Luke 3:7-14 (the message)
When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgement? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there–children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He told them, “No more extortion–collect only what is required by law.”
Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail–and be content with your rations.”
John the Baptist, cousin Elizabeth’s son, did not play around.
At first when I read this passage it’s so easy to picture those people, so insincere, coming to see what the hub-bub is about. Not really contrite, right? Just doing what everyone else is doing…going along with the latest, greatest way to achieve religion and spiritual star power. But then my heart catches because isn’t that what we like to do? Well, at least I do. Read the scriptures and think about how it applies to everyone else. You know, those people. But not me. I’m no slithering snake, okay John?!
A couple of things I find interesting about this scene. First, the way John tells them a little water on their snakeskins will not deflect God’s judgement. Again, wow. That is a show-stopper. But the point, relevant to my life in 2012, is that applying waters such as church-attendance, fish bumper stickers and star stickers on my scripture memory and confessions board do not deflect the truth about who I really am if there is no life-change.
Not easy to write. Not easy to hear. Not fun to consider. Sometimes I just wish the easy things would count as evidence of my surrendered life! There is a snag, however. See, if my heart is changing then I’ve stopped counting. When my life is green and blossoming I’m not looking to produce or deflect or measure…I’m responding and following and have long ago lost count or the inclination to care about how everyone else is doing it. Church attendance, fish stickers and memorizing scripture are really good things but if they are not part of shedding our skins and getting real with God then what are they about?
The second thing I find interesting, and most encouraging, is how those people respond. Some of them were probably offended and went home, no doubt. But I almost think others simply did not know any better because they stuck around and asked the all-important question…
Then what are we supposed to do?
The answer is so simple and profound and heavy, really. John tells them to give. Give your extra coat and give your extra food! Do you find this interesting? I do! John did not prescribe more religious activity for a life green and blossoming! He gave them very practical, real-life instructions. When the tax men came he again gave them practical, real-life instructions. Stop the extortion dude! Just do your job and be honest! And when the soldiers wanted to know how they could experience real life-change John said, No more blackmail! Stop taking advantage! Be content with what you’re given!
Sometimes I prefer deflecting waters for my “skin” rather than its shedding. See, I can do church and say the right things and walk tall and happy in church-world with my eyes closed. Doesn’t hurt. Matter-of-fact, like those calling on Abraham as father to give them right-standing with God, I fear at times church-world veterans like myself credit our distinguished record as the currency we have with God. What once was alive and spring-green becomes deadwood.
I am personally touched this morning by the exchange in this scripture. Those people coming, just doing what they know to do really, want to hear the truth from John. They want to live authentically with God and others. I do, too. I bet you do, as well. What my heart hears this morning is that God wants the real thing. He is the real thing and He brooks no pretense. Real life-change, green and blossoming, comes as we integrate drawing near in church and our head knowledge with real life skin-shedding. You know, the stuff of life that doesn’t feel easy, isn’t noticed by everyone else and will not build on our spiritual pedigree. Giving, being honest, putting others first, learning contentment in real time.
There are lots of deep sermons to be preached. Lots of lofty blog posts to be written. Lots of head-nodding, hand-shaking and covered dish get-togethers to be had. I like it all!! Smile. But what about my life? Is it a shade greener than it was last year? Is my head-nodding, hand-shaking and casserole making the fragrant blossom of a green life or am I deflecting?
I believe the answer lies in our everyday, coat-giving, honest with others, putting them first and learning to be content life. We can’t pull it off, can’t even want to pull this kind of living off, on our own. We can, however, give God permission to really meddle in our hearts. Flow with and consent to everyday, skin-shedding opportunities that will bless others and point to the God of our green spring life. Yes, I would like to be one of those people.