John the baptizer is an interesting character. His is a voice that comes out of the wilderness and his message really is a wild one. He dresses funny and eats bugs; always a sure way to get people’s attention. And then he has the audacity to challenge the powerful with the way he speaks the truth while at the same time he brings hope to the oppressed.
It is no small matter to challenge the powerful. If you take a stand against what people in positions of power are doing it is always a dicey business and later in the story John makes a poweful someone mad enough that he loses his head. John does, I mean, not the person who was mad. And John won’t be the last person to speak the truth while challenging authority and losing his life because of it but that part of this story of hope comes later in the gospel of Luke.
Even though it can be dangerous, it is still important to speak the truth. Because the truth is what God is all about. It is frequently easier to take shortcuts and find hiding places while we avoid the challenges of being people of faith but when all is said and done, the truth of God will carry the day. The Church has not always had a good track record with this. There were Protestant churches in the early 19th century that actually made biblical arguments in support of slavery in the United States. More recently, there were many churches, Catholic and Protestant, here and overseas, who were complicit in the Holocaust of Jewish and Rom people during World War II. We need to answer for those kinds of mistakes. Not by apologizing for the mistakes of the past (though that is okay to do) but by standing up to the powerful on behalf of the oppressed. Today. And tomorrow. Right here and right now.
This is the brood of vipers thing that John is talking about. John is calling out the people who have shown up to be baptized but live as if baptism is nice but doesn’t really matter so much in terms of how they actually live out their lives. They see baptism as fire insurance, protecting them from the fires of hell, a one and done kind of experience. Get the water on you and no worries after that. Over the years you may have heard the brood of vipers/prepare the way reading in Advent. Which is a good time to hear about preparing the way for the coming Messiah. That’s kind of what Advent is all about. But that’s not exactly what John is doing here. He is announcing the coming of the Christ but not as a cute baby in a manger with various and sundry animals hanging about. He’s letting us know the adult Jesus is coming and is about to be baptized. And when that happens, when Jesus is baptized everything changes.
And because everything changes when Jesus is baptized, baptism ain’t easy for the rest of us. I mean, the water part is easy I guess but when we are baptized there’s no free lunch. Grace is certainly free and we don’t have to qualify or pay for baptism. But once baptized, our life is changed if we take baptism seriously. In baptism we promise “to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, read the holy scriptures, be nurtured in faith and prayer, so that we can trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”
Sounds a bit like what John was talking about in V15? 15 As the people were filled with expectation, – We tend to read this as the people were filled with expectation as in looking forward to something about to happen. Kind of like in Advent we look forward to Christmas. But in reading the preceding verses it makes me wonder if they were filled with expectations related to their baptism. They’d come to be baptized by John but John calls them out with expectations that will be laid on their lives. Like being expected to share your coats if you have two, collect only what is properly due to you and don’t extort money from people with threats or false accusations.
These are the words of truth we don’t always like to hear. They speak to us in ways that sometimes make us uncomfortable because, well, they’re too close to the truth for us to let them slip blindly by. When we take a look inside, an honest look inside, we don’t always like what we see. Because we’re prone to take on the comfortable and helpful parts of being people of faith but we resist the idea of lifelong transformation that comes to us in baptism and the promises we’ve made in baptism. We push back against the Holy Spirit taking control from us.
This isn’t about being a good and pious, righteously perfect person that is planning on having our ticket to heaven punched because we did all the right things. Lutheran theology doesn’t allow for any of us to be good, much less perfect and there is not one thing we can do, good, bad or indifferent that is going to punch our ticket to heaven. Lutheran theology does allow, or more accurately it boldly insists, that as people of God and followers of Christ, we are forgiven our failures and imperfections. We are saved by grace through faith.
But then what? Sit around with our feet up yelling Yay God and Yay me! Or is there something more to being saved by grace through faith. Yes, yes there is. This is the response part of our faith. We can’t do anything to earn the gift of God’s love and forgiveness but we are called to respond to it. I usually think of that in terms of going into the world and serving others as my response to God’s grace in Christ Jesus. I am a child of God and forgiven through Christ so the Holy Spirit is sending me into the world in response to those gifts.
But what if the response seemed more like our baptismal promises? What if we recommitted to those promises? What if every day we remembered that we promised, “to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, read the holy scriptures, be nurtured in faith and prayer, so that we can trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”
How about let’s do that. I’ll announce the promises on the screen and you all respond with, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.”
People of God, do you intend to continue in the covenant God mad with you in holy baptism: “to live among God’s faithful people, to come to the word of God and the holy supper, to learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, read the holy scriptures, be nurtured in faith and prayer, so that we can trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace?”
If so, please respond with, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me”
And of course the only proper response I can make is to lift up the prayer we use for an affirmation of baptism, sometimes called confirmation: God in heaven, Stir up in these people of faith, the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.
I’m not big on new year resolutions because I’ve had my unused gym memberships too. But I do think the new year is an excellent time to reflect on our faith and to recommit to our baptismal promises. And now you have once again affirmed the promises you made in baptism. Go into the world living each one of those promises.