Meditation on Luke 3:7-18
Third Sunday in Advent
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
Dec. 13, 2015
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? 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. Even now the axe 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.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 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.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. 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.’
My husband, Jim, and I went out to see “Spotlight” on Friday. The movie is named for the small, investigative reporting team working for the Boston Globe in 2002 that discovers a massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The film brings out how difficult it is for the reporters and editors to pursue the story, as people are afraid to criticize the Church, which has considerable power, especially in Boston. It is more important for the Church to protect its reputation than to protect the most vulnerable members of the kingdom of God–the children, many of whom came from broken homes or lived in poverty. The Church settled multiple cases of child abuse through private mediation with victims’ families, forcing them to sign confidentiality agreements, so no one would find out what the priests had done. Some of the children were abused repeatedly, over a number of years. Many did not recover psychologically from the abuse.
One frightened victim, interviewed as a young adult, said he didn’t fight back or tell anyone about the abuse as a child because in his family, the priests were God! Adult victims portrayed in the movie wanted nothing to do with any church anymore.
Particularly moving in the film is its portrayal of how the reporters were affected by these revelations–and by the obstacles the Church thrust in their path as they grew closer to the full truth. Journalists on the Spotlight team had been raised in the Catholic Church. Most described themselves as “lapsed” Catholics. Sacha, played by Rachel McAdams, sometimes accompanied her “Nana” to church. But after learning of the abuse and cover up, she couldn’t go anymore without thinking about the victims–and the offenders–and how the Church had allowed the abuse to go on. In one touching scene, Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo, is standing at the back of a church, watching and listening to a children’s choir sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears stream down his face. Later he tells his colleagues, his voice breaking with emotion, that though he was a “lapsed” Catholic, he always thought that, someday, he would go back.
Sin and corruption amongst the people of God are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the Spirit led John the Baptist to preach repentance to a sinful generation, seeking to prepare the hearts and minds of those who had turned away from the one True God for the coming Messiah–John’s younger cousin, Jesus Christ.
Now John the Baptist is bold. His tone is sarcastic. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?!”
I looked up “brood of vipers” and I learned that “brood” isn’t just a family group; it’s specifically the offspring! He’s saying, in today’s language, “Your mama’s a snake!” Vipers are found in most parts of the world today, including Florida! They are nocturnal; they ambush their prey–in the dark. They strike quickly. Their venom causes paralysis. Death may result from asphyxiation. I can’t think of anything worse than calling someone a snake–or a child of a snake!
Why would John use such harsh language? Bible scholars (such as Joel B. Green) say that John chooses words that “deliberately contrast with” their own self-identity. They see themselves as God’s chosen, the children of Abraham. They are comfortable with who they are, without seeing themselves as they truly are–sinful people who allow injustice, abuse, and oppression in their society to continue. They aren’t rich people, but they have more than enough and allow others to go without basic necessities, such as food and clothing. They are people, some of them, who are dishonest on their jobs and in their day-to-day lives, such as the tax collectors and soldiers who come to be baptized.
“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ John says sternly. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”
The crowd listens to John, though his words are harsh and abrasive. They must know, deep down, that he is right and that he is warning them for their own good. And after all, they are afraid, “fleeing” from the judgment, “God’s wrath” to come. “What then should we do?” they ask.
It’s interesting about John’s baptism and teaching–how the people have to leave their normal lives and go into the wilderness to partake in his ministry, but he doesn’t urge them to join him in his ascetic life, living apart from the world, wearing camel’s skin, eating only locusts and honey, and forsaking alcohol, which was quite unusual in those days. John’s baptism to repentance is to empower people to return to their former lives with changed hearts and minds–so that they may behave appropriately as the children of Abraham. The first step toward this change and right living is seeing oneself as one truly is–being convicted of one’s sins.
John teaches that true repentance is shown through acts of mercy and generosity. Live your life, he says, in a way that reveals your love for God and neighbor.
“Whoever has two shirts must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount they are supposed to. He tells the soldiers to stop extorting money from the people with threats and false accusations. “Be satisfied with your wages.”
He says, do this: be honest, be generous, be merciful, be content with your material wealth.
Just do it!
The turning point of this passage is verse 15, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” Their hearts are changing! They have gone from fear of God’s wrath and the judgment to joyful “expectation” of the Messiah and wondering if he could already be there. Was he John?
Not me, says John. Just wait!
“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,” he says. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
As the movie “Spotlight,” nears its conclusion, we learn the most startling revelation of all–that the editor of the investigative team, “Robby” played by Michael Keaton–had been one of those who had by his own silence had covered up the abuses and allowed them to continue. An attorney representing the Church had sent Robby, when he was working as a metro reporter in the early 1990s, information on 20 clergy sexual offenders. Robby wrote one article, buried on the inside pages, but then dropped the story– failed to do any follow up on the victims, the offenders, or the Church.
Robby, who attended a Catholic school across the street from the Globe, had known about the allegations for years, and he hadn’t done a thing. He doesn’t remember writing the story at all until Sacha finds his article in the files– and gives him the clipping.
There’s a close up of Robby’s face as realization dawns, then sorrow and shame. He is determined not to fail again to do the right thing. He’s just going to do it–no matter what it costs him personally. Not even if it means losing longtime friends by pursuing the truth. The whole truth!
Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to leave worship today talking about the horrible abuses in the Catholic church–and the cover up by Church leaders. Go out into the world determined to be the Church that God wants us to be–to hear the words of John the Baptist, and obey. Go in joyful expectation that the Messiah is coming! He’s coming soon! Now is the time to live the way God wants us to live.
Repent! Turn back to the Lord. Be honest. Be merciful. Be compassionate. Be content with your material wealth. Be generous. Share with your neighbors in need.
Just do it!
Don’t stumble into sin by judging others. Protestant churches, like Catholic, are not always places of health, healing, comfort and refuge, though they should be. Many of those who are hurt in a church end up not going to church at all–like the Boston Globe journalists. Do you know someone who was hurt by the church? What can you do to reach out to them? What can we do? Let’s do it.
I can’t stop seeing Mike, standing at the back of a church as children sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears are streaming down his face. He is a lapsed Catholic, he later tells his colleagues, his voice choking with emotion.
But he always thought that he would go back.
Let us pray.
Holy One, forgive us for being comfortable with our lives and not working very hard to correct the injustices in our society, in our world. Forgive us for not praying enough for our neighbors in need and not sharing what we have, though we certainly have more than we need. Thank you for your generosity and mercy for us–just sinners, too often taking for granted your wonderful grace, that covers all our sins! Turn our hearts toward you in joyful expectation of our Messiah’s coming! Give us wisdom and compassion to reach out to people who have been hurt by churches, hurt by Christians, and no longer go to any church, anymore. Stir us to true repentance for our sins, demonstrating our change of heart through our words and acts of kindness, generosity, mercy, and love. Help us to do whatever it takes to draw others nearer to You, to bring stray sheep back into your fold. In Christ we pray. Amen.