7John said 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “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. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The Good News of John the “Soup-nazi” Baptist Luke 3:7-8, Advent Three, Dec 16, 2018
Although not what you might call a fanatic of the sitcom Seinfeld, I watched it enough to know about an episode aired in 1995 based on an actual soup establishment that Jerry had attended in New York called “The Original Soupman” owned and operated by a man named Ali (Al) Yeganeh. Al’s claim to fame in his restaurant was to be outspoken and even obnoxious to his customers (particularly to the ones he didn’t like), and if you got on his bad side, chances are you wouldn’t get served. After the show the restaurant was franchised and expanded throughout the United States and Canada. Although It seems counterintuitive to most, its success centered on its staff calling out its customers (that is until its Chief Financial Officer was indicted for tax evasion and the chain went bankrupt in 2017).
Although the theme for the third week of Advent is ‘’joy”, that theme may not be self-evident in the gospel reading for today. Just imagine coming to a church for the very first time, and as you are expecting a nice warm friendly greeting from the pastor as he shouts out, “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”. If you were brave enough to do so, I expect you might slowly make your way to the closest exit, and when the fire-and-brimstone pastor wasn’t looking…run as fast as you could vowing never to return. Few people I know like to be referred to as a “brood of vipers” by either by a pastor, or anyone else for that matter.
For those with a little more “chutzpah”, they might want to confront this soup-nazi-style- pastor with something like “don’t you know who you are speaking to”, only to be preempted with something like, “and don’t try and tell me about your credentials…God could turn these rocks into more credentialed people than you”. If such a pastor did exist, chances are the call committee would be meeting shortly after his first sermon to begin looking for another.
As unusual as these comments might sound to us, this is exactly what John the Baptizer says to the crowd coming to him for a baptism of repentance. In Matthew’s gospel he identifies these bunch of snakes as the people everybody loves to hate, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, “7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume 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.”. Luke however records this message as being directed simply to the “crowds of people”, so no one gets “let off the hook”.
Contrary to what one might expect, they neither run in terror, nor attempt to put him in his place, but rather take this blow and await for the next; “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.” From the initial two phrases that begin this passage, John the Baptist makes the Seinfeld soup-nazi look like “Mr. Rogers”.
There are at least some in this crowd that neither shirk away in shame, nor try and give a piece of their mind, but rather humbly ask, “what then should we do to bear fruits of righteousness?” John wastes no time in giving an answer by stating that everyone should share from their abundance (in this particular example abundance means having more than one coat and a little extra food).
Some specific groups stepped forward wondering if there was a particular word for tax collectors and soldiers (possible the two most despised groups in all Judea). The directives for the taxman was to simply take the taxes allotted and not one penny more. John told the soldiers not to be bullies, and to
be content with their wages (it’s rather doubtful that John would have ever become much of a union leader with advice like this).
Apparently John spoke with such authority that they wondered if he himself might the long-awaited Messiah. John responds with a resounding “absolutely not”, but makes reference to the one who is coming to baptize with both with the Holy Spirit and fire. If you were here last Sunday you would have heard a similar sentiment from the prophet Malachi who warned of a similar refiner’s fire. Added to this we get an additional metaphor of Jesus with his winnowing fork in hand separating the wheat from the chaff. The wheat’s fate is to go to the bin for safe storage, the chaff’s destiny is not the least bit affirming as it is destined to the “unquenchable fire”. The text ends with the little-expected phrase, “18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
I’m not sure about you, but at first read this doesn’t sound exactly like “good” or “joyful” news to me. What in the world does John mean by calling the crowd a bunch of snakes, and then that Jesus has both and ax and winnowing fork in hand ready to bring judgement? If this is “good news”, I’m not sure I want to hear the “bad news”.
Let me tell you a story of how cutting and burning can truly be considered “good news”. Three years at the age of 58 I had a total hip replacement surgery. As near as I can remember I think I broke that hip when I was around 13 years old in a riding accident. Although I could still get around, I lost much of my range of motion after that accident, and always had a degree of pain. Over the years the pain increased and mobility decreased to the point where it was almost unbearable. Over the years I sought relief through chiropractors, and massage therapy, and acupuncture, but to little avail. It wasn’t until an x-ray revealed the magnitude of the problem, and then an appropriate course of action was taken…cut away the old and replace with the new. Within a couple of months the pain was finally gone, and by May of the following year I was walking and hiking and biking in ways I could never have imagined prior to that surgery.
Sin is much like that broken, arthritic hip. You can try and mask the negative effects all you want, but they never go away. What’s needed is an axe (it was a saw they used, and although I didn’t feel it, it was kind of weird hearing him saw and pound away on those bones). That saw was pure gospel to me, and I can’t thank God and my surgeon enough for that good news (although my surgeon did remind me a bit of Seinfeld’s soup nazi).
Sin separates us from God, each other, and from the people God created us to be. Excusing, blaming, and rationalizing won’t help in the slightest. When it comes to sin, we desperately need the axe and the fire.
The soup would have to be pretty tasty for me in order to wait in line, only to be berated by the chef once I put my order in, but anyone who points out sin in my life, no matter what their personality, is a true friend indeed, and a true proclaimer of the gospel. Amen