First Reading Zephaniah 3:14-20
Second Reading Isaiah 12:2-6
Epistle Reading Philippians 4:4-7
Gospel Reading Luke 3:7-18
Sermon “Rejoice, you Brood of Vipers?”
I’ll admit it right up front, this sermon is for me today, you just get to listen in to me telling myself what I ought to already know but seem to have forgotten. Let’s face it, joy has been a little difficult to find this past year. The Pandemic has caused behaviors in us and those around us that are disappointing to say the least. When the Corona virus first appeared on the scene, it was largely a condition that we all had to deal with together. There was a sense of solidarity that gave us strength to hopefully get through it. The problems started showing up pretty quick though as predictably human nature started to show its uglier faces. Part of this is simple frustration in that there never seems to be an end to it. For almost two years now we have been in it, but we can never seem to get through it.
So what do I see? Many people tired of it all and choosing to ignore it, putting themselves and those around them at risk. Others rage against anything that calls on them to take on any extra burden, of any kind, for the public good. For them, their individual freedom is the highest good. A case in point is the ugly increase in assaults against airline flight attendants – 5500 this year alone, 3900 of them mask related. Others have become withdrawn and depressed. Even as we sit here this morning, we are yet again facing increasing infection levels, with yet another new variant that appears to be able to reinfect those who had some protective immunity by either fighting off the virus or by being vaccinated. We are all tired, we are all frustrated, some of us are even getting mean. And now, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, I am supposed to talk about joy. It’s enough to make me want to cry out Bah Humbug! But then again, scripture reminds me that God is with us, particularly in difficult times. The sacred texts urge us to recover a deep sense of belonging and joy that is not dependent on current circumstances.
Do you recall the story from Acts when Paul and Silas were assaulted by a mob in the Greek city of Philippi? They were arrested, beaten and thrown into prison, simply because they had healed a demon possessed slave girl and her owners were mad they could no longer profit from her demonic fortune telling? Those two are a wonderful illustration of unshakable joy. There there were, wounded and shackled in prison, with every right to be disillusioned. Yet, there they sat, praying, singing hymns and witnessing to the other prisoners at midnight! Paul would later write to the church he founded in Philippi, these words: (Philippians 4:12-13 NIV) “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
That is the ultimate source of true joy. We are not talking about another dubious self help technique; We are remembering who has claimed us with an unbreakable, steadfast love. We are remembering the precious gift we have been given though Jesus Christ. Even our Old Testament readings today, which speak so powerfully of joy are written to people in very difficult times, far, far worse than our current problems as a matter of fact. Zephaniah’s closing words of his prophesy urge God’s people to sing and shout and rejoice because the Lord has taken way their punishment. He goes on to say Zephaniah 3:17 NIV  The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Now that is a wonderful thought – God singing to us! And people singing to God in return. We could spend all morning on just that marvelous image of Joy and Love.
Isaiah echoes a similar thought also urging us to sing and shout for pure Joy and thanksgiving. He boldly begins with: Isaiah 12:2 NIV  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense ; he has become my salvation. ” and then urges the people saying Isaiah 12:4-6 NIV  In that day you will say: “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.  Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.  Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
In the company of these wonderful, beautiful words, comes Paul’s urging us to rejoice in the Lord always. As we have already mentioned with Paul, “always” includes a lot of times when we wouldn’t normally think of rejoicing. His secret is exactly as he says: (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps I should just does the sermon right there and we can all go home with a warm fuzzy glow, but then that Pesky John the Baptist is still there calling out to us words that just don’t seem to fit: (Luke 3:7 NIV) “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? I confess to you that I wanted to change the Gospel reading from the common lectionary passage because I really didn’t want to deal with it, but then I looked again at the closing verse of the passage: Luke 3:18 NIV
 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. It seems that Luke is certain that there is good news here – a reason to rejoice, so perhaps we had better take a look after all. It’s quite a distance from fleeing coming wrath to good news resulting in rejoicing. But it is precisely the path that is at the core of our faith. That path bridges the chasm between sin and salvation.
Let’s look carefully at John’s message, preserved for us by the Spirit through the pen of Luke. The first word we deal with is repentance. That was the core of John’s ministry – he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin” as we heard last week through the prophesy of his father Zechariah – Luke 1:76-79 NIV
 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,  to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,  because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven  to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” The path of Peace with God begins with repentance. Which means to turn towards God and away from our own selfish goals. If I am lost on a journey, It is insufficient for me to say – “this looks like the wrong road”, to be very sad about it, but continue right on down it. It is important to determine where the right road is and to turn around and get back there. That was John’s message.
Here is where we come to the responsibility part of the message. We received grace upon grace from God. Freely. BUT it comes with a call on our lives. We have been saved but we are no longer just our old selves, we are being made new. We see that in the next thing we hear from John – The necessity of “producing fruit in keeping with repentance”. Now, before he starts answering questions about exactly what that might mean for different folks, he first has a caution for his audience that we need to hear too. John says: “don’t even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
Now what’s that all about? Let’s go back to our journey analogy – what if your poor lost pastor said to himself “Well, I was a Boy scout and am a member of AAA, so I will be just fine.” It doesn’t mean I’m any less lost, only that I’m just not willing to admit it.
It was that way in John’s time. The people in that crowd where Israelites – the very people of God, Children of Abraham. But John was forcefully reminding them that heritage was insufficient to lead them to God. Their own history should have taught them that already. So many times that the prophets had to call them back and God had to get their attention – sometimes in painful, sorrowful ways. It is that way in our time too. People today say effectively the same thing. I’m from a good family, or I am a good, moral person, or I go to church once in a while. The path that leads back to God is on His terms, not ours.
John warns ominously, just like most all the prophets before him that “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” And later in the passage “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Now those are frightening images for some, but they should not be for us. The object is to purify and save the wheat, not to burn chafe. They do sadly describe the fate of those people that will not serve God; Those who are determined to go their own way.
When the people heard these words, they understandably asked – “What should we do then?” In other words, what does fruit in keeping with repentance look like? So John gives 3 concrete examples to illustrate what kind of fruit he was talking about.
The first was for the common folk – simple generosity. If you have extra, share it with those who have none. Common things: food and clothing – essential things.
Even the much despised tax collectors asked what they should do. By the way, do you know why they were so hated? It was because after the Romans put those jobs up for bid, then whatever they collected in excess of what the Romans required was their’s to keep! Let’s be glad the IRS doesn’t work that way. John told them to collect only the minimum required. Similarly for the Soldiers. They were to be content with their pay and not to abuse the people or extort money and intimidate them as was common.
Social responsibility and care for others are examples of what this fruit of repentance looks and acts like. These things should be the results of repentance – the result of a path heading back towards God.
John’s message concludes with him answering their questions about whether or not he was the Messiah – God’s anointed one that the prophets had promised so many times. John told them that he was not – but that He was coming soon. John’s baptism was with water as a sign of Repentance and forgiveness of sins. The one who was coming was to be much greater. Not just a prophet, but one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Luke would have us think all the way forward to the Day of Pentecost here, with the Coming of the Holy Spirit in power and the tongues of Fire on the Apostles heads – divine fire as a sign of God’s presence. You see not only were they supposed to turn to God – God was coming to them!
This is Good news! Isaiah proclaimed it when he said “Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you. ” God has provided Salvation for us. God makes it possible for us to be united with him. Those who turn to him are graciously in-dwelt by his Spirit. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what we prepare our hearts for afresh this Advent season – He is Coming – Emmanuel – God with us.
John’s message is for us too – In order for us to truly rejoice and appreciate the wonders of God’s love and grace, it is necessary to remember that the reason we rejoice so much at the coming of our Savior is that we need one so very much. Without him, we are lost. With Him, we joyfully draw water from the well of Salvation which is Jesus Christ our Lord. We are claimed and loved by the One who has made heaven and earth – Now that is something to rejoice about.