My sermon this week was based on Luke 3:7-18.
To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
You are probably familiar with the concept of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. I remember debating morality and ethics in Philosophy 101 about whether doing the right thing for the wrong reason was a good thing or a bad thing.
John the Baptist had no such debate. For him, doing the right thing for the wrong reason was wrong, plain and simple.
One thing in particular about this Gospel passage baffled me for the longest time, and most people I know are similarly baffled. The scenario is familiar: John is preaching fire and brimstone out in the wilderness and calling people to a baptism of repentance. A bunch of people present themselves to him, and his reaction is to chastise them with his now-famous "you brood of vipers" line.
Why would he react that way? It seems to me he was getting just what he wanted.
I think John knew a thing or two about human nature and he suspected (quite rightly, it would seem) that some people presenting themselves for baptism were doing so out of fear, and for John this was not the appropriate motivation.
When I was a child, it seemed to me that the church was telling me I needed to fear God. I instinctively disagreed with this, which led to me departing church and spurning organized religion for many years. I felt that in all good conscience if I was ever to be a person of faith that fear could not, should not and must not be the motivation for my faith. I felt that if I was to have any relationship with a god, it would have to be one of love, not fear.
However, it must be said that fear is a powerful motivator, and has been the stock-in-trade of organized religion for centuries. But fear will only motivate you to do the bare minimum to get by. It can only foster resentment and hatred of the object of fear, and it is simply not a valid or productive basis upon which to build a spirituality.
Why? Because fear cannot produce a change of heart.
John was all about a change of heart. He was aware that many people presenting themselves for baptism had heard his apocalyptic message, were frightened by it and were presenting themselves for baptism quite literally to "flee from the wrath to come". They were not interested in changing their lives, mending relationships, loving God or their neighbour, or even trying to be better people. They were hedging their bets, hoping that John's baptism would be another notch in their belts of piety and that this would somehow convince God to spare them from his imminent wrath.
John was apocalyptic, and although it may seem counter-intuitive to believe in apocalypticism AND and loving God at the same time, this is indeed what John believed in. He believed, as Christ did, that the greatest thing you could do was not to fear God, but to love God.
Think about it: we are prepared to do so much more, to go to greater lengths, to risk so much more for love that for fear.
John was not preaching salvation. That was Jesus' thing. John was preaching repentance. The English definition of this word is tepid: "[to feel] sincere regret or remorse". However, a brief etymological study of the word gives the dreary word new life. That study demonstrates that repentance involves a change of heart, a commitment to change one's life, to steer clear from negative pathways in our lives.
In reality, who doesn't want a more positive lifestyle, one that forgives, that loves, that is less critical of ourselves or others, that is more generous, less judgmental?
That is what John was trying to encourage. See, repentance isn't a feeling. It is a lifestyle, and not a negative one. Far from it, it is a commitment to pursue paths that are positive for us and for our world.
John didn't want people to treat baptism as a ward or talisman against the apocalypse. He didn't want people to feel guilty or ashamed.
He wanted people to change their lives for the better. He wanted to them to love God, not fear Him.
We can perhaps argue his apparently conflicting message, and I am sure that must have crossed the minds of many people who came for baptism or who at least witnessed this event, but in the end, John was a herald who was informing us of something. He was informing people that God was about to do a new thing and our hearts, minds and spirits should be prepared to receive it.
That is what Advent is about: preparing ourselves for this new thing that God did through Jesus Christ. May we all make his pathways into our lives straight, not out of fear of what might happen if we don't, but out of love and hope for what will happen if we do.