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Archive for December, 2015

You brood of vipers!

 

A couple of weeks ago I walked up a beautiful walkway to a gorgeous house in our area. The grey slate flagstones were perfectly level, the garden groomed, not a stray leaf or a yellow spot on the perfectly manicured lawn. Beside the solid oak door stood two large urns artistically filled with holiday greenery. In the driveway there was an Audi and a Mercedes SUV. I was going door to door with my kids collecting food for our community food drive.

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Many people gave generously to the community food drive.

Good, I thought, this family is blessed with abundance, and will be able to spare some food for the food bank. They had received a flyer the week before, so I anticipated a good reaction. I pressed the doorbell and put on my best smile.

A rather handsome and well dressed man opened the door with his young daughter. She was snacking on cheerios in a pink plastic bowl, and behind them I could see breakfast foods set on a gray granite topped island in an immaculate white kitchen.

“Hi,” I said, “we are collecting food for the Leaside community food drive. Do you have anything to donate?” I exchanged a cheerful smile with his daughter, munching her cheerios.

“No,” he replied, “we don’t have any food.”

I looked at him a little quizzically. I glanced at his child, eating her cheerios, at the kitchen island behind him filled with breakfast.

“No, we don’t have any food in the house,” he repeated.

I kept my smile on my face, and said “thanks, have a good day”. He closed the door with a thud.

As I walked away I was filled with indignation. Obviously he had food in the house. To lie right in front of his child! Surely he had a can of tuna or some pasta in one of his cupboards! Such selfishness! I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and turn him around and say – look – you do have food. Why don’t you share some of your abundance? What is wrong with you!!! Think of others. Do good. Turn around and look at your kitchen man!

Of course I was polite and smiled and didn’t say anything like this out loud. And truly, maybe there was something going on in that house at that moment that I don’t know about.

On the other hand, in our gospel reading today, John the Baptist doesn’t pull any punches. His soul is on fire with indignation. He is fearlessly angry and accusatory.

People have traveled miles in the wilderness – many of them on foot – to repent and be baptized by John. They have come to see this renowned prophet, to be part of something extraordinary that is happening by the banks of the river Jordan. And instead of being happy to see them, John accuses them:

“You brood of vipers!”

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“Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

John is outraged, fearless, speaking truth without any filter. He doesn’t care one bit if he offends the upstanding citizens in the crowd.

It must have felt like a slap on the face to them, perhaps especially to the Pharisees and soldiers and upstanding citizens who would never normally be accused in this rude way. He points an accusatory finger at them:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. … every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Harsh words. John suspects the crowd’s motives in being there. He is telling them it is not enough to come and say they are sorry and be baptized – they have to actually repent, to change their lives. To turn around.

Now the word repentance here is the Greek word metanoia. It means a change of mind, a conversion, reform of life, in effect a “turning around”. John is calling on the people to turn around, repent, and reform their lives.

He compares the people to fruit trees – trees that bear good fruit are kept, but trees that do not bear fruit are cut down and burned. It is not hard to understand his message –people need to act differently, doing good works, sharing, being honest and compassionate, not just voice their repentance, they have to turn around their lives and bear good fruit. Otherwise – and this is harsh – the says they will be cut down and burned. John certainly knows how to get our attention!

He even saves a special warning for the complacent in the crowd – the ones who are thinking he doesn’t really mean them, the ones who think their religious practices are beyond reproach. That is what he means when he talks about one who claim to have Abraham as their ancestor. He makes sure they understand that it is not enough to follow the religious rules, to smugly pray and walk about self-righteously like the Pharisees – all must love God and their neighbour. No one escapes John’s accusations.

John’s exhortation – his strong language – is meant to wake them up. He is preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. “Get ready!” he is saying, “turn around! Look at what you are doing!”

The good news is that his demands are not complicated:

  1. Share your abundance: whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise
  1. Be honest – Tax collectors only collect what is due, don’t take a cut
  1. Be ethical – do not extort money, soldiers, be satisfied with your wages

He is not asking the crowd to join him in living in the desert. He is simply calling them to acts of equity and kindness. He is not asking them to live in poverty, just to share their abundance.

John’s demands are urgent because he knows the Messiah is coming soon – there is no time to lose!

For us today, John’s message still make us uncomfortable – it is intended to make us turn around and look at our lives. How many of us have passed a homeless person without making eye contact or giving a coin?  How many of us have been rude to someone at the door? How many of us have not given generously to the toy drive or not the the food bank. How many of us have angrily judged someone who did not give, just as I did at that door? I stand accused just as much as the man with his daughter and her pink bowl of cherrios. We all stand accused by John the Baptist.

This doesn’t seem like a joyful message, does it? Where on earth is the joy in John’s accusation? It makes me feel unworthy and inadequate, like I am missing the mark – what about you?

So here’s the joy. John is preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah. That is the good news. We are entering a new world where we are called into relationship with God, called to partner with God in making the world anew. To our joyful relief, we are not alone in our struggle to love our neighbour and share our possessions – Jesus is always alongside us, encouraging us, forgiving us and giving us the courage to keep trying. Jesus loves us unconditionally– even if we close the door on the person asking for food or fall short of John’s demanding standards. That is something to be joyful about!

Christmas isn’t just about an innocent baby in a manger. It is about rejoicing that Christ comes to live among us, to be in relationship with us. It is a time of awe and celebration. It is a time to take stock of God’s abundance in our lives, to share our gifts with others, to give thanks for friends and family, for peace and love even in our bruised and broken world. It is a time to feel our hearts swell with pride and generosity as Syrian refugees arrive in our wonderful country to begin new lives. A time to turn around and look at our abundance and give thanks, and out of that gratitude share with those around us.

God gives us his only son that we may be renewed, that we may be a resurrection people, renewed in his love, forgiven and embraced. The good news is that God loves us, even when we mess up, even when we lie or behave selfishly. Even when we don’t turn around and reach into the kitchen for food to donate to someone at the door.

Yet when we do turn around in our lives, there is so much cause for rejoicing, even among the challenges we all face.   Joy is all around us – in the faces of children, music, gathering together. Joy is like an underground spring that wells up within us – and if we let it, joy will overflow out of our lives and into the lives of others.

The Spirit acts within our hearts to inspire acts of generosity. Perhaps the Spirit is leading you to donating to our sponsorship of a refugee family … though, perhaps like me, you haven’t gotten quite got around to writing that cheque. If John the Baptist were here I think he would be pointing his finger at me and saying “the time is now”!

So let us turn around – repent – and prepare for the coming of Christ again into our lives. And let us rejoice that God sends his son to us in an act of great love.

Text: Luke 3:7-18

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? 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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 with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear histhreshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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