The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire

Sermon  December 13, 2015
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:7-18

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     As an interim minister, I help you with developing what your church needs in a new pastor, but then I step out of the process so that your church chooses your next minister.  So I hope that I am not crossing any professional boundaries when I say that John the Baptist, if he applies here, would probably not be the best match for a pastor and congregation.  Just listen how he starts his message to the people who have come to be baptized by him.  ďYou brood of Vipers.Ē  And just in case your mind was wondering, let me repeat a later verse.  In talking about Jesus ďHis 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.Ē  There is a saying ďyou gather more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.Ē  I guess John never heard that.  Start off by addressing all gathered as a brood of vipers, and then threatening those who are not wheat with burning by unquenchable fire.  I donít know you that well yet, but I donít think a minister who starts his or her sermons calling you names, would not last very long here.  When John the Baptist sends in his resume, send him back a nice note thanking him for applying and assuring him that God has a church where he will fit better than Marlborough. 

     But before you start feeling too sorry for these folks who came to hear from John the Baptist, letís see who these crowds are that have gathered to be baptized.  Luke only describes two of the groups that came to him, the tax collectors and soldiers.  Tax collectors are not really high on the list of ancient well liked people.  They were Romans who were collecting taxes on the people who lived in the areas of Roman occupation.  Of the money that was collected, the tax collector kept some of it for themselves, a fee for service, and then sent the rest off to Rome.  Just like we send our taxes off to Washington DC, sometimes get to see a bit of what they do, but most of it goes someplace else.  And Soldiers. These are not the men and women in uniform that we pray for, these are mercenaries.  Soldiers who will work for whoever pays them the most, and get much of their money through extortion (x tor shun) and threats.  Really, unless Luke is leaving out all the good people, this group is not who you want to hang out with.

     Luke often talks about those on the edges of society.  Why were they attracted to Johnís message?  First I believe that he talked to them.  How many times have we seen a homeless person, and walked a little bit further away, on the other side of the sidewalk.  I admit it.  Or even people who, for whatever reason, make us uncomfortable.  There is a man who lives down the street from me someplace.  He must work evening shift as he is often standing out on the corner about 2:15 in the afternoon, with a bag of what I have always guessed was his dinner.  This is just about the time that Collin is getting out of school, and for the first several months of Kindergarten, his bus stop was at this corner.  Just about the same time as Collinís bus would drop him off, someone would come by and pick him up.  I have no reason to suspect anything about him, yet his presence at the bus stop always made me a bit uncomfortable.  I have never talked to him, more than a casual ďHi.Ē  But I think we all do it, donít make eye contact, just keep walking, go the other way.  But John models perhaps what we should all do, he talks to this group of primarily outcasts, those on the edge, and they respond.

     And then he answers their questions.  What should we do?  And his instructions are simple, if you have two coats, share one, and do the same with your food.  For the tax collectors, take only what is fair, and to the soldiers, donít extort others.  Simple, not easy, but simple.  And to boil it down even further, it is the same rules we all learned in pre-school.  Share, be fair, and donít be a bully.

     I find it interesting that John does not ask them to change what they are doing, in contrast to Jesusí leave behind everything and follow me.  After their baptism, tax collectors are still collecting taxes, soldiers are still soldiers, but maybe they changed a little bit.  Maybe they took a step in the right direction.  John talks about repentance, requires you to change your mind, make a decision to go in a new direction, but not necessarily abandon your profession, unless your profession is what you need to repent about.  But for these, repentance does not require a change of profession, only a change in the way of doing it. 

     John ends this passage with ďSo, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.Ē  And this is the good news that the one who is coming is to deliver to his people?  That if you donít shape up, change the way you are doing things and become wheat you will be burned with unquenchable fire?  The ax is laying at the foot of the tree, and unless that tree produces good fruit it will be chopped down and burned.  John was big on this fire idea.

     This is not good news.  This is our brother Jesus he is announcing.  You know that little baby in a manger, who was born maybe 25 or 30 years before John said this, but whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks.  That Jesus who loves us, we sing about it.  Jesus loves me this I know.  Jesus loves the little children. No songs that I know of about Jesus will burn that chaff with unquenchable fire. 

     Sometimes it takes a little digging to get to the good news.  I have always had a hard time with Jesusí message of leave everything and follow me.  It is impossible, or at least impractical.  I have a house, or at least I have a mortgage on a house I hope to own someday.  It is not the largest house on the block, but not the smallest either.  It is practical and fits our family.  We donít have a spare bedroom or dining room we donít use, but donít need that extra stuff.  But it is important that we have a roof over our heads, and heat.  I need a car that is reliable.  Does not have to be a Cadillac, but needs to be reliable.  I have to travel to come here.  We donít live within walking distance of a grocery store.  I need somewhat nice clothes.  I donít own any fancy Italian suits, but if probably not the best idea to show up to church on Sunday in my ripped up jeans and t-shirts.  And I want to dress nicely when I come to church on Sunday. 

     The past few weeks we have been reading a lot of end time passages.  When Jesus returns, or when the end time comes, whatever that may be.  I donít know what that will look like, or even if I will see it.  So I think a lot of what we have been reading in church is talking about what we do now.  I see the Kingdom of God as a goal we are working toward.  Maybe we will get there when we die, or maybe someday we will experience that on earth.  Maybe praying ďThy Kingdom ComeĒ is a hope that whatever that kingdom really is we will get to see it, and maybe have a role in bringing it about.


     In our United Church of Christ branch of this church we say that the God is still speaking.  As we read and study together, it is impossible to do this in a bubble detached from what we see around us.  If we have experienced something, we read the Bible in a certain way.  And even though the words were written a long ago, I believe that they still speak to our situation. 

     The past few weeks have been disturbing to me.  After the attacks in Paris, and then the more recent one in California, there is so much talk of hate.  We hate Syrian refugees, because they maybe terrorists.  One well known political candidate has called for our Islamic brothers and sisters to be monitored, their places of worship to be watched, and for none that profess their Muslim faith to be allowed into the country.  We always will have those who hate others and profess that as truth, but this particular one can fill stadiums, denounce whole groups of people, and have others cheer him on.  We have to be very careful in the church about promoting presidential candidates, but who was John the Baptist talking to in this weekís scripture?  The outcasts, the ones that nobody wanted around.  Who does Jesus befriend?  I am not telling you who to vote for, but I am saying that this message of hate, of exclusion, is not the message of the one we call Savior. 

     Xenophobia (Zen a phobia) a word is often tossed around recently.  The definition is the intense or irrational dislike or fear of people of people from other countries.  Jesus sat and talked with the Samaritan woman at the well.  According to one gospel account Jesusí family fled to Egypt just after he was born.  Fear only leads to more fear. 

     At least one college campus has called for students to carry guns on campus to prevent another school shooting.  These are places where students should be challenged in their views, ideas debated, new things tried.  But these are also places were formerly straight A students fail their first class, a lot of alcohol is consumed, and sometimes tensions flare.  Suicide is a real problem on many college campuses, and we want to put guns into the hands of those who maybe considering that option. I fear that more students carrying guns is going to cause a lot of deaths.  Add into that hate of other groups, or even fear about other groups.  We cannot be guided in our decisions by fear.

     And we can look into other areas also.  A shooting at an African American Church, was it because of their beliefs, or the color of their skin, or both?  A shooting in a movie theatre.  I donít think the reason has been established. 

     So what do we do, as we are waiting for Jesus to return, or the end to come?  If we are serious about wanting to bring about the Kingdom of heaven, not in some crazy cult like way, but if we are serious about a world where tax collectors, soldiers, outcasts, foreigners are welcomed.   If we are serious about those rules that we learned in Preschool, or on the playground in early Elementary school, what do we do?  If we want to live in a world that is ruled by peace and not be fear and violence, is there a way?

     I always admire ministers who wrap up sermons nice and neat.  You leave church and think ďOh, next week I will bring a can of soup for the food pantry.Ē  This is not one of those weeks, at least for me.  I believe that this passage calls us to action.  We are to share, we are to be fair, we are not to be bullies, but we are also called to be honest about our faith, and not let it be taken over by those who speak fear and hatred.  If we truly believe that our job or calling is to move the world toward the Kingdom of Heaven, It is our job to love our neighbors, even those neighbors who live on the other side of the world.  Unfortunately this is a lot bigger than bringing a can of soup next week, this is speaking the truth.  If it takes calling us a brood of vipers, or shaking us up in some way to realize that we are all part of this Kingdom we pray for, then God please shake me up, lead us, and help me to follow you.