now, unbeknownst to my friend and I, the windows in my house were open thereby allowing the smell of the burning plastic to waft inside, prompting my inattentive mother to come running out to see what was on fire. Now, to be fair, I’m sure my mom warned me not to set anything on fire. However, I didn’t heed this warning, and found myself in a troubling situation because of it.
Most of us have probably been on both sides of this conversation before, right? We’ve been the person warning someone of something or proclaiming something. “Stop or you’re going to get hurt!” “That’s not how you treat your sister!” And, when I was writing this week, I realized that we actually proclaim things a lot without really consciously thinking we’re proclaiming something. “Honey, I’m out of toilet paper!” But we’ve also been the kid who doesn’t take the warning, doesn’t take the advice, doesn’t take the proclamation seriously, and ends up, sometimes literally, getting burned. Our story this morning is about a proclamation; a warning and an exhortation which demands a response from people as we prepare for something even bigger to come.
Now, last week we read this in verse 3 of this chapter: “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” So, what we’re looking at today is basically an expansion of that verse; an in-depth look at what he was doing and who he was interacting with. And the first thing we see John saying is “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John was probably super fun at parties. Anyway, this is very strange, to say the least. But, there is something nearly lost in the translation of this text into English, and that’s the fact that he’s basically calling them all the spawn and offspring of snakes, which has been a symbol of evil for a long, long time by this point. And what’s especially important is the prevailing philosophy of the day which proclaims that one’s nature is derived from their origins. In other words, humans can only produce humans; it’s a shared nature. But John takes that idea, turns it on its head, and makes it apply to not only what is outside of us, but also what is inside. He applies it to one’s inner life and the composition of their heart and soul. Sure, you derive your human nature from your parents, but you also derive the nature of your heart from whatever you’ve allowed to shape it.
Now, this “brood of vipers” business is polemical to say the least, but it’s actually doing a lot of heavy lifting for John, here. Yes, he’s critiquing people and what they’ve allowed to shape them, but he’s also pushing back against the idea that one is included in the covenant merely by virtue of their birth. Up to this point, it’s been more-or-less understood that one who is born into the nation of Israel is included in the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. However, one of the things John is saying is, “no no no…your birth means nothing. You’re included in the covenant of Abraham by how you live your life as a result of it.” This was a radicalidea at the time, and it’s no doubt one of the reasons John is eventually condemned. But look at what John says here: “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.” Your lineage is nothing but an excuse to do whatever you want, and live however you want, without consequences, John says. That day is over. The messiah is coming and when he does, being a member of Abraham’s family won’t mean anything if you’re not living a life worthy of it.
This may seem a little far-fetched and difficult to understand for us at this point in history, but it doesn’t mean we don’t do this all the time. It doesn’t mean we don’t explain away peoples’ poor behavior and life choices all the time. Sure, we may not say something strange and foreign like, “we have Abraham as an ancestor,” but we do often dismiss young men’s behavior by saying things like “boys will be boys.” A couple years ago, a recording of surfaced where our current president bragged about sexually assaulting women and dismissed it by saying it’s nothing but “locker room talk.” And this doesn’t stick around on an individual-to-individual level, either. We’re actively destroying the planet and damning our future generations, all the while dismissing it in the name of “job creation” and “economic growth”. We’re killing prisoners on death row, often after they’ve experienced incredible rehabilitation, for no other reason than revenge. We may be able to nuance and couch it in a little more sophisticated language than they did at this time in biblical history but, when it comes down to it, we’re not doing anything now that they weren’t guilty of back then, and that’s making excuses.
Well, John has news for us: The messiah is coming. And when he does, he will obliterate our excuses and any ability we once had to make them. What John is doing here is preaching a word that demands us walk away from our excuses and change our lives while we wait for the messiah to come. John’s message should prompt us to ask the same question the listeners in this text ask: “What then should we do?”
And it’s interesting to hear what John responds to this, because it’s not really what is typically peddled in the 21stcentury American church. This is what he says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Now, this is incredible, but it’s incredible for all the wrong reasons. It’s not like John is sparking a revolution in ethical thought or something here. But it’s worth noticing that when asked what they must do to be saved from the impending judgement, John doesn’t say “confess your belief in this set of doctrines” or “accept Jesus into your heart.” No, he says be a good human being to your fellow human beings. Help those who are in need; give to those who don’t have the same advantages you have. According to John’s message here, the lack of another is our responsibility. Period. We often have a very “not my problem” attitude when it comes to a lot of these kinds of things, whether it’s the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the addicted, whatever. “Not my job, not my prob.” Well, according to John, it isyour job! Your job, first and foremost, is to care for others without limit. Your job is to love your neighbor without limit. Your atheist neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your republican or democrat neighbor, your LGBT neighbor, your immigrant and refugee neighbor, whatever. If you can’t do that, then you probably need to reevaluate what you mean when you call yourself a “Christian” because it’s not the kind of person we see John describing here.
But one of the most amazing things that this text shows us is that, even though we can’t always affirm that we’re currently the kind of person John describes here, we all have a chance to becomethat kind of person. We’re told that “even tax collectors came to be baptized.” Now, some of you probably know the reputation of tax collectors in this time. They were often viewed as criminals and extortionists because of their crooked business practices. The way this worked at the time, was that the tax collector job basically went to the highest bidder. They would literally auction off these positions, and then the tax collectors basically had free reign to collect as much as they wanted. There was a set amount they were supposed to collect, and there were laws in place to prevent tax fraud, but the government typically turned a blind eye at the time. So, if the tax collector was supposed to collect $100, there was nothing stopping them from actually collecting $1000, and pocketing the extra $900. The shock value of tax collectors coming to repent would have been great for those who saw this because it would have been completely unexpected.
And it’s worth pointing out that John stops short of telling these individuals to abandon the position of being a tax collector altogether. He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs; he merely tells them to do their jobs with integrity and virtue. He doesn’t want them to run from the system which enables them to be corrupt; he wants them to climb inside the belly of the beast and transform it from within. That’s what redemption is – it’s not something new, it’s something renewed. It’s something old that is reoriented and transformed.
John says the same thing to the soldiers who come to him. He doesn’t tell them to abandon the military. He tells them to change the way they operate within it. “Don’t extort money; don’t make threats; be satisfied with your wages.” And it’s at this point that people start wondering if this guy is the long-awaited messiah. And John is quick to say this: “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.” So, John is dismissing the rumors that he may be the messiah, while also elevating the messiah to come above him and the baptism he provides. Also, we get a little foreshadowing here. Baptism with “the Holy Spirit and fire” is reminiscent of Pentecost, which we know is recorded in the book of Acts. And who wrote the book of Acts? Luke!
Now, after this subtle reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit, John says this about the messiah: “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.” Now, I feel like these are not super familiar terms, but we’re in central PA, so I can’t really be sure. So, who all knows what winnowing, threshing floor, and chaff means? Well, lucky for you all, I spent an abnormally large part of my week reading Wikipedia articles and watching Youtube videos, and I’ve basically become an expert in ancient neat eastern grain farming. So, here’s what I figured out: “winnowing” is the practice of tossing wheat into the air with a “winnowing fork” (which kind of looks like a pitchfork) and allowing the wind to blow away the “chaff” (or the husk) while the heavy seeds fall straight down to the ground. Now, a threshing floor is a flat, hard surface where grain is threshed, meaning that it is loosened from its husk, either by beating it or by an animal walking over it. And, as you can probably glean from context, a granary is a place where the threshed and winnowed grain is stored.
So, clearly this is metaphorical for what the messiah will do when he comes. He will separate the seed – that which is valuable – from the chaff – that which isn’t; in other words, those that are obedient and those who aren’t. Now, it’s couched in apocalyptic language, but John’s an apocalyptic guy. A lot of scholars argue that John was actually a mentor and teacher to Jesus, and that’s one of the reasons Jesus turned out to be the apocalyptic prophet he was. He was picking up John’s sword and running with it. And we’ve covered this before – Jesus didn’t get everything right. He spent his entire ministry anticipating a great apocalypse, like the one John describes, which never came. And yet, John isn’t necessarily wrong. Jesus does separate the seed from the chaff. In a way, this is kind of exactly what it means to be a Christian, isn’t it?
The whole of the Christian life is about the tension between who we are and who we couldbe; between the way things are, and the way they shouldbe. If we think about ourselves, we might think about the fact that we often have particular biases and prejudices against a particular group of people, but know that we need to be slow to judge and quick to listen. Maybe you’re wrapped up in some addiction or dependency, but you know you need to get clean. Maybe there are problems in your marriage that you’ve been avoiding, but you know you need to address them if your relationship is going to survive. Or we can even identify these things in our society’s systems. Our prison system is basically legalized slavery, but it should be a mode of healthy rehabilitation for those lost. Institutional religion is often an instrument of oppression and harassment, but it should be a network of loving and liberating communities. The world can be hateful and painful, but it should be loving and joyful.
The world, on this side of glory, is a combination of seed and chaff; a cosmic amalgamation of beauty and pain; kindness and hostility; virtue and vice. And when the messiah comes and the good news is proclaimed to us, there will be a separation and we will be forced to make a choice. Do we go the way of the faithful and commit our lives to the radical ethic of loving without limit? Or do we go the other way, embracing our own narcissism and denying our responsibility to anyone else? That’s really the ultimate question facing us every moment of every day.
There are a few more people confronted with this question in Luke’s gospel. More on them tomorrow night. Let’s pray.