In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
All I can say is that it’s a good thing people weren’t preparing for Christmas when John the Baptizer came preaching. I mean, can you imagine that “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” and John preaching his sermon: “You brood of vipers! You children of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” And everyone knew exactly what John meant: the coming wrath of God. Luke doesn’t record for us what the people answered; we don’t know what they said or if they said anything about who warned them to flee. Or who warned them to flee to John. Some of them, at least, did think that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed and so they fled into the desert, into the wilderness, into caves. But I wonder how many of those people were there simply out of curiosity, for a little Sunday morning entertainment, for a distraction or diversion from their actual lives. Still John wants to know: who warned you to flee out here from the wrath that is coming? In the middle of dreaming of a white Christmas, or listening to silver bells, or thinking about Christmastime in the city, John seems much more like the Grinch who stole Christmas, than anyone in It’s a Wonderful Life (except maybe Mr. Potter). But John doesn’t seem to care; he’s not interested in any nostalgia or sentimentality. Not because he wants to destroy that ever-elusive “Christmas spirit,” but because he actually has something to say. He preaches because he is the Voice, who is preparing for God to come. He is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi about the messenger preparing God’s way on the earth. And he refuses to be silenced by flashing lights and manufactured smiles. He continues to interrupt this world as it goes about its business; he still says, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” And just as when he first came, some people are actually looking for a way to escape the wrath of God. Many others are simply looking for a little entertainment, a little distraction, a little diversion from our everyday lives. John’s message is not what we’re looking for, necessarily, while we’re preparing for Christmas, but maybe it’s what we need.
Maybe we need it because the prophet is clear: the Lord draws near suddenly for judgment. And John is clear: he wants to know who warned people to flee, but not because they could somehow avoid it by fleeing. The sharp edge of the ax has been lined up with the root. The fire has been prepared for fruitless trees. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish from the way of righteousness. Maybe you didn’t come here looking for a way to escape the wrath of God. Maybe you came looking for a way to improve a life you know has gone wrong. “What should we do?” you want to know. If the wrath of God is coming on this earth, we need to figure out what He wants and give it to Him. If we do not want to be objects of His wrath, what should we do? John’s answer is simple: prove it. Bear fruit that matches up with your repentance. It’s nothing new: your actions should match what you say. Do what you know you’re supposed to do. Do what your neighbor needs. Do what is lacking in your love. Share what God has given you with those who need it. Don’t take what isn’t yours, what you’re not authorized to take. Don’t try to get, in a way that only appears right, what God has given to someone else. Don’t get it by force or threat. Those who are repentant desire to do the opposite of what they did before. That much is clear. It would be strange indeed if repentance meant “feel bad about your sins, but go on doing them anyway.”
That’s what the fruit of repentance is, but we also should be clear about what it is not. It cannot make up for past sins and it was never meant to. It is simply the modifying and improving of outward actions and habits. The fruit of repentance that John commands is not the way of righteousness itself; it is only the preparation. John simply commands the children of snakes to shed their skins. After all, they’re getting pretty ragged. Shed that; scrape off that; lose that bad habit that you can’t quite slough off. And we like to think that once we’ve shed this sin or that bad habit, our skin shines and we’re on our way to living a really Christian life. But when snakes shed their skins, they’re still snakes. Some of our skins might look nicer than others; but some of the stuff we’ve been through is making us look a little worse for the wear. It gets harder, doesn’t it, to shed the images and impressions people have gained of us. Harder to hide who we really are. And the judgment comes down on all snakes like shotgun pellets. Who warned you to flee? Where do you think you’re going? Why did you come here?
John has an answer for that as well. After me comes One who is greater than I am, One who was before me. At first it sounds worse: He’s going to clear His threshing floor and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. He’s going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That’s true. John preached his baptism of repentance so that people would escape from the wrath to be revealed, the wrath that is indeed coming. But when Jesus comes, He doesn’t start slashing and burning and cutting and killing. He goes down into the water with the rest of the brood of vipers, as if He belonged there, and He is baptized with the Holy Spirit. Later, He says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50). That fire would be kindled around His feet, and that baptism would be His death.
Notice how different John’s commands are from Jesus’ actions. For example, to the tax collectors: John tells the tax collectors not to take more than they are commanded to collect. But later, when the chief tax collector Zacchaeus is called down from the tree, and Jesus enters into his house, Zacchaeus says that he will give half his property to the poor, and restore what he extorted fourfold. And look what Jesus says: “Today salvation has come to this house; this one, too, is a son of Abraham.” All flesh, even tax collectors, will see the salvation of God; God can raise up from stones children of Abraham. John commands, and outward actions might change. But Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, and the fruit of His Spirit is produced out of all proportion to the command.
Here is the heart of this mystery that both John and Jesus proclaim: the same Son, the same King, to whom you must bow or die, is the Son in whom you must take refuge. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him, who places his whole confidence in Him. For I, Yahweh, do not change, therefore you, O children of snakes, are not consumed. You are not destroyed, not because you’ve changed, but because God does not! His Son comes to be consumed and used up by your sin, and you go free—not with a new skin, but with a new Lord. Blessed is the one who flees the wrath of God to take refuge in the Son! Blessed are you, once a child of wrath, for you have been joined to Jesus by baptism, who was joined to you and every other sinner in the water of repentance. All flesh shall see the salvation of God; blessed is the one who sees Jesus by faith now, rather than by force when He comes again in glory. Blessed are you, for you have tasted His Body and Blood, and know that He is good, in spite of what your physical senses sometimes tell you. He does not change; therefore you are not destroyed. You are being refined like gold and silver, and you are pleasing to the Lord, for Jesus’ sake (Malachi 3:3-4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/6/15