This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/12/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 3:7-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
In our reading this morning, John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. The people are coming to him, out in the land where God once led Israel for forty years – a pillar of smoke by day, and of fire by night. It is an empty and forgotten place where God took Israel after freeing them from Egypt. A place where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, where he gave the law from Mount Sinai. This is a land of encounter with God, a place of liberation.
Yet when Israel roamed in these deserted places, they were not quite free. They were waiting to enter the promised land. But first they had to be purified and prepared to enter into the fullness of God’s covenant.
The wilderness beyond the Jordan is a place of preparation. Of waiting. Expectation. It’s a place where the escape from oppression morphs into a call to transformation. It’s a place where God calls us to become holy. Set apart for his purpose. His mission.
This is where John meets Israel. He meets the part of Israel that is fleeing the new Egypt, the present generation’s captivity. They reject a state of political bondage under Roman occupation. Subordination to a foreign empire. Life under compromised rulers and corrupt religious institutions. For those that flock to John, there is a burning hope – could God be drawing his people once more, out into the wilderness? Could it be time to claim the promised land anew?
They’re hoping that John is a new Moses. A savior, a prophet, a man of God who can lead them. A man who can mediate God’s will for them. A leader who will restore the fortunes of Israel.
When they come to him, full of questioning hope, John’s response is – perhaps – surprising. If anyone came out expecting to be welcomed or encouraged by John, they were disappointed. His words to the burgeoning crowds were, more or less, “Who said you were invited to the party?” It says:
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.”
You poisonous snakes! The axe is lying at the root of the trees. Big winds are coming, and nothing that isn’t firmly rooted in the bedrock of God’s life and power simply isn’t going to make it.
This was a disturbing message for his hearers then, and should remain so for us now. We cannot expect to meet God and remain the same. Either we will be transformed by the great wind of God’s presence, or we will be uprooted by the storm.
And hearing this message from John, the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
John’s answer, again, is surprising. At least to me. Because John doesn’t offer a big program. He doesn’t promise a political or religious reformation. He doesn’t promise – well, anything, it seems. Nothing that comes from him or his own leadership. Instead, he urges each individual present to prepare themselves. To change their lives. To reorient themselves. To repent.
John’s message is, in the words of Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to each other.” If you’ve got extra food or clothes, share them. If you’ve got a position of trust, be trustworthy. If you have a position of power, don’t abuse it. Be excellent to each other. Care for one another – not just in words, but by your actions.
And it says that, in response to John’s words, his hearers are filled with a sense of expectation. “Could this man be the messiah we have been waiting for? Could he be the one?”
John responds, again, very simply. “No.”
John is here to baptize you with water. John brings the simple things. The things you already knew that you should do, but didn’t. My wife Faith always tells me, “drink more water.” I know I should, but then I don’t.
John’s ministry is about drinking that water. Drink it all down. Be immersed in it. Be excellent to one another. Share. Protect. Serve. Love. Do the simple things before aspiring to big things. Purify your own heart before thinking to purify others.
John’s ministry is about preparation: Attending to the basic before the advanced comes.
But make no mistake, John says – the big day is coming. These are the days of water, but days of fire are on the way. The messenger who prepares the way is here, but the messiah is coming. And he will gather the grain and burn the chaff. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
And it says that this message that John proclaims is good news.
Does this sound like good news to you? Are you waiting for it? Living in expectation for it? Attending to it in your thoughts, words, and actions? Are you drinking the water, purifying your heart?
When the baptism of fire comes, will you have been prepared by the baptism of water – the baptism of simple things? Sharing what you have with others? Living in honesty and integrity? Using your position to serve and protect those around you?
Those who are faithful with little will be entrusted with much. But if we will not even be faithful with the little baptism that has been given to us, what do we imagine will happen when the greater baptism comes?
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have George Fox as our ancestor.” For John the Baptist tells us, God is perfectly capable of raising up another people who are faithful if we refuse to be. The axe is lying at the root of the trees.
So what should we do? That is the question that John’s hearers asked themselves. What should we do?
We already know, don’t we? The prophets of every age have told us.
In the words of the prophet Micah:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?