For a long time, my recording and podcasting system worked flawlessly, but lately, I've had a lot of trouble with it. I found a new place to post the recordings and now the app on my iPad has suddenly stopped recording. I'll have a new app up and running by next Sunday to get recordings going again. In the meantime, here is the text of this week's sermon.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!p Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?q 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’r For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 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.”s
10 “What should we do then?”t the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”u
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized.v “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,”w he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falselyx—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if Johny might possibly be the Messiah.z 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you withb water.a But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you withc the Holy Spirit and fire.b 17 His winnowing forkc 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.”d 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. 
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
I just love this time of year. Everyone is talking about peace and love and kindness. There’s this sort of warm fuzziness around everything. It’s just cuddly and nice. Unless you happen to be talking to John the Baptist. John the Baptist is not fuzzy and nice. “You BROOD OF VIPERS!” he yells at the crowd! The weird thing is that this crowd was, presumably, not made up of Pharisees or zealots or other radicals. They weren’t the typical group of folks who John and Jesus tended to get wound up about.
John sensed something about these people, though. They didn’t really know what repentance meant. They seemed to know they needed it. They seemed to know that they were in a scary place without this baptism that John offered, but they didn’t really get what repentance was. “Produce fruit.” John tells them. “put your money where your mouth is.” Or “Walk that walk, don’t just talk the talk.” Without the actions of giving, of sacrifice, of consideration of the needs of others, their repentance was just a way of running from the things that frightened them – namely, the Roman empire and hell itself.
You can pray like crazy, you can go to worship regularly, but true repentance shows itself by kindness, generosity, good stewardship. . . giving more. Not just buying more junk for loved ones on holidays, but really giving back to the community by caring for the downtrodden. True repentance changes the way a person handles their money and physical assets. It changes how a person conducts themself in regards to public service and community involvement. And it changes how they give to their worshipping community.
Listen, John says, you are the children of Abraham, but you can’t rely on the faithfulness of your ancestors for your own repentance and security of future. They have spent centuries relying on their status as the chosen children of God and now John rips that carpet of safety out from under them. God doesn’t need them. If God wanted it, the stones would rise up and become the children of God, leaving the unrepentant people alone and without God – tossed in the fire.
How incredible then, that God doesn’t do that. We are offered repentance: the real repentance that John is talking about. It’s a repentance that is marked by community renewal and revival and by acts of unbelievable kindness and hospitality. If you have two shirts or coats or pairs of shoes and you come across someone who has no shirt or coat or pair of shoes. . . give them one. If you have a hearty meal and another person has no food, share that meal with them. Be fair in all your business transactions and deal with everyone holding yourself to the highest standards of ethics and fairness. Don’t extort or weasel money from other people and don’t bully anyone. Don’t accuse people falsely of evil deeds or even intentions.
This sounds a bit like John is just giving an ethics lecture at first, but what he’s doing is connecting full transformation – including transformation of ones ethics and values – to true repentance. True repentance is marked by such vibrant gratitude for the incredible grace given to us by God that we turn around and do wild, incredible, wonderful things for others. Our whole way of being changes – not just our spiritual way of being or our religious practice.
Life often looks like a tackle box or a tool box. You open it up and there are little compartments for each part of life. You have the “ethics” compartment where you store things like how you do business with others. You have the “religious” compartment that stores your prayer time and beliefs about God. You have the “physical” compartment that stores how you treat your body and the “mental” compartment where you put school or work or other learning. Et Cetera. We get to church on Sunday and take out the things from the “religious” compartment, then put them back in when we leave. And then we pull out the tools from the next compartment.
The people in this crowd in Luke 3 had out the tools from the “religious” compartment, but hadn’t cleaned out the old rusty tools in their “ethics” or “stewardship” compartments for quite some time. The problem with storing the pieces of your life in a tool box is that we forget how much they are all woven together. Instead of seeing life like a bunch of pieces, let’s look at it like a tapestry or a cross-stitch project.
I keep my embroidery thread in a chest of little tiny drawers. It’s all ordered by color – big shock, I know. But until I take it out, it’s just a box of little drawers with a bunch of different pieces in it. It’s not until I take them out and stitch them together into a picture that they become something new. And that’s repentance.
We can’t separate our lives into little tiny compartments full of different things. That’s just not how it works. Our lives aren’t toolkits, they are tapestries. All the different aspects of who we are and what we do are intricately woven together into a picture of you. To put it concisely: we cannot separate our spirituality from our ethics or our stewardship or our values, or any other part of our lives. We can’t just walk out this door at noon and put back the “church” piece into it’s little “God” compartment and move on to something else.
Specifically in this passage, John addresses ethics of giving. When we have more than we need, sharing with those who have less than they need – be that another person, our church community, those we do business with, whomever we come across that is in need. In this season of giving, it is important to consider how our faith changes the way we see giving. Is it something we do grudgingly out of a sense of obligation when the holidays roll around or is it something we do joyfully as a response to what God has done? Is it something we hem and haw about for a while or is it an instinctive sharing of the excess with those who don’t have enough?
“Give more” doesn’t mean buy more things for people who already have too many things. Perhaps it looks like making a donation to a person’s favorite charity on their behalf. Maybe it looks like spending a holiday afternoon serving food to the homeless and hungry. Maybe it’s paying someone’s light bill for them so their electricity isn’t shut off or filling an empty fridge with food. Maybe it’s sitting with someone who nobody else will sit with and listen to.
Once upon a time, there was a couple traveling in a foreign land. They didn’t speak more than a half dozen words of the local language and neither of them had ever been there before. They didn’t know anyone in the whole country and they were by far in the religious and ethnic minority there.
When they arrived at the airport in a tiny town in the middle of the country, they waited at the luggage carousel for their suitcases to pop onto the belt. Many suitcases came and went, but theirs were nowhere to be found. They were in the middle of nowhere in a place they didn’t speak the language and all they had was their id, their money, and the clothes on their backs.
They were clearly frightened and very anxious. Trying to calm them down, one of the security guards shouted loudly to see if anyone could translate. After a few moments of the crowd looking around at one another and shrugging, a young man stepped forward and said, “I can translate for them.” He led them through the process of filing the claim about their luggage and gave them all the paperwork, telling them to give it to the desk at the hotel and they could help them sort it out. The couple teared up as they thanked the young man and shook his hand gratefully. He smiled and told them he was happy to give them his time.
When the couple got to their hotel, tired and hungry, and late in the evening, they did as they were instructed and the hotel staff was indeed able to help them figure out when and where they could be reunited with their luggage. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until the next day. When they asked about finding something to eat, he informed them that at this time in the evening in this small town, all the shops and restaurants were closed. It was a holiday and most of the town was home eating with their families. Deflated and hungry, they sighed heavily – defeated.
“Wait wait!” Exclaimed a second man behind the desk. “I know a place! I’m going now! Come with me!” Confused, the couple shrugged and followed him. They were so tired and hungry, they were willing to try anything. He led them to a closed restaurant and in through a side door. They climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace of the restaurant where the family who ran the restaurant were sitting down to share their holiday feast together. They gladly offered seats at the table for the strange foreigners and served them a four-star, multiple course meal. “Are you sure?” The couple managed to ask, with the help of their dictionary. “Of course!” they were told. “We have plenty and you are hungry.”
So that night, Tim and I made a whole family of new friends in the middle of nowhere in Turkey. We broke the Ramadan fast by feasting with a kind Muslim family who took us in when we were tired, anxious, afraid, and hungry. We will never forget the kindness of that family and of the young man, Mustafa, at the airport. We were, the next morning, united with our luggage and moved on through our trip. But that night on that rooftop, we learned a humbling lesson about what true giving and hospitality look like. We were shown what it looks like to share with those who are hungry. We were shaken out of our comfortable American mode of always having enough and in that place of vulnerability, we saw God moving in a very surprising place – a Ramadan feast.
In retrospect, I wish we’d kept in touch – gotten some contact info to email Mustafa and the rooftop restaurant family. I would like to thank them for their unhesitant generosity. I would like to ask them if they need anything now in the midst of a flood of refugees fleeing Syria into Turkey. I would love to tell them we’re still praying for them and thanking God for them – these kind people who took in a couple of weird Christians on their holy day. But sometimes, we are called to give to people we’ll never see or hear from again for the sheer joy that comes from loving God’s creations. Sometimes, giving is totally unplanned – someone just literally showing up on your doorstep with nowhere else safe to go or nowhere else to find food or shelter or warmth. And that’s the most powerful sort of giving. That’s the kind of fruit that John is talking about in Luke 3.
It is not just a matter of ethics, it is a matter of repentance. It is a matter of living in the grace that is given to us in Jesus Christ. We don’t just give a little sometimes because that’s what makes us nice people. We don’t just come to church and then go outside church totally unchanged by what happened here. We come to church and we repent and we walk out someone different than the person who walked in. Someone who sees someone in the street and doesn’t just give them diner, but gives them dessert too. Someone who doesn’t just toss a little change in the offering plate, but who truly invests in the future of their community. Someone who doesn’t just pray for the families who don’t have much but who buys gifts for them. We become more and more like Christ. We “put the Christ back in Christmas” by putting the Christ back into every part of our lives and then put ourselves into Christmas.
p Mt 12:34; 23:33
q See Ro 1:18
r Isa 51:2; Lk 19:9; Jn 8:33, 39; Ac 13:26; Ro 4:1, 11, 12, 16, 17; 9:7, 8; Gal 3:7
s See Mt 3:10
t ver 12, 14; Ac 2:37; 16:30
u Isa 58:7; Eze 18:7
v Lk 7:29
w Lk 19:8
x Ex 23:1; Lev 19:11
y See Mt 3:1
z Jn 1:19, 20; Ac 13:25
b Or in
a ver 3; See Mk 1:4
c Or in
b Jn 1:26, 33; Ac 1:5; 2:3; 11:16; 19:4
c Isa 30:24
d Mt 13:30; See 25:41
 The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 3:7–18). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.