If you are not careful, John the Baptist can swallow your Advent calendar. No lie. I’ve actually had it happen to me a time or two. You think you’re plugging along doing the right thing with these verses from the lectionary laid out every week, and the next thing you know you’ve essentially peached a four part sermon on the prophecy, birth, ministry, and death of John the Baptist. It can happen to anyone.
The reason it can happen is because, quite honestly, there is so much juice there. The third Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke’s synopsis of The Baptist’s preaching ministry, and quite honestly, it has some of my favorite lines in it.
You brood of vipers! Luke 3:7
The Baptist did not follow seeker sensitive paradigms. I feel like this was his opening. Whereas most preachers today would tell a lighthearted story or a joke to warm the crowd up, JB just lays into them by inferring they were a bunch of snakes. I wonder what insults he’d come up with to open a sermon today? Maybe, “You entertainment entrepreneurs” or perhaps “self-help supplicants” or something biting. I’ve often wondered if he isn’t, by saying ‘vipers’ intimating a connection with the serpent in the garden.
We have Abraham as our Father. Luke 3:8
This is the claim of the religious leaders–we are the children of Abraham so we are automatically spiritually significant. It is a type of elitism that boils my skin. Pedigree is meaningless in the Kingdom of God, and those who would hide behind it or revel in are grossly mistaken. I like how he called them out on it. There is no place for snobbery or nepotism in the church.
The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Luke 3:9
The people are the trees and the axe is the activity of the Lord. Having grown up on a farm, this image is powerful to me. The tree is not being chopped off where there will be stump. It is being cut at he roots and pushed over. Nothing of it will be left exceptionalities the hole that is left in the ground.
Share with him who has none Luke 3:11
There is nothing in his sermon to this point that is complicated or necessarily doctrinal. He gives the warning and then launches with ethics. Share. Whatever you have, share it.
Be content with your wages Luke 3:14
This is what he said to the soldiers who were out there. Soldiers in the ancient world padded their income with extortion, bribes, and violence. I am certain in some parts of the world this is still the situation. JB says don’t do that. I find it fascinating that he doesn’t, and neither does Jesus, say “stop being soldiers.” Soldiery is honorable, good, and important. But not all soldiers are good. For the record, these are probably the priests soldiers and not Roman soldiers.
With many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. Luke 3:18
Verse 18 is not JB’s words. These are Luke’s words’ and Luke refers to the harsh, combative, confrontation words of The Baptist as “good news” or “gospel”. That is not how most of us would define a gospel message. We would define it as the love of God proclaimed, a discussion about the need for salvation, and an invitation to make Christ your Lord. But that is not JB’s message. His gospel is humility, share, fairness, and contentment with honesty. That is fiery stuff in any age.
In addition to these jabs, there is the constant backdrop of fire in JB’s words. He tells them fruitless trees will be thrown into the fire, the Messiah will baptize with fire, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. The emphasis upon fire is the prophetic mantle he wore. Prophets don’t hold hands and comfort, they rebuke and challenge with fiery words and fiery images. They remind people of the certainty of judgment as well as the certainty of purification. Neither one is pain free, and both will leave burn marks.