A reflection on Luke 3:7-18 for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021.
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 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.’
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.
Luke 3:7-18 (NRSVA)
John’s confrontational style was strong but, importantly, not without hope. Yes, he was a straight-talker, but never one to condemn without offering an alternative. His preparing voice can name the crowd ‘vipers’, insist that family heritage is worthless, and point to the ‘axe lying at the root of the tree’ – while the whole time encouraging recognition of the potential lying dormant within.
He names their short-fall and fills them with the expectation and excitement of an alternative.
It is a narrow and dangerous path to tread. Too far one way and he is nothing more than a crushing, and rejecting doom-sayer leaving listeners broken and helpless in his wake. Too far the other way and his is a hollow message that all is well despite the stench rising from the rotten fruit of greed and oppression.
Admirably, John does not freefall down either of these cliffs. Rather he preaches the possibility of a turn around – even for those caught in the wealth trap, collecting occupation taxes, or playing their part in Rome’s ruthless killing machine.
Is it this honesty and hope that brings these people to hear John’s message? Do they gather because they are too far gone to see any alternative alone? Have they heard a rumour that makes them dream of another way?
Perhaps this compromised crowd’s willingness to come – seeking, listening – indicates both a growing frustration and something that moves them to believe that there is another way.
So they take the next step: they ‘ask’ this prophet-of-preparation, ‘What then should we do?’
What does this repentance-fruit look like? How can we be bearers of it? Can this desert-dweller really offer a grounded and practical alternative to religious urbanites caught in the daily grind?
They are right to ask. And John seems more than prepared to answer. Not only does he know what healthy fruit looks like and the potential life-giving harvest within each heart, but he also knows the temptations and behaviours that have consumed and compromised. John speaks of practice rather than a pie-in-the-sky idealism. Those with much can share; those working for Caesar can do it with integrity; those working for Rome can do it without falsely accusing, filling others with fear, and taking more than is theirs.
They are not stuck.
John’s baptism was never an intellectual exercise. It was not an invitation to simply acknowledge a ‘missing-the-mark’ (sin), shrug it off, and continue living life in the same destructive direction. In John’s mind repentance is a turning from ‘self’ to ‘others’. It means generosity and contentment. Repentance moves from greed and disregard to generosity and love.
Love is the natural fruit of the hope-filled, turn-around-kingdom God is continually calling humanity to participate in. Practical, grounded, and acted out love straightens and smooths the path for God’s coming.
Yes, in all this, John is pointing to another.
This lack of personal ambition may seem odd. Indeed to our western ears – and maybe to those of every age and culture – his action may require explanation: Why does John play himself down? Is he really beyond ambition? Surely he would make a great Messiah?
In the eyes of many who listened there is no better option. He has filled them with expectation, confronted evil, turned hearts from selfishness, baptised into a new way of living. Surely even John could reason that good could come out of a messianic claim?
Our passage offers no evidence of John’s wrestling with the expectation of these followers. There is no scene of doubt or struggle with the temptation to power. It reads almost as if he is immune to all the hype.
Of course this does not mean that he was not tempted or even asked of God whether this role might be his. Perhaps all we know, and need to know, is that John found the strength to resisted directing the expectation he nurtured toward himself. Whenever people asked for his messianic credentials he pointed to another. Indeed he seems to have a pre-prepared answer emphasising the vast gap between the ‘worth’ of himself and that of the one who is ‘coming’.
He knows of one who will be greater still.
I can not help wondering at how John arrived at such a position. Did he grow up hearing stories of the strange events surrounding his birth and that of his cousin? Did he ask his father, the high priest Zechariah, what it all meant? Did he learn of his future when his mother told of his pre-birth encounter with the ‘Holy Spirit’? Was there ever tension between his cousin Jesus and himself? Did his prepared answer emerge out of a now dead belief that he really was ‘The One’?
Sometimes the greatest insights emerge painfully and slowly.
Of course, it may not have happened this way. John may have witnessed a dramatic vision or had a life-changing dream. All we really know is that, in a power-grabbing world, John found the humility to point those who were attracted to his message to another.
And yet, there are strong parallels between John and Jesus. John made a successful mission of water baptism that the Messiah himself built on – baptising with both ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’. Jesus too will be controversial enough to be known as one who gathers and separates his harvest. They will both know the fury and wrath of the authorities. Each will lose his life.
But despite this, from the outset John, and our author, Luke, would have us know that Jesus will take things to a whole new level. So much so that the ministry of John, while being honoured and remembered, will take a backseat. From here he will move through prison, doubt, and death.
But in the four accounts of the life of Jesus, John will forever live in the memory of the faithful as one who ‘proclaimed the good news to the people’.
An epitaph worthy of our gratitude, remembrance, and emulation.
In what ways are you tempted to point to yourself rather than to Jesus? How can John’s story correct and challenge this inclination?
Are you inclined to see hope in the invitation to repentance? Whales are you prone to identify in the call to turn-around?