Luke 3:7-18 “What Should We Do?”
“Oh you brood of vipers!” That is what it says in the bible for our text this morning. ‘Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers.” This is a really interesting metaphor that is used over and over again in the Holy Scripture. To be sure, even Jesus himself uses this language. The first time it appears in the Old Testament is in Jeremiah 46:22 that sheds some light on what it might actually be referring to. “She makes a sound like a viper gliding away; for her enemies march in force, and come against her with axes like those who fell trees.”
What fascinates in this original understanding is that it foretells of what happens to Jesus himself when the people who had followed him slither away at the time of the Cross and resurrection. So, the question from John the Baptist to this group is simply: Are you really going to lay your lives before God in repentance or are you going to slither away on your bellies again?!
This raises the question as to why the people were coming to John in the first place. I have said to you before that one of the great things about going to see John on the Jordan when you know that you need redemption in your life is that John was not charging people the usual going rate at the Temple in Jerusalem. Keeping that in mind, you would think that it would have been mostly poor people out there on the river with John the Baptists, the ones who could not afford to pay the sin offering at the Temple in Jerusalem.
That is not the case however. We see that John addresses people of means in his admonitions that we read. Who else is there? It seems that we have people with two coats—that is to say, people of means. Also we see that there are tax collectors and soldiers. All of these folks would have been able to pay the sin offering in the temple for sure. Why did they come to John?
John is really clear that he understands that they are there to “escape the wrath of God.” Now, I was thinking really long about this concept. I think it took me more than a full week to wrap my head around this. So, I am not sure how this is going to hit you all this morning; I will just ask that you take it home with you and let it sink in a bit: Although Jesus died on the Cross and has offered us infinite grace to be redeemed and resurrected like Him, and for this very reason he was born on earth at Christmas, it could be that instead of this incredible hope that God may still have wrath upon my life for the things that I have not repented that I should have.
Since childhood, I have been plagued with the understanding of the wrath of a person who came at Christmas—Santa Claus. Let us face it: “He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake. You better watch out. . . .” So, yes, we are conditioned to fear the wrath of Santa! Jesus save me from Santa’s wrath! Well, if we should fear the jolly old elf’s wrath, what about God? What about that other guy who comes at Christmas?
How many of us worry about the wrath of God? How many of us ask ourselves ever if I am really right with the Almighty. This is interestingly a good place to start with the Christmas story. You see, Caesar Tiberius Augustus did not care about the wrath of God. Herod and Pilate did not care about the wrath of God. Annas and Caiaphas, the priest in Jerusalem, did not care about the wrath of God. In fact, if you do not admit to and care about the wrath of God, then what on earth do you need a Savior for? And, if you do not need a Savior, then why celebrate the birth of one?
This very notion goes back to one very famous example from history actually. If you do not think your ship can ever sink, then why have lifeboats on board? I am referring of course to the Titanic. If you do not believe that your boat might be sinking fast, then of course you do not need a savior.
It is funny to note that it was the people who did believe in the wrath of God and the need for a savior who showed up at the manger in the middle of the night to welcome their savior to the world.
So, the people in John the Baptist’s time question him sincerely, “What should we do?” The question presupposes that those vipers do not want to slither away again. They really want to turn things around. They want to repent.
Before they actually get to the heartfelt moment of repentance, they are challenged by John the Baptist to offer some very special Christmas gifts to the people in their lives. First, give away your second coat. I like this. You see, what I envision from this statement is simply that if for some reason I do not have a coat and am freezing to death, that someone who also shares the love of Christ will make sure I make it through the winter.
You see, in this world we never know what is going to befall us from day-to-day. One day the temperature might get cold enough in Waimea that you might have to close the windows in your house. That happened this last week, right? And, because none of our houses have heaters, we put on a sweater or jacket. We find a blanket to pull over us in the night. So, when we are giving our second coat to another, we are giving someone in need warmth, survival, and even a foretaste of salvation.
About five years ago we were having a youth retreat up at Waineke in Kokee. It was about eight in the evening, already dark out, when four high school kids showed up in the yard outside. They were all the way from Kapaa. As it turned out, their old truck had broken down up the road. They had tried to fix it, but it was beyond repair. They had no food and no place to stay. They were cold.
We had two fires in two cabins going strong, plus the heat from all of us gathered together. And, as it just so happened, we had exactly four beds to offer them. We gave them some dinner and hot drinks and offered them a place to spend the night. Of course, they had not thought to bring sleeping gear with them on their day trip, so one by one the other youth and the leaders there started offering up what they had. “I have an extra pillow! I have an extra blanket!” Soon enough the wayward stranded youth were all snuggled up next to fire—full and happy. They took part in the worship service that evening, singing along with the camp songs.
Now, I was the guy in charge of the retreat, and you all know that I am a stickler for permission slips and medical releases and the like. And honestly, for a split second, it did cross my mind that there may be a liability issue in inviting four stranger kids to sleep over at the church retreat without parental permissions in place. That split second passed very quickly. What was I supposed to do? Leave them to freeze outside?
One day I know that I might find myself again in that kind of a situation in which my life would depend upon the grace of strangers lending me what they have. Lord knows, I have already experienced this in my days. So, I do not know if I am paying it forward or paying it back. Or, is it simply, that that is what we should do? Isn’t this kind of the real reason we give gifts to one another? That is just what we do. The people ask John the Baptist “What should we do?” How about give a little warmth in the world! Give your second coat.
This last Wednesday morning some of you would have seen me wearing a silly hat and a red apron ringing a bell in front of Big Save for the Salvation Army kettle. Lt. Amy was looking for just any volunteers to do this. So, I said I would. I have never just stood out on the street asking strangers for money. I think all of you should try this one day. It is very powerful to realize that just about everyone who went into the store came out and put at least their coinage into the pot. It really warmed my heart. I know that it is vogue to talk about the criminality in town, etc., etc., etc. However, I just want to affirm that for sure most of us are willing to share with those who do not have.
John the Baptist talks also to the tax collectors and soldiers. I have to point out that it is really cool that they are even there. In those days, the tax collectors functioned very much like extortionists from a street gang. They would take more than they should. It kind of worked this way: Everybody owed ten percent in taxes. Yet, the poor might only have two sheep. How to take ten percent of two sheep? You take fifty percent. The next year you take the other sheep. Then, the person starves to death. This was a very cruel system. John says, hey, don’t be so cruel. Have a little heart. Don’t take more than you should. What is worse than not giving over your second coat? Taking the one and only coat that somebody has. Okay, do not take a person’s last coat or his goat or whatever. If what you are doing is causing another harm, then stop it.
This is then amplified with the mentioning of the soldiers that have come. Please note that if they are soldiers, then they are Roman soldiers. So, just because you are Roman, you do not have the right to take anything away from the local population. So, this is not just a “you personally” thing. This applies to the entire system that you may find yourself in. I have decided that generally speaking “the people are fine, but it is the system that is corrupt.” No matter what system you find yourself employing, still be a fine human being. Even better, be a godly person.
The last line of our Scripture: So, John went out and proclaimed the Good News. That is right, there is enough bad news out there already. Christmas is a time for sharing the good news. We want it to be “Merry Christmas” not “Scary Christmas.” So, do not be scared of Santa Claus! Jesus will save you!