What Then Should We Do in the Midst of This Holiday Season?

Sunday, December 12, 2021 — Luke 3:7-18

People of Peace — indeed, peace be with you. Thank you.

Liturgically, the third Sunday of Advent is centered around Joy, and today is that day! Hooray!

So, naturally, we get a gospel lesson that exudes joy…don’t we? Does the brood of vipers share in the joy of the advent season?

We heard in last week’s Gospel text that John the Baptist could be found out in the “wilderness.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, the wilderness is where people go to avoid the harsh realities of Roman rule, to maybe find a place to rest, or to even engage in a bit of anti-Roman grumblings. The wilderness is a place set apart from daily life for most people.

This is where we find John–out in the wilderness, away from civilization, set apart from the status quo and normal expectations.

And John is not alone… there is a whole crowd of people who have sought him out!

They have come out to the wilderness to seek something new, a message of hope and promise and safety. They have come out to the wilderness to join in John’s new vision, which is really an old vision from the prophet Isaiah, to “see the salvation of God” as we heard in last week’s gospel.

The crowd has come out to be baptized byJohn, to claim a kind of loyalty and affinity to this new voice wandering the wilderness.

And what does John do? How does John welcome these eager people? By calling them a “brood of vipers!” Greetings, sneaky snakes! Hello, creepy crawlies!

John continues, “Who warned you about the wrath to come?”

Rather than creating a space that would feel like a warm hug, John appears downright mean!

Well, at least that’s what it seems like at first glance…

Let’s dig in a bit, because I think there’s something more to John’s initial call to the crowd.

Brood of vipers… vipers of course being snakes, and snakes harken us back to the serpent in the Garden with Adam and Eve. We know how well that turned out!

Snakes are often seen as dangerous and conniving; tricky little beasts, at least in biblical imagination. We remember the serpent in the Garden to be directly involved with humankind’s sinfulness and drawing away from God.

To be compared to a snake of any sort is to use some very strong and loaded imagery!

According to old english and germanic roots, a brood can be defined as a nest, a family, or an offspring.

But the Greek word that the Gospel writer Luke uses here can also be understood as product or harvest.

Brood of vipers, or a harvest of sinfulness. I wonder if John was trying to say something along the lines of, “You brood of vipers! You are products of a sinful and selfish society that draws away from the presence of God.”

Now, this “brood of vipers” claim feels more sociological, and maybe even a bit…pastoral?

What if John used a softer tone, “You who are forced to live and operate in unjust systems: what calls you away from the sins of empire and domination?”

John may still be harsh, but this might be a moment of tough love, or even joy, for the gathered people.

John continues, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This is another loaded word: repentance.

In biblical greek this word is “metanoia.”

“Meta” refers to a change (like metamorphosis), while “noia” refers to perceiving, considering, and understanding. So repentance, “metanoia,” is all about a change in perspective and understanding.

Oh, you brood of vipers. … Bear fruits worthy of repentance.

John invites and instructs the crowd to examine their past identities as products of sinfulness and injustice, then to shift their perspectives away from the injustice of living according to the empire and towards living according to the justice and rule of God.

This is not easy to do. But the crowd has come to the right place; they have come to meet John in the wilderness.

Professor of New Testament at PLU, Dr. Agnes Choi, shared with a group of local preachers recently that the “wilderness” is often a place associated with rebellion.

Where better to find the seeds of rebellion against the Galactic Empire than among the Sand Dunes of Tatooine. Wait…that’s not it…though George Lucas may have been more biblically attuned that he realized.

Let me rephrase…where better to find the seeds of rebellion against the Roman Empire than amongst the shepherds watching over their flocks by night?

Where better to seek a new perspective and a new way of life and faith than by following the teachings of John the Baptist?

Where better to join like-minded people, fellow products of broken and unjust systems, those yearning to live into a new reality that reflects the justice of God, all asking the question, “What then shall we do?”

We read in our Gospel lesson that John hears this question three times. As with all scripture, when questions or phrases are repeated, the author wants us to pay extra close attention!

The crowd has been identified as being drawn away from God. They have been instructed to shift their way of life once again towards God. And now, the people have questions for John.

First, the crowd asks as a whole body, “What then should we do?”

John replies, whoever has an abundance of clothing and food needs to share with whoever does not.

This is not just for the uber wealthy and the top 1%…this directive is for all people seeking to live according to the joy and justice of God.

Second, tax collectors, infamous for their practices of demanding more from taxpayers than the Roman Empire requires, ask, “Teacher, what then should we do?”

John replies, “do your job, but don’t take more than you need to.”

In other words, be good stewards of the money and resources entrusted to you. Be mindful of the power of your station in life, and don’t take advantage of those around you.

Third, soldiers of the Roman Empire, those most clearly associated with the sinful structures and domineering practices of those in power, even they ask, “And we, what should we do?”

John replies, “Don’t lie, cheat, or steal.”

To the agents of the Empire, John does not offer condemnation, but offers a way to live with a foot in both camps, as it were. Do your duty, but be mindful of and responsible to what your power allows you to do.

Hearing all these things, the crowd begins to ponder these things in their hearts.

They wonder if John might in fact be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for, the one that will not only change their perspectives, but will bring the sinful Empire to its knees.

The Gospel writer Luke does not include a question from the crowd along these lines, yet John answers their silent curiosity all the same.

“I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming;… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Of course, we know whom the Gospel writer Luke is referring to: Jesus!

Spoiler alert: Jesus was likely in the crowd during this whole interaction! We don’t get to hear this part of the story until January 9th, Baptism of our Lord Sunday, so stay tuned for the next episode!

For today, People of Peace, I wonder if we might join the crowd in their pondering of the question, “And we, what should we do?”

What should we do, people of Peace — to joyfully live out of a shared abundance, caring for those around us in need of socks, coats, and food?

What should we do, people of Peace — within our business practices and cultures, to reflect the peace, hope, joy and love of God in Christ Jesus?

What should we do, people of Peace — as we consider the justice of systems in which we operate and benefit?

This Advent season, may the joy of the Lord illuminate how you see yourself, how you see the world, and how you see those around you.

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