Living the Right Questions

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Dec. 16, 2012

Luke 3:7-18

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.” 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.” 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 with the 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.

Living the Right Questions

At the moment, there are some big questions on the table.  The fiscal cliff looms.  Negotiations drag on.  What should we do?  That’s not the only issue we face.  How do we respond to evil when it manifests itself so powerfully in our communities?  What should the church do in these days?  What should my family do?  What should I do?  What have we been doing?  How has that been working out for us?  Where is God in all of this?  Lots of questions.

This is the season of Advent; of waiting; of preparation.  We come to the text from Luke’s gospel about the time in which John was preparing the people for the coming ministry of Jesus.  This is all about questions – asking the right questions; asking them rightly, and being ready to live by the answers.  Warning: this may get personal; questions often do.

John’s baptism goes viral

There are four questions in this text.  The first is the question John the baptist asks.  Lots of people are coming out to his repentance and baptism

the Jordan
the Jordan

event in the wilderness down by the Jordan, in the days long before they put in those showers and the restaurant.  It had become so popular that not to have gotten baptized by John must have been like not having an internet connection; you would have been the odd one out.

There must have been people who were showing up to be baptized only because it was face-time; a chance to be seen by others.  These folks had no intention of actually changing their minds about anything, which is what “repentance” means.  They had no desire to give up their phony self-justifications and excuses, their selfishness nor their power games.  And John spotted the pretense for what it was, and he named it.

Question 1: (precede with insult)

So, the first question is John’s.  The question itself is preceded by a kind of “this-guy-has-been-in-the-desert-eating-crunchy-locusts-way-too-long” kind of insult:

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?

John was aware of the growing epidemic of revolutionary fever in the air, and, as Jesus would later confirm, that plan could only end in violent disaster – he called it the “wrath to come.”

The point John was making is clear: you cannot even begin to ask the right questions from a position of neutrality with respect to the answer.  You have to start by being committed to the answer you will get.  The answer is going to involve some kind of change of heart and mind: repentance.  You can’t even ask rightly without having first committed to doing whatever it takes.

This is the opposite of a negotiation.  In negotiations you decide what is on the table and what is off, from the start; the preconditions.  You can say

all in
all in

in advance what outcome is unacceptable.  This approach may be appropriate for labor or budget negotiations, but not for this.  For John, this is not a negotiation.  Everything has to be on the table from the start.

Our Preconditions?

But before we get all smug and superior towards the “brood of vipers” with their phony motives, let us ask ourselves: what could God ask of me that would be too much?  What could he want me to change my thinking about that I would not even put on the table?  Do I have my own preconditions?  What if it touched my lifestyle?  What if it went to my budget?  What if it required that I stop numbing my pain?

I think this really gets to the heart of what we think about God.  If God is good, and  wants our good, our flourishing, our eudaimonia, what basis would we have for keeping things off the table?

There are many things we do not understand about God.  But when the bible lists those things that God is, what are they?  Easy question.  God is long-suffering.  God is faithful.  God is holy.  God is merciful.  God is love.  God is good.

So if this kind of God asks us to change our minds about something, would it not actually be in our best interests to simply ask him sincerely: “OK, everything is on offer; no pre-conditions: so, what should I do?

Three Groups: all the same Question

There are four questions here: John asked the first one – “who warned you to flee?” The other three are identical; the same question asked by different groups of people: the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers all ask, “what shall I do?”

This is the right question, and all three groups are there at the Jordan river to be baptized as a symbol of their readiness to change their thinking, to repent.  Everything is on offer; nothing is ruled out as a precondition.  They are not negotiating.  They intend to live out the answers that John gives them.

I love it that John does not give them all the same answer.  There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way of responding to God’s call.  Each of us is different, and God meets each of us where we are, with our own unique characteristics, our own individual background, and our own histories, scars, and injuries.

First, fixing the damage

We all have a past.  Some of it was good.  It made us who we are today.  But all of us have a past that includes times of failure, moments of capitulation to the forces of evil, even times of indulgence.  And as a result, evil did to us what evil always does: damage.  This is true, not only when a gunman kills innocent people.   Evil damages our relationships, it damages our communities, and it damages ourselves – spiritually, physically, psychically, – in all the ways we can be damaged.

Which is why it always starts with repentance.  Change is required when the direction is wrong, because going further just gets us more lost.  The question we all ask ourselves then, is where is the pain in my life?  Where does it hurt?  Is it in my anxious, fearful, stressed-out mind? Is it in my difficult or broken relationships?   Is the pain I’m feeling showing itself in the thin disguise of anger? Is the pain in my heart?  Hurt? Guilt?  Depression?  We all have it.  We all have a past that has included the damage done.  So that’s where the change is needed.  And for each of us, it’s a different place.

It is exactly the same for our culture.  Where is the pain?  In places where people kill randomly?  Is it in places where homeless people sleep?  How about where people with long-term mental illness hide?  Perhaps our entire society needs to consider where collective repentance is needed.

Specific answers

arm around

So these three groups with the same “What should we do?” question each get a different answer.  To the crowds, the commoners, the normal village folks, he says, you are to look out for each other.

The two-coat people are to look out for the no-coat people and do something about it.  The food-on-the-plate people are to look out for the no-food-on-the-plate people and do something about it.

We are all connected.  We are all part of the human family.  We are all worthy of dignity and respect: so we treat each other as we would wish to be treated. Question:  Are we our brother’s keeper?  Answer: You bet we are!  What should we do?  Answer: look out for each other.  It’s really that simple.

Stop it

To the tax collectors and the soldiers – people who had both lived by their ability to extort money from their neighbors, albeit in different ways, John said they simply had to stop it.  Some things are simply part of the evil, damaging system, and there is no adjusting them.   There is simply no basis for a person using his/her position of power to abuse others, even if it comes with a job-title, or a uniform, or is officially tolerated.

Why not?   Because power of any kind – physical, social, political, military, or the power of rank or of office, never legitimizes abuse.  Each of us is made in the image of God, regardless of rank or authority.  Nobody gets permission to profit by the misery of others.  No person gets that permission, no government gets it, no corporation gets it, no institution, no bank, no school, no church, no police force, no bureaucrat, no boss, no parent, nobody gets permission to abuse; no exceptions.

So it is incredibly beautiful when a person who has benefited from systematic abuse, like first-century tax-collectors and soldiers come in vulnerable, humble, repentance and asks, in all sincerity “What should I do?”  It is the right question; but a difficult one.  It is one that we all are to be asking every day, with open and willing hearts, embracing the changes required by the answers.

The Sign of Baptism

So these groups of people all come, willing to repent, to change, asking John, “What should I do?”  And then they are baptized.  In those days they


went into the river, most likely to be submerged, or immersed.  The waters of baptism are waters of cleansing.  It’s like a spiritual bath.

But they are also more.  Going down under water where it’s “as silent as the grave” is like being buried.  So then, coming back up out from under the water, into the bright sunlight is like being raised from the dead.  Baptism is both a cleansing bath and a death and resurrection to new life.

This is why Jesus took this baptismal practice, which many groups were using, and gave it to his followers as the sacramental sign of membership in his community.  He said,

“19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  (Matt. 18:18-20)

To be a part of the new community of followers of Jesus is to be baptized.  We are the people who have been  washed clean in the bath of baptism, where the soil and stains of evil are washed away.   We are the people who have gone down into the waters of death and have risen again.  By our baptism, we are made to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus himself.  Now we are alive in him, to live new lives of faith, hope, and love, empowered by his powerful, present Spirit.

“Renunciations” – the right questions and answers

So it is fitting that at our baptism, just as at John’s, there are questions asked. We call these questions and their answers, “renunciations.”  They go back all the way to

baptismal font in Presbyterian logo
baptismal font in Presbyterian logo

the early church.    The answers are given in the form of vows.  Every time we witness a baptism and hear those questions, we remember and renew our baptismal vows.

We will hear them again today as we baptize a baby boy and welcome him into the body of Christ.  His parents, will make these vows on his behalf, and likewise, we in this congregation will make vows to nurture William’s faith on behalf of the worldwide body of Christ.

So what are the baptismal questions we live by?  The first is this:

“Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its  power in the world?”

Evil damages us, our communities, even our planet.  We vow to oppose evil at every turn.  No preconditions.

The second baptismal question we live by is:

“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?”

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.  He is the one who can save us from the evil around us and in us, and he does it by infinite quantities of grace and love.  The question asks whether we are willing to trust – to cast ourselves upon that promise of grace and love,  and live unconditionally committed to doing as our Lord commands.

Finally, we ask:

“Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?”

And we vow:   “I will, with God’s help.”

Baptismal waters in the name of the triune God invisibly mark us as God’s people.  People of the unconditional, continuous questions, asked every day of our discipleship, “What should I do?”

Answer: live by that question, every day, as a baptized child of God.

sunrise on Sea of Galilee
sunrise on Sea of Galilee



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