A New Path
New Revised Standard Version
7 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? 8 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 17 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Christmas is 13 days away. Who has finished all their Christmas shopping? (show of hands). For those of you last minute shoppers who don’t want to go to the mall (yes, it is still crowded even with online shopping) or are worried about shipping delays, items that are sold out, and supply chain issues that have prevented items you want to be unavailable through Amazon and other online stores, I have a tip to share.
This idea has been around for a while: regifting! The practice of tactfully disposing of gifts you didn’t expect or weren’t what you wanted or needed. Here are some important dos and don’ts:
· Rewrap the gift and change the tag
· Give new items in original packaging – its not a good idea to put something back in its box and tape it all back together or to put the gift in a different box altogether
· No one-of-a-kind, handmade or personalized gifts
· Know the original giver so you don’t give it back to them or to someone they know
· No partially used gift cards – if you tried out a restaurant that you didn’t like, its not a good idea to wrap up the card and given it to someone else
For more ideas there is a website you can go to: regiftable.com.
Looking at today’s gospel reading we might ask what gift John is giving to the people. It sounds like he didn’t understand gift giving or regifting!
“You brood of vipers!” he begins. Not a great opening line, accusing the listeners of trying to wriggle away from danger. The people expected the first prophet in 400 years to have a message of hope. To tell them what God was up to and when the promised Messiah was really coming. Instead, John tells them they need to repent.
Hearing John’s message, the people may have recognized their own failings. Falling short of God’s expectations as spelled out for them in the Law. The broken covenant that they would be God’s people that God had made with their ancestors. They hadn’t held up their side. If they were honest with themselves, they knew change was needed. The people may have had the desire to change but didn’t know how.
John told them how. Repent! Change your ways. God was requiring them to do so before the Messiah came. (Repentance means a change of direction. Saying “sorry” isn’t enough. To repent, a person must stop doing a bad behavior and choose to do what is right).
The people tolerated the message, shook their heads in agreement just to hear the most important part – when the Messiah was coming. Then John insults them. Not only that, he tells them that God doesn’t really need them. God is ready to destroy them if they don’t hear, believe, and act on John’s message of repentance.
John’s message sounds harsh to us today. But in the 1st century, his words would have identified him as having a place in the Jewish prophetic tradition. Prophets spoke God’s message directly. No softening the words or beating around the bush. Their role was to tell it like it was.
The people may have heard John’s message but didn’t think it applied to them. They were confident in their salvation because of their heritage. They were God’s covenant people, descendants of Abraham. Because of God’s covenant with their forefather, their place in God’s kingdom was assured.
As Craig Evans wrote:
“If God can create the world out of nothing, if he can create a nation out of two aged and infertile people, then God can create for himself a people who will love and obey him.”
But God didn’t do that. Instead, God created a people with free choice. Those who could make their own decisions and choose their own way of doing things. People are given the freedom to peruse the menu of options for their life and decide:
· Which temptations are OK to give in to
· The lifestyle they want to live
· Their personal ethics
· The God or gods/idols to believe in and worship
· The religion to practice
We might ask why God didn’t create people who would automatically love and obey God. It makes more sense to establish under God’s terms from the beginning. Like some sort of an arranged marriage.
Think about it. What if we were required rather than expected to love our neighbor. Not every neighbor is very loveable. We may do so begrudgingly if required to love them but might be unhappy about it.
When our kids were young, we lived next to an older couple who were not very friendly. Many times, I watched our sons perched on the top of the fence with a rake trying to retrieve a ball they had hit over into their yard because it was too scary to ask the neighbors for the ball. The woman of the house was also known in the neighborhood for being a bad driver. Anytime we saw her blue car back out of the driveway, the parents would yell to the kids playing in the street to get on their porches until she left since she was known to have driven up on the sidewalk a time or two. She and her husband were hard to love.
God also said to love your enemies something harder to do than love your neighbor, or maybe not. Real love is not present if it is required or forced. What joy is there in loving someone if you have no other choice? What God truly desires is a people who choose to love and follow their Lord because they know how much God loves them and want to respond in kind.
Certainly, John’s message here is harsh. It’s not the message of hope, peace, joy, and love we expect to hear from scripture this time of year. But John knew time was short. He cut to the chase. The Messiah would be there soon, and the people needed to be ready.
Surprisingly, many respond to Johns’ message. The people ask him what to do. They realized that the package they opened was regifted to them by God was really OK even though they had received it before. John responds: give your extra food and clothing to those in need. Tax collectors, collect only what is owed. Soldiers: don’t extort others and be happy with your wages.
Repent! John’s guidance for living an ethical life, one that demonstrates you have heard the message of repentance and want to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Straightforward instructions: share with those in need – you have more than enough, do your job well and be fair, be content with your wages – earn a living but don’t be unethical to get more than you need. Many think these things don’t sound too difficult until they try to do them. Then the realization hits that making these types of changes for the long-term is almost impossible on your own. The need for God, the Messiah becomes clear.
The key point of John’s message is that internal change, repentance, is evidenced by outward actions – the fruit. Paul, in Galatians, describes the fruit as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In short, it means loving your neighbor whether you like them or not.
Loving your neighbor can be as simple as bringing Christmas cookies to someone. More challenging would be to do something our of your comfort zone.
The churches in Edinburgh, Scotland share a ministry to the homeless called the Care Van. Every night of the year (including holidays) a church team volunteers to take hot soup, bread, and blankets (also socks, jackets, and other warm clothes they may have collected) to the streets where the homeless live.
I remember going out with our church time one November night that was very cold. We stopped in front of some storefronts with doorways those living on the street huddled in. People gathered at the van for hot food and warm clothes. At the end of the night, we parked in front of a cemetery where some used the mausoleums as shelter. A young man appeared out of the dark wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and no shoes. We gave him all we could – socks, several blankets, and hot soup with bread – before he headed back into the darkness. It was an experience I will never forget.
Treating others with respect and caring is an expression of the fruit that is a result of the change that comes with repentance. We respect and care for others when we take time to talk with the restaurant server, grocery cashier, or gas station attendant, addressing them by name when they are wearing a nametag. Acknowledging the crossing guard, jogger, or the mail carrier are signs of respect. God also wants us to be proactive by engaging in ministry that takes us out of our comfort zone. Treating others with respect and caring is something we do not because we must but because we want to.
God’s desire is for us to choose to love and obey the Lord because we choose to not because God makes us do so. Our love for God and for others comes from the heart and is part of who we are. It is a gift of the heart. A gift that keeps giving in unexpected ways, not only at Christmas, but all year long.