Imagine showing up at the baptismal font on the day of your baptism and hearing the pastor say, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Shouldn’t John have been grateful for the crowds? Hard enough in our day to get anyone in the doors to worship God! If you had crowds lining up at your church to be baptized wouldn’t you be elated? What is John thinking? What’s going on here?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance, John says. Because, John knows that the crowds are not lined up for God’s sake. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? John knows that the crowds have come out of self- interest.
So, as always, the gospel writer tells a story and leaves it to us to ask ourselves, “Where do we find ourselves in the story?” How is baptism—or church attendance, or good works, or even Bible study and prayer—how might these sometimes, in some ways, be expressions of self-interest, rather than the beginning of transformation, of a new direction? Why do we get baptized, anyway? Family tradition? Social acceptance? Insurance policy for the afterlife?
Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Or, to put it in contemporary language, Don’t even think about saying—“We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Not many of us get worked up about being spiritual descendants of Abraham (some might not even be sure who Abraham is!). So John needs some translation. What if John had said, Don’t even think about saying, “We’re Lutherans,” or, “We’re Christians” or “We’re Americans”—for God is able from these stones to raise up Lutherans or Christians or Americans. How does that feel?
But however boldly and truthfully John preaches, the part of this morning’s gospel that moves me the most is the people’s response:
The crowds asked John… “What then should we do?” They don’t get angry, or defensive. They don’t say, “We’re not like that!” They say, “What then shall we do?” That’s the beginning of repentance! And John answers, “Share your abundance with those in need.”
Do you see? Giving away what we have—and that means what we value, not just the junk we don’t use anymore–is one way to begin practicing repentance. And it’s not just stuff, either. It’s attitudes and habits and ideas that we can give away, for the sake of others. When we give up what’s important to us, it’s a way of saying, “I confess that I have more than I need.” To be baptized means to practice compassion, even when there’s nothing in it for you.
Is there more to repentance than this? You bet! But this is a good beginning, well within their reach! Repentance begins with what’s simple.
And then, even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?” Tax collectors were local folks who had sold out to the enemy. They were fellow Jews but they collected taxes for the Roman Empire. Rome told them what to collect, but they could add to anyone’s tax bill as much as they wanted, to keep for themselves. If you didn’t pay what the tax collector required, no matter how unfair, the tax collector could call on the power of the Roman Empire to enforce it.
Needless to say, they were feared and hated by their fellow citizens. But one day, at least some…came to be baptized. And John said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (He didn’t say, “Stop working for Rome!”) To these powerful people John said, “Practice compassion, even when there’s nothing in it for you.”
If it wasn’t crazy enough to see tax collectors beginning to practice repentance, along come some soldiers. They ask, “And we, what should we do?” In John’s day there was no Israeli army. These were soldiers in the Roman army! These were the enemy! And yet, they come before John, who answers, “Don’t extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Repentance? It’s a beginning!
All who come before John and ask what repentance looks like—the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers—all are people of power and privilege. Not great power but they all have more than they need and are tempted to live for themselves, even at the expense of others. Instead, they ask, “What should we do?”
Some people stuck around long enough not only to ask John questions but to hear his response. We don’t know how the story ends but we can guess, because…these were people like us. Some, when they heard John’s answer, no doubt rolled their eyes and walked away. Others went ahead and got baptized, but their lives remained…unchanged, their beliefs and habits of a lifetime the same as they’d always been. Still others heard John’s answer, repented, and began a new direction. Their identity no longer was defined by power or privilege, not by religious or national identity, but by the kingdom of God.
As some of us prepare for baptism, as others prepare for affirmation of baptism, all of us are invited to find ourselves in this story. In the eyes of the world we are people of power and privilege, who have more than we need. We are tax collectors, soldiers and crowds. To what extent are we, like they, able to hear John’s call to repentance? To what extent are we able to ask, “What then shall we do?”—to hear an answer that may threaten our self-interest–and then, to follow?
John came into the world to prepare the way of the one we call Lord through a baptism of repentance. We find in today’s story evidence of God’s abundant grace, mercy and love. The beginning of repentance is not something impossible. Although it will cost us something, repentance begins with what’s doable, well within our reach.
How is it with you? If Jesus is Lord of your life, if preparing the way of the Lord begins with repentance, what might repentance look like for you…today?