Sermon delivered December 12, 2021 by Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Luke’s gospel moves along at a pretty good clip straight out of the gates. We have the birth stories for John the Baptist and for Jesus. Twelve-year-old Jesus is found debating the religious scholars of the day in the Temple all the while his parents were frantically looking for him all over the city. Now some twenty years have passed in Storytime when we pick back up with John in Luke 3. Turn in your Bible to Luke 3:7-18. Listen for the Word of the Lord!
7 John 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? 8 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. 9 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.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers 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.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16 John 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 withthe Holy Spirit and fire. 17 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Now if John was a member of Toastmasters learning how to give a speech, he might be told the best way to get a crowd to turn on you in a hurry is to open up by calling them an epithet. Think about it: How would you feel if I walked up here and said, “Good morning saints, good morning sinners…You brood of vipers!”? Interestingly, John’s audience received his words in the spirit in which they were given. John in the form of one of the Old Testament prophets was not just addressing a specific person for criticism but his remarks are delivered to the whole Jewish community that was coming to him. Like the prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Amos, and the others, Luke paints John as the prophet who announces there needs to be a change in the larger Jewish community or they will once again be taken into exile and God will raise up a new generation of followers. This is what all the talk is about of God raising up children of Abraham from the very stones on the ground. Like the Jewish prophets before him, John was declaring, “There’s a change a coming and you need to get back right with God. You need to reclaim and live into your Jewish Identity!”
Luke’s story about John is different from the other gospel writers in that they focus primarily on John’s water baptism but here at the beginning of Luke, the emphasis is more on the content of John’s message and preaching which is for the community to begin bearing fruits worthy of repentance; in other words, start living like the children of Israel are supposed to live!
As you listened to the scripture, did you hear the brood of vipers’ response to John? They didn’t push back against his description of them. No, with a staccato rhythm, one after the other asks John, “What then should we do?”
His first answer is to the general crowds of the larger Jewish community. John declares that a fruit that displays a true turning back to God deals with justice. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone that has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” This was not a first-century call for socialism as we think of it today; John’s call was a reminder to the community that as a chosen people of God, they have a moral obligation to take care of each other. He’s not asking them to give up everything they have to show fruits worthy of repentance; he is simply saying to share with others in the community so they can have the basics, too. If you have two coats, well this is south Florida and so give one to a person that doesn’t have a coat. If you have plenty of food to eat, then share with those who are hungry and are food insecure. It’s a moral crime to throw out food when others have to dig in garbage cans to eat.
The much-maligned tax collectors that no one cared for asked, “Then what should we do?” John replies, “Collect no more than what is prescribed for you.” You see, tax collectors in those days were contracted out by the political officials to gather revenue for “the state.” The problem was, it’s what we would call an unregulated business. If you were a tax collector in a certain area or were responsible to collect taxes for a certain cause, you would pre-pay the taxes for the people in your area and then you would go out and have people pay you back for that service. So, imagine the Broward County tax assessor comes in and says, “I just paid $3 million for new sewage lines so now I demand $6 million in taxes from you.” You and I would push back and say, “Hey, we will pay for the sewers that cost $3 million and that’s it!” The tax collector would then reply to you and me, “Well, life is full of these little hardships, and you owe me $6 million. If not, you’re going to jail.” Back in John’s day, the tax assessor, or collector, could levy any charge they wanted from you. There was nothing fair about the process at all. John did not say, “Quit your tax revenue collectors’ job; no, he simply said to just practice ethics as you do business. Quit shaking people down for money.”
It’s then a third group, a group of soldiers, approach John and say, “What should we do?” John replies, “Do not extort money from anyone with threats or false accusation, be content with your wages.” These men were not the Roman legions we often read about in scripture; rather, these were most likely Jewish citizens who were hired as a local peacekeeping force for the local leaders. Think first century police force. Unfortunately, these forces would act like mob bosses and would threaten citizens or extort money for “their protection.” The common person on the street was mistrustful of them at best, scared of them at worse. John simply tells them to do their appointed job and be content with what you are owed and paid.
Share. Be fair. Be content. That’s it. It’s pretty basic, isn’t it? It almost sounds like something our kids in our Happyland Preschool are taught. They are taught to share, be fair, and happy with what they have. Why do adults seem to forget those basic values the older we get? Preschoolers get it, why can’t we?
Friends, the fruits of repentance do not mean living a perfect a squeaky-clean life; the fruits of repentance do not require you or me to quit our jobs and join a monastery; the fruits of repentance do not dictate that we have to wear certain clothes. The fruits of repentance are pretty basic. Share, be fair, and be content with what we have. It’s not rocket science, folks.
This morning we baptized a little girl and as a community made promises to her, her parents, and to all the people who have been baptized at this church’s font. We have promised to help raise her in the Christian tradition. We have promised to teach her the basic doctrines and beliefs about Jesus and the Church. We have promised to pray for her and her parents. We have promised to do something on behalf of this little girl. John is demanding that you and I, if we are followers of Jesus, need to teach her to share, to be fair, and to live contently with what she has. Imagine the woman she will be if we are true and consistent with our promises?
Columnist David Brooks writes, “Some of the wisdom passed down through the ages is transmitted through books or sermons. But most learning happens by habituation. We are formed within families, churches, communities, schools, and professional societies. Each institution has its own stories, standards of excellence, ways of doing things. When you join the Marines, you don’t just learn how to shoot a rifle; you absorb the entire ethos that will both help you complete the tasks and will confront and mold you into a certain sort of person: fierce against foes, loyal to friends, faithful to the Corps.”
Beloved, when we become followers of Christ, we don’t just learn how to quote Bible verses; we absorb the entire ethos that will help us complete the tasks and will confront and mold us into a certain sort of person: We share with others; we are fair to others, and we are content with what we have. This my friends, is the foundation for a transformed life. This my friends, is how we live into our Christian identity. So, as we make our way to Christmas, amidst all the preparations, let us examine the health of the fruits of our transformed life. And all God’s people say, Amen.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel of Luke (I-IX), (Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York), 464-465.
 Fitzmyer, 470.
 Ibid., 470-471.
One commentator writes, “For the Baptist, repentance had less to do with how fervently one prays or how faithfully one attends the worship service; instead, it had everything to do with how one handled riches, executed public service, and exercised stewardship.” From, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor. See https://a.co/aHEv9NB.
 David Brooks, What Happened to American Conservatism? The rich philosophical tradition I fell in love with has been reduced to Fox News and voter suppression. The Atlantic Magazine,