Luke 3: 7-14
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 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.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
In the movie “Few Good Men” there is a memorable sequence where Tom Cruise plays the role of a lawyer cross examining the Character of Jack Nicholson. Cruise says “All I want to know is the truth.” To this the iconic reply of Jack Nicholson is “You can’t handle the truth.” We can’t handle the truth. People who challenge us, who correct us or expose our hypocrisy are definitely not the best of our friends. M. Scott Peck the author of “Road Less Travelled” says that “Today people prefer to live in pseudo-community or false community. Its hallmark is the avoidance of conflict. We keep things safe, we speak in generalities, we like to talk about things where others will agree with us. Conversations are carefully filtered to make sure no one gets offended. If we feel hurt or irritated, we are careful to hide it. Pseudo-community is agreeable, polite, gentle, stagnant and finally fatal.” He finally says that what we need today are truth tellers, people who dare to shake us out of our slumber and intoxicated life style. Let me share with you an incident from my life. As a youth because of my plans to become a priest, people in my Church had great regard for me. I loved the attention I received without actually doing anything significant. I basked in this glory. It was those days when Rev Minoy N Kuruvilla was the Vicar of our Church. People who know him are aware of his concern for youths. He tries his best to initiate the youths in a living faith that does not depend on mere platitudes but exudes the love and compassion of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. One day there was a knock on my door. It was Rev Minoy who did not pretend to engage in niceties. He had observed that I had become laid back in my fervor and therefore was deeply concerned. Out of his concern he challenged me, provoked me to a deeper understanding of faith. He questioned my witness and mirrored my hypocrisy. This all happened in front of my parents. And my reply was “Thank you Achen. I appreciate your concern and will mend my ways.” I wish that was true. I was hopping mad. I was bitter. How can anyone come into my house and say something like that. That was my reaction.
Let us come to the passage set before us. Here was a man from the desert who had people coming to him. They were coming to be baptized as it was seen as a religious thing to do. (Let us not confuse with the topic of baptism as we know it. John the Baptist’s ministry was a Baptism based on the Jewish Qumran community that gave thrust on repentance and living with purity. Therefore Baptism was cleansing that was open to gentiles and Jews.) He had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the common Jews all lined up to do a collective show of repentance without actually repenting or bearing the fruit of repentance. It is here he breathes down fire on his audience. He calls them “Brood of Vipers.” He sees through their intentions of religious display without inner transformation. He unlike many of us, does not mince words in fear of losing an audience. The question he poses is “If you are repenting, then where is the fruit?” The people tried to take a spiritual upper hand by saying ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Such kind of spiritual boasting has no place informs John the Baptist. ‘For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’ That is quite a statement. It just says that “God has only children and no grandchildren.”
There is a story that goes ‘Once upon a time, the Devil and a friend went for a walk. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the road. “What did that man find” inquired the friend. “A piece of truth,” said the Devil in a very casual tone. “No, it does not” the devil said, “I will encourage him to make a religious belief out of it”’. Unfortunately the truth of faith are made into religious doctrines or beliefs where “Who is the most authentic”, “Or who has got more traditional depth”, “Whose worship is more meaningful” or “Which Baptism is more valid” are the great concerns that we struggle with. John the Baptist is shouting it out to you and me. He confronts our duplicity where we call “Lord, Lord” and practically do nothing. If we believe in the Gospel, what are we doing about it?
In May 2013 I happened to go to Bristol. There I visited the Chapel of John Wesley along with the Museum which later became the hub of Methodism. It is said that John Wesley built small communities where people met together to help hold each other for their deepest Christian values and most important decisions. Before someone entered the community, they would be asked a series of questions to see if they were serious about mutual accountability. The questions honestly makes me feel very uncomfortable.
*Does any sin, inward or outward have dominion over you?
* Do you desire to be told of your faults- plain and clear?
* Do you desire that we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you?
* Do you desire that in doing this we should come as possible as a community, holding each other accountable in our growth in faith?
* Are you also ready to talk your heart without disguise and design and contribute in our growth?
John Wesley knew that a life of total dedication to truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. And he had thousands and thousands flocking to his community.
The crowd asked the question that is the opening point of repentance. “What should we do then?” (vs 10). We have heard many sermons on giving and doing good that it has become too obvious to us. John the Baptist asks us to deeply imbibe the radical love of God. Returning to that deep love of God is the act of transformation. How do we do that? Let me suggest to you an exercise.
Read with me 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8a that has the most beautiful exposition of Divine Love done by Paul.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Now replace the word ‘Love’ with ‘Jesus’ and it neatly fits in. It is perfect. Now again replace the word ‘Love’ with your name for eg in my case “Merin.” It is an absolute misfit. Do it once again. I am already feeling uncomfortable. My acceptance that I am a misfit is repentance. My journey to become like Jesus is transformation. But for that I cannot do it on my own. I need truth tellers. We need ‘John the Baptists’ in our life who wake us out of our spiritual stupor. I thank God for people like Rev Minoy who dared to speak the truth no matter how much I hated listening to it. It definitely in the long run was a turning point in my life. Do not silence the ‘John the Baptist’ in your life. Embrace them. Repent and be Transformed. Finally Like the Crowd asked, The tax collector asked and the soldiers asked you too ask the question “What should I do?”. Be ready for the answer and do likewise.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church