Second Sunday in Advent
[3:1] In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,  during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
 And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?"  And he answered them, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise."  Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?"  And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do."  Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." Luke 3:1-14 (ESV)
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
So John the Baptizer addresses the crowds that came out to be baptized by him. He had a fierce ministry. He preached law unvarnished. He warned of impending wrath. He preached repentance. There was very little gospel in what he preached, until he saw the lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. His was to prepare the way for Jesus, as the law prepares the way for the Gospel. So he preached law. You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. When the agitated people began asking him what they should do, he instructed them in how they should live. First was to give your extra clothes to those who had none. Provide for those less fortunate. Perhaps one could say love your neighbor as yourself. Those marginalized by society tax collectors and soldiers he instructed to do an honest job. Of course these were most probably the stones of whom John said God could raise up children for Abraham. John the Baptizer realized that being a child of Abraham was not a matter of birth or nationality, but of repentance and faith in the God who promised Abraham would be a blessing to all nations.
The Jews of his days referred to gentiles in an unflattering manner as stones. The idea was that they did not know the torah, the wisdom of God, they were as dumb as a box of rocks, stupid as stones. While they, the chosen people, were children of Abraham, they did not need repentance, they were righteous by virtue of their birth, and by the life the torah had taught them to live. The pharisaical idea of works righteousness infected the culture like gangrene. Even the Jews who did not live by the rules of the Pharisees, bought into their ideas. Many people realize they cannot live up to ideal. They give up trying, but live in despair, not knowing grace. The law is popular with man. Tell us what to do. And even when they can’t do it, they believe it is what they are supposed to do.
I wonder how different we are? John preaches to us today, a brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come! Oh, and there is wrath to come! I don’t know who we need to warn us of this. Fear is all pervasive, fear of death, fear of hell. We know death is not natural. We hate it. We intuitively know that every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. And it haunts us, because just as an apple tree cannot change it’s fruit to that of a fig, we see ourselves helpless to bear any fruit other than that which we have born all along. But do we try!
This is why it is so shocking, John’s advice to the crowds. It is almost as if he says nothing more than go on with what you were doing! Look out there in the world. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to be charitable. I dare say most donations to the salvation army are given by heathens. The tax collectors are not told to stop collecting the unpopular taxes for Caesar, but to stop collecting more than appropriate and lining their pockets. The Soldiers are not told to lay down their swords and join a monastic community, but to stop extorting money. It must have seemed blasphemous, John legitimizing the occupation, and not condemning these stones. Soldiers kill for a living. How can you do that and be saved? That must have been the thought of the people. Indeed it was probably the thought of the soldiers. Being in the military myself, I often marveled at how often I ran across those who thought that what they did, protecting the innocent, standing in harms way, putting their own life on the line for their country, stepping in to halt aggression against our allies, was essentially an immoral thing to do. Didn’t Jesus preach to “turn the other cheek”? Pacifists think Jesus is on their side. But the direction to accept personal injury and insult and forgive on His behalf, was never meant to be an excuse for the cowardly pacifism which would stand by and let evil run unchecked in this world as long as we are not the ones being oppressed, raped, and pillaged. Loving your neighbor requires you to stand up for him or her, to help and protect them, sometimes to put yourself in danger as the Good Samaritan did, not to simply shrug your shoulders as the Priest and Pharisee thinking well it’s not my problem. But John that harsh preacher of the law, sees nothing essentially immoral with being a soldier or a tax collector. In effect he sees doing these things honestly as being essentially good works, fruits in keeping with repentance!
So what is the difference? What changes? Undoubtedly the people thought the fruits of repentance, as so many today think, would be religious in nature. Perhaps more along the lines of that two tunics thing. Perhaps a pilgrimage, or a forsaking of the evil world and retreating to an Amish community. Dedicating your life to church work, or charity. Promising to lead a life of obedience and self sacrifice. More law. And yet there is no new law here in what John the Baptizer preaches. There is essentially carry on with what you are doing, but repent, be baptized.
The difference is in the forgiveness of sins. Without forgiveness there is not fruit in keeping with repentance. But with forgiveness there is life, and good fruit. John knows that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. He baptizes people with a baptism of repentance to the forgiveness of sins. The preposition here is eis, into, towards, to. It was a preparatory baptism, as was his preaching. It pointed towards something to come. It was to prepare the way for Christ. In effect this baptism that John preached would be a baptism that prepared Christ for His mission in the world, giving him occasion to fulfill all righteousness, by identifying with sinners and repenting on their behalf, so that with the baptism with which he had to be baptized, his death and resurrection, our sins would be forgiven and all flesh, even the flesh of stones, dumb as a box of rocks, would see salvation and become children of Abraham, inheritors of the faith.
John prepared the way for Jesus, his law prepared the way for Christ’s gospel so that all flesh would see the salvation of God. So his baptism of repentance prepared the people for the last days in which the spirit of God would be poured out onto all flesh in Christ’s baptism. For baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit is poured out onto our flesh, our Old Adam is slain, we are buried with Christ and raised again to new life, new life that bears good fruit in keeping with repentance when we do the things God has given us to do, when soldiers soldier, when mothers mother, fathers father, employers employ, workers work, and all do an honest job, daily repenting of their sin. But daily rising from their beds to live a new life in Christ, a life forgiven, a life sanctified, a life regenerated by the work of the Spirit in Christian Baptism.