Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This year in the Illinois State Capital building an atheist group was begrudgingly granted permission to have a display alongside the other displays for the holiday season. And so, right alongside the menorah on display for Hanukkah and the Nativity scene on display for Christmas the Satanic Temple of Chicago placed a sculpture. The sculpture depicts a snake coiled around a woman’s forearm, the hand of which is holding an apple.
For people who reject the claims of the scripture, they sure understand the symbolism of the Bible! There sculpture is, of course, a reference to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, choosing to eat of the forbidden fruit. The two were tempted by the serpent who deceived them, who lured them into doubting God’s word, saying to them: “Go on and eat it. You won’t die. God just said that to keep you from being like him.” Ever since, serpents, snakes, and vipers have been symbols of sin, symbols for the deceiver, symbols of deception and malice, slithering sneakily in the grass, full of venom.
John the Baptist taps into this symbolism in our gospel reading for today. He certainly isn’t celebrating the serpent, as this atheist group is doing. Instead, he uses it to describe the people coming out to hear him. “You brood of vipers!” he says. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John apparently missed the memo on being seeker-sensitive and welcoming to newcomers. Instead, John does the verbal equivalent of grabbing everyone by the throat: You brood of vipers! You offspring of the serpent! You children of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Without so much as a “Welcome, glad you came,” John goes right to his diagnosis for these people. Those who were coming out to him had been disobedient to God’s will. They doubted God’s word. They wanted to be their own gods. They wanted to do what was right in their own eyes. They were full of deception and malice and venom – and so they were like the offspring of the serpent.
Note that John is addressing everyone here. It is different in Matthew’s gospel, where he is specifically referring to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke seems to have heard the story from someone else who remembered that John wasn’t just calling the religious authorities a brood of vipers. He was talking to everyone, to the entire crowd of people from all walks of life!
The diagnosis John so bluntly gives is that they are a brood of vipers, that they have venom in their veins, that they have slithered away from God. But John also gives them a prescription. They are to repent. They are to change their minds and turn back. They are to change their ways and return to God. This is not just a mental exercise, but something that impacts their entire lives. They are to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Instead of hoarding, they are to share. They are to carry out their vocations with honesty and integrity. They are to be honorable and kind and content. Even more, they are to look for the one who will come after him, the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
“And so,” Luke the narrator writes, “with many other exhortations John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.” We don’t usually associate exhortations with good news, but in this case it is indeed good news – because these exhortations are given in anticipation of the one who will come after John, the one who will come to save.
When someone is baptized here at our church, we are reminded by our baptism liturgy that we are “born children of a fallen humanity.” And so John’s words to the people apply to us too. We too are children of the serpent. We have an inherited condition called sin. You may not see the symptoms in the beautiful little babies we often baptize, but they will show up soon enough. There’s a reason one of the first words most kids learn is “mine!” The selfish unwillingness to share runs through our veins from day one!
We disobey God. We doubt his word. We want to be our own gods. We want to do what is right in our own eyes. We have venom in our veins. And so we too need to repent. We never stop needing to repent! Martin Luther once said that the entire life of the Christian is one of repentance.
That is all true, and it is why we begin each service with confession and forgiveness. But it is also true that as we respond to the exhortations we hear in God’s Word and repent we also hear good news. We have been given more than a prescription, we have been given a savior! This savior has come to baptize us with the Holy Spirit – with the very presence of God. This savior has come to baptize us with fire, burning away all the chaff of our lives that separates us from God so that we might be gathered in. This savior has come to adopt us, so that we wouldn’t be children of the serpent, but children of God.
As some of you saw in my Facebook post, this past week I had a kid in my office the other day sternly reminding me that Jesus was NOT supposed to be in the manger of our creche here in the sanctuary until Christmas Eve. I had accidently left him in there after a preschool chapel service. “This happened last year too!” I was told. When I posted it on Facebook I learned that other people noticed it too. One mom told me her daughter saw it and was quite bugged by it! The Advent police are among us, folks, and they aren’t afraid to come after the pastor!
While I am thrilled that our young people understand Advent enough to know that Advent is a season of waiting, we don’t need to pretend that Jesus hasn’t already come – especially when we read a passage like our gospel reading for this morning. The one who would come after John, the one who would be more powerful than him, has already come. The one who saves us from the wrath to come has already come. The one who would come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire has already come.
Jesus, the savior, has already come, and you have been joined to him in your baptism. Jesus, the savior, has already come, and he is at work in your life right now, bleeding that venom out of you. Jesus, the savior, has already come, and he is calling out of you the fruits of repentance.
While some venom remains in all of us and we continue to see the effects of that in our lives and in our congregation at times, it is also true that the fruits of repentance are sprouting all over the place. I see them all the time!
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve had tags on our Sharing Tree which have been joyfully picked up. Those who have enough for themselves have shared with others from their abundance so that poor immigrant kids in the Skagit Valley would have some new clothes or warm coats or something fun to play with. You have shared from your abundance so that the elderly at Josephine home, many of them lonely and abandoned, would have something bright or soft to cheer them.
I’ve seen you use your vocational gifts in such generous, selfless ways – whether its Jodi working on our finances or Dave tending to our property or Anita facilitating our food and fellowship, or any number of other volunteers we have here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church.
I’ve seen the way you’ve been turned outside of yourselves to love and care for each other and for our neighbors in need.
This isn’t the work of a brood of vipers. This is the work of children of God! This is the work of the Spirit given to you in your baptism!
As much as it pains me to think of a satanic sculpture being placed in a state capital building in our country, placed there by atheists to troll Christians and other religious people, I have to say that I love the juxtaposition of their sculpture next to a Nativity scene. Because you see, back in the Garden, after the serpent deceived Adam and Eve and they ate the fruit, introducing sin and death into the world, God spoke to the serpent. In Genesis 3:15, God tells the serpent that one of Eve’s offspring would crush his head. Sin and death would be conquered forever. His venom would have no power anymore. For centuries Christians have seen this as a subtle, but powerful, reference to Christ.
The baby Jesus is in the manger in the state capital building in Springfield, Illinois, lying there in the hay just a few feet away from the sculpture. And so the savior is next to the serpent. The antidote is next to the venom.
The baby Jesus isn’t in our manger quite yet, but we rejoice today because our savior comes to us even now through his word to crush the serpent in our hearts. Our savior comes to us in his holy supper so that instead of venom, his blood would run through our veins. Our savior comes to us with the Holy Spirit and fire to purify us through his forgiveness, to reclaim us as his precious children, and to call out of us the fruits of repentance, the fruits of faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church