Summary: The "Good" of this news!
This passage starts with judgment, and it ends with good news. I hate to tell you this – it’s not very Christmas-sy, but good news will always have to have judgment in it. If there is no judgment in the story anywhere, then there is nothing, “good” about it. It is just news. And so as we approach Christmas, as we start the church year again in advent, it would be wrong not to begin at the beginning. Without judgment, there is no purpose for God to become a man. Without guilt and sin and unrighteousness, what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago just becomes a nice little story instead of the good news of the salvation of our souls. So, we’ll do what has come to just not seem right at this time of year, and we’ll start where it all should begin in our own hearts: listening to someone accuse us of improper motives and actions. Accuse us of sin.
Often, we come to church at Christmastime just like the crowd of all sorts of people came out to John the Baptist at the Jordan to get baptized. It’s the right thing to do. I may be inspired and feel good after it all. At worst, I’m bored for an hour, but God and some people who want me here are glad I came. Those people going out to get baptized by John, it appears that at least some of them were doing it as insurance so that they could go on with whatever they were doing in their lives. I’m afraid too many people go to church so that they can go on doing whatever they are doing in their lives and feel good about it. It is as if church or baptism or Christmas Carols would make everything else all right.
“You brood of vipers”, …”You crowd of slithering snakes,” say John the Baptist. That is not what this is about at all. You are not escaping judgment by playing around with religion. You are inviting it. You’re closer to it than you ever thought!
Leith Anderson tells a story about being misguided in your understanding of what God wants.
I once read a story about a bicycle race in India. The object of the race was to go the shortest distance possible within a specified time. At the start of the race, everyone cued up at the line, and when the gun sounded all the bicycles, as best they could, stayed put. Racers were disqualified if they tipped over or one of their feet touched the ground. And so they would inch forward just enough to keep the bike balanced. When the time was up and another gun sounded, the person who had gone the farthest was the loser and the person closest to the starting line was the winner.
Imagine getting into that race and not understanding how the race works. When the race starts, you pedal as hard and fast as you possibly can. You’re out of breath. You’re sweating. You’re delighted because the other racers are back there at the starting line. You’re going to break the record. You think, This is fantastic. Don’t let up. Push harder and faster and longer and stronger.
At last you hear the gun that ends the race, and you are delighted because you are unquestionably the winner. Except you are unquestionably the loser because you misunderstood how the race is run. (Citation: Leith Anderson, author and pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota; from sermon "The Height of Humility" (9-12-99).
Christmas is coming, and we are in danger of misunderstanding how this all works. We celebrate the incarnation – God becomes a man, a helpless child in the manger. But too often, it is just a nice story we spend time remembering for warm fuzzy purposes. I’ve mentioned an old line from an early contemporary Christian song by Larry Norman before: “Santa Claus is coming and the kids are getting greedy. It’s Christmas time.” Too often, even at Christmas, we have the rules all wrong. That just makes things worse than if we did nothing at all.
So, after John starts off by telling the crowd they are a bunch of snakes, and that they have it all wrong, they then ask him the inevitable question: “So what then is right?” “If this religion stuff isn’t going to help us, what will?”
I had a professor who said that the climactic passage of the Old Testament, of the rules of this life-game that God has given us, is Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, o man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
It is exactly the picture John the Baptist gives. Do what you are supposed to do. That is the fruit of repentance, of a life as God wants it to be. He begins with the simplest thing for everyone. I spend a good deal of time trying to teach my three year old daughter to share with her little brother. Share your coats, share your tunics. Share. It is a reflection of the great commandment: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Then the questions get more specific. Tax collector, be honest. Soldier, be content.