Here’s my draft for my sermon for this Sunday, Advent 3, using the lectionary text Luke 3:7-18. This will be my third sermon at St. Paul’s, Dallastown, PA, in my new call. I always struggle a little bit with Year C-Advent 3, because just about everything I feel I want to say about this is covered on Advent 2. Regardless, here is my first draft of the sermon, with special thanks to the Girardian Commentary on the Lectionary, which continues to be very helpful…
We all know people who think that because they say that they’re “born again” that they have something special that makes them better than other people. I consider myself to be “born again,” but not “born again” in the way that many evangelical pastors use this language. Not too long ago someone stopped by my door in Lebanon asking me to vote for her for a local election, and she gave me a glossy card with a kind of laughable list of qualifications to run for judge: She had a degree in art, she was endorsed by the local Tea Party, she took a two week class on how to run a courtroom, and finally the card said she was “born again.”
First, I asked her if she had ever been inside of the county prison, and I said that it would be immoral to vote for anyone to be a judge sending people to a prison she herself has never been inside of. To that she said, but I’ve never been arrested, so why would I go inside of the county prison?
But second, I asked her why being “born again” made her qualified to be a judge. She said, “Well, I am glad you asked!” And then she told me that because she was born again, she had a higher understanding of the laws of the Old Testament, and believed that Jesus liberates her from the laws, and that Jesus is her personal Lord and savior, and so on and so forth. But then I asked again, “What does that have to do with being a judge?”
Then she asked if I was a Christian, and I said, actually, I’m a pastor. And she said of which church, and I said the United Church of Christ. And she had this weird look on her face, and said, oh, well then you don’t know what I’m talking about then. And I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, “well, our pastor talks about how the UCC aren’t really Christians and that you’re not really born again.”
Let’s just say I gave her my business card and I invited her to church, and we parted ways.
Again, we all know people who say they’re “born again” who think they’re better than everyone else, think they’ve unlocked some secret key to the universe, and that everyone who might think differently from them is definitely wrong. And as I said before, I consider myself “born again,” but I also take issue with how many Protestants interpret this phrase and impose their ideas on other people.
In our Gospel reading we find John the Baptist addressing this head-on: Do you think you’re better than other people because you got baptized? And John looks directly at the very same people he just baptized very recently and swears at them: “You Brood of Vipers!” We forget that this is cursing in the bible. Instead of calling them a bunch of S.O.B.’s he called them a bunch of S.O.V.’s: You sons of vipers! Your mother’s a snake!
But John’s insults go beyond this… and this is kind of a PG-13 rated sermon. John says to the newly baptized people who think they’re awesome, “Don’t keep saying to yourselves that ‘Abraham is my ancestor!’” Meaning that the folks baptized by John not only were claiming to be both liberated by the baptism of water and the Spirit by John, and directly descended into the present by Abraham.
Here’s where it gets a little PG-13: John then says, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the foot of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.” There are many different ways of reading this, but we should think of this as pretty crude language that makes a serious point. The ancestral lineage from Abraham was passed through the semen of the father to the next generation.
So when John says he is going to cut down “these trees” what trees are he talking about? And when he’s talking about “these stones,” what is John talking about? We need to understand that these are crude, dirty jokes being told by this dirty, smelly guy wearing a thong –the Bible says that all he was wearing was a thong in Matthew 3—so we can assume here that those near to John the Baptist, so close to him that they could smell him knew exactly what he was talking about here with “these trees” and “These stones.”
So if we can acknowledge the crudeness and kind of dirtiness of the way John the Baptist is talking here, maybe we can better understand what he’s really saying. First, he is saying that spiritual and blood ancestry doesn’t mean anything in the eyes of God. It doesn’t matter whose sperm and whose womb created you, but that what you do in this world is far more important than where you came from. And this is especially true if you claim some sort of spiritual superiority because of who your parents are, or which family you came from, or which high priest circumcised you, or who baptized you—keeping in mind that these words are coming from the man who baptized all of these people, whose own father was an elite priest of the temple in Jerusalem.
So the ax at the root of the tree is John the Baptist’s metaphor to say that if you think your ancestral lineage to Abraham, as passed down through the generations through the sexual acts of our fathers, and if the mark of Abraham is circumcised on your sexual organs—it’s time to cut them all off. Just as Jesus would later say to cut off a hand that is sinning, or to tear out an eye that causes you to sin: if the mark of circumcision on a particular part of your body is causing you to think you’re better than others, it’s time to cut that tree down at its roots. The exact words of scripture are “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!”
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John then goes on to prophesy about the coming of Jesus: “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing-floor and gather wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with an unquenchable fire!”
The problem with the way we usually read these words is the word in Greek for “Winnowing fork.” The Greek word for “winnowing fork,” is ptuon, but ptuon really means a winnowing shovel, not a fork. Why does this matter? A winnowing fork would have been used in a granary to separate the majority of the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel would have been used for the leftovers, the small pieces left behind.
So why this is so important is that later, in Luke 7, when there is a disagreement between Jesus and John the Baptist about whether there would be fire or redemption, Jesus corrects John, saying in Luke 7:23, “Blessed is he who is not offended in me.” In other words, John’s prophesy is only fulfilled halfway by Jesus: Jesus offers a message of redemption and forgiveness and hope. Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff by virtue of those who freely accept the path of the cross or those who do not.
Jesus did not come into this world to condemn it—we should remember that this is the line right after John 3:16, which we all know so well: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This famous line is followed by a clarification that we so often forget, John 3:17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
These words are key here: Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. John the Baptist believes that Jesus is entering the world to start tearing the world down. Jesus says later, not so fast. The message of Jesus will turn this world upside down, and it will make the crooked straight, and the rough path smooth, and open boundaries and doors where they are closed, and Jesus’ death will tear the curtain of the temple in two and shake the foundations of the earth, but Jesus’ message is one of peace, and it is a message of forgiveness, and redemption, and Jesus’ message is of salvation.
So, then, the Good News, it would seem is that while some choose violence, and hatred, and racism, and classism, and all of the ism’s that make the world bad, those who are in Christ, even those who would seem to be left behind when the blessings of this world are handed out. Jesus gathers many by the winnowing fork, but those who feel like they’re left behind, if they are in Christ they need not worry, that they will be gathered up with the rest of those who live in Christ.
The focus of John might be the fires of hell and the wrath of God waiting to annihilate those who do not comply. The message of Christ is to focus on the free choice and the salvation offered in this free choice. There is still wrath in Jesus’ message, but the wrath is brought on by those who choose to point fingers, who believe their salvation is better or more superior to someone else’s, and believe that once they are born again they have no need to keep improving or to work for the social justice demanded by the Kingdom of God. The wrath is coming to those who refuse the peace of Christ, and that wrath is in fact something they have brought upon themselves. Just as we right now are freaking out about this so-called and largely invented “fiscal cliff” that is coming that our politicians can’t speak nicely to each other about, we need to recognize that when we wage wars we can’t afford for ten years, and put two wars on a credit card, we have to eventually make minimal payments back. The wrath we are about to experience is something that was predictable, and the same people complaining loudest about it were the same folks to caused it. This is how wrath works. The Good News of Jesus is that those left behind are remembered and gathered up by the winnowing shovel.
So here we return to John the Baptist’s dirty joke. Who your parents, your grandparents, your spouses, and who your children are have no ultimate concern in the Kingdom of God that is built from the baptism of water and the Spirit. So of often baptisms become family events—next year we will likely baptize our new daughter and we’ll have family from all over come for the event. That’s all well and good, but John the Baptist is saying that the meaning of baptism is quite directly that your family, and your financial concerns and community ties based on your family, may need to be deconstructed and broken down for the coming new order that the messiah brings. Claiming Abraham or anyone else as your ancestor, whether by blood or by spirit or anything else, does not make you right with God’s graces.
And baptism should not fall into a lazy spiritual claim about what defines you as a Christian. So if being born again or being baptized gives you a sense of fulfillment that does not lead you to break the boundaries of religion and morality so commonly practiced in this world, then your baptism is not really a true baptism. If being born again makes you think that you’re spiritually better than someone else, then you’re not really born again, in fact, you are desperately in need of a second birth.
The bottom line here is that religious hypocrisy is everywhere in our society, and it is especially apparent to us the more and more Christmas is becoming secularized. It’s not enough for us to complain about how we need to “keep Christ in Christmas” as we always hear. If we really are a baptized people, and if we really are a people born again through water and the Holy Spirit, the question is how are we working for justice, and the building of the Kingdom where the last are first and the first are last? What are we doing to castrate the powers and principalities of this world of backwardness and darkness, to lift up and prioritize the poor, and the widows, and those who make peace in this world? What are we doing to ensure that those few who fall through the cracks of the system are not left behind, so that we gather them up with shovels, rather than condemning them into the fire?