The Gospel lesson tells this story from Luke’s text. We also have it in Matthew, but today we’re looking at Luke.
So, the people went to the Jordan to hear from John, the Baptizer. And when they arrived, this is what they heard:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.”
Now, this is different from Matthew. In Matthew, John is speaking especially to the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke, John is speaking to everyone.
In either case, it seems a very familiar sermon. It’s an expanded version of what we’ve seen so often by the roadside: a cross-shaped sign emblazoned with, “Get Right With God!”
And what were they getting right for?
"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And avoiding the fire seems to have been on the minds of those who heard John. “What do we do?” they asked.
“If you have two coats, share!” said John.
If you have more than enough to eat, share!,” said John.
“If you have a job that gives room for theft, fraud or extortion,
don’t!” said John.
This is also different from Matthew. Matthew just left his listeners hanging. Luke at least gave them something to do.
Again, this seems a very familiar sermon. How many of us have experienced sermons with just this point: either you live right, or it’s fire!
I have to imagine it was also familiar to most of John’s congregation. We sometimes speak of John as the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, largely in recognition that he proclaims the Lord’s intention of the New Covenant. That’s true; and it’s also true that among the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures this was a well known proclamation. The Jews in the congregation would have known that well. And even the soldiers would have had some idea. In the Roman Empire there were plenty of ethical teachers to remind folks that it’s wrong to steal or extort. They might have had different ideas of what the consequences would be, but they agreed that there were consequences for doing wrong. Everybody in the crowd would have had some opportunity to look forward to those consequences, and to look back at what they’d heard, what they’d learned, so as to avoid the fire.
And what a relief in what they heard! It was all familiar! There was something they could do! They could be in control!
But, then, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If it’s just about right behavior, then we’re in control. Oh, there’s lip service to God being in control. After all, it’s God that has the fire and knows how to use it. But, really, God’s not in control. We are! And, oh, how reassuring that is!
It’s how we are, really. There’s plenty of research that human beings are hardwired to fear losing in the present more than to hope for the future. That makes it really reassuring when we can look back to find the tactics to move forward. Indeed, it can lead us to the false conclusion that we can use the past to shape a future that doesn’t have to change. We’re in control, and what we see looking forward will look as familiar as the present.
But, what if we’re not in control? What if the future is being shaped in ways we don’t expect? What if God is in control, and not only in control, but free to do new, unexpected things?
It’s possible, you know. If God really is in control and we aren’t, doesn’t that mean we can’t just look back to see forward?
Maybe, it means looking back to see when God has not been predictable. Maybe it means looking back to see God call, not just for a justice we can control, but for a hope that is beyond our shaping.
That theme is in the prophets, too. That’s what we see in the passage today from Isaiah. You can find some interesting parallels between Isaiah’s day and John’s. The province of Judea was under Roman domination. In Isaiah’s time, the nation of Judah was threatened by the large, powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire. And, while at the time of our passage Judah hadn’t fallen, Judah’s neighbors had or soon would. The Assyrians in their time were just as infamous as the Romans would be for imposing their laws and culture on conquered nations. Indeed, they were, if anything, worse, tearing conquered peoples from their homelands and settling them in the midst of strangers.
In the face of this, the prophets in Isaiah certainly call for righteous behavior, but they also call for trust: trust that God is in control, and trust that God can bring about a future that’s not just another round of the past we already know.
And so we have the hymn from Isaiah in today’s lessons.
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.
Now, this is a very different proclamation, isn’t it! This is not about us getting right with God to escape the fire. This is about God making things right, and our joy in it. This is not about us doing what we’ve always done, hoping to get something no worse than we always got. This is about God being free to do new things, unexpected things, which we will recognize in faith and for which we will give thanks.
There is a turn this Third Sunday of Advent. Since August our lessons have, one way or another, spoken to the coming Reign of God. That peaked on the last Sunday of the Church year when the lessons reflected ideas of what the complete presence of God’s reign might look like; but even in the first Sundays of Advent, we have still been hearing about the promise of God’s reign. If we look back at how earthly empires appear, like John’s congregation we might expect God’s reign to look like any other conquering force.
If, on the other hand, we look back to see how God has surprised us, and how God has called for faith in hope, and not simply obedience in fear of fire, we might glimpse a different future, one that we don’t control but that offers so much promise; one where we live right, not to avoid the fire, but to participate in God’s grace.
We might look forward, then, and recognize it when God does unexpected things - like, providing children to a woman long past her time and to a man near dead; or leading a people to freedom through the depths of the sea; or proclaiming promise in the midst of a frightened people; or sending an angel to talk to a young girl; or starting the restoration of the universe in a village shed.