I have a cartoon hanging on my study door which depicts a pastor sitting on a bench in a jail cell looking sullen. Beside him on the bench sits a seasoned convict with big bushy eyebrows and cauliflower ears. In the first panel the convict says to the pastor, “What are you in for?” In the second panel the pastor replies, “I had more than three points in my sermon.” In the final panel the convict moves as far away from the pastor on the bench as he can.
There is this unwritten rule that pastors are supposed to limit their sermons to three points and that church services are not to go over sixty minutes. I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist’s baptismal service went well beyond sixty minutes. Luke tells us that the crowds came out to John to be baptized. I’m imagining that it went for the better part of the day. But John had a very succinct three-point sermon for them which works very nicely into the message I have for us this morning.
Now, John did something in his sermon intro that I would never do. He called his congregation a “brood of vipers.” I imagine that got their attention. Then he gave a dire prophecy concerning the God’s coming judgment and scolded them for thinking that they were protected because they could trace their family tree back to Abraham.
Now, if I started a sermon that way with you, you would probably walk out and go home. But they didn’t. They wanted to know how to change their lives, how to make amendment, how to repent. The response John gives them is his three point sermon.
First, he told them that preparation for the coming kingdom requires kindness. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John told them, “and whoever has food must do likewise.” Second, he told them that preparation for the coming kingdom requires honesty. He told the tax collectors not to collect any more than the prescribed amount of taxes. He told the soldiers not to extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation. Thirdly, he told them that preparation for the coming kingdom requires hard work. He said, “Be satisfied with your wages.” There’s the three point sermon: kindness, honesty, hard work
You might expect the brood of vipers to say, “Is that all you’ve got, John?!” We want to know how to live as members of the kingdom of God and you give us three things? What about the 10 things Moses gave? Or the 613 do’s and don’t in scripture? What about the thousands of little laws in the Mishna. (Or maybe for us Christians centuries later, the voluminous cannon law sitting on the shelves in the Vatican.) We want to do things right, John. We want to live right with God. We can change. We’re not a brood of vipers. We’re willing to really pitch in, clean up our act, and make the world the way God wants it … and you give us kindness, honesty, and hard work?!
There was a segment on the Today Show recently about what values we want to teach our kids. A survey had been floated. The results were not necessarily surprising, but followed John’s three point sermon very nicely. Honesty topped the chart. We want to teach our kids honesty. Kindness was next. Kids should be taught kindness. And the third virtue we would like to instill in our children is a strong work ethic. There it is again, courtesy of NBC: Kindness, honesty, and hard work.
This is a good message for those of us, this holiday season, who (if we are honest with ourselves)… those of us who can sometimes be a brood of vipers, especially to one another. As we ask ourselves how to go about living in the kingdom God has given us and how to anticipate that time when God will make all things new, maybe the task isn’t so much doing this list of things and not doing that list of things, but rather being a certain way – incorporating these virtues into the very essence of who we are.
How do we instill in our children the values of kindness, honesty, and hard work? Well, by being kind, honest, and hard working. Thank you Captain Obvious! But here’s the thing. Waiting and watching for the unfolding kingdom of God in this way doesn’t just mold and transform our children. It molds and transforms others about us. Can we even begin to imagine what the world would be like if we all worked diligently to treat one another with dignity and respect? Can we even begin to imagine how others would change if we would treat other people with compassion, gentleness, consideration, and sympathy.
I came across a shopkeeper last week who was brusk with me, told me she was busy, and that I should go go back home and e-mail her about my needs. Immediately the “complaint” sign went on in my head and the objection was almost out of my mouth before I caught myself and said, “You look like you’re having a bad day. This really is a very trying season, isn’t it!” Immediately she looked up, warmed up, and began to talk about what I had come in for.
Also, if we are to teach kindness, honesty, and hard work to our children and demand the same from them, why shouldn’t we expect and demand the same from our leaders? The Washington Post gives Pinocchios to politicians who don’t tell the truth. Depending on the severity of the falsehood they tell they can be awarded one, two, three, or four Pinocchios. Many politicans, both Democrat and Republican, are awarded Pinocchios. But the lying has gotten so bad recently that the Post has had to create a whole new category – the “Pile of Pinocchios.” This is for politicians who have told the same lie more than twenty times. So far, only one person has received this high honor. However, others may not be far behind because truth, itself, is increasingly set aside in favor of the attitude which says that “if you tell the same lie enough times it will become true (or at least people will believe it.) It’s enough to want to yell at these people, “You brood of vipers.”
Kindness, honesty, hard work. During this season of Advent in which we look forward to the coming of the kingdom we are reminded that we are not the ones who build God’s kingdom. God does that. But there are two things I suspect about that. First, I suspect that God isn’t going to wait until the end of time as we know it as a continuum from the past to the future. I suspect that God is, even at this very moment, bringing his kingdom. I suspect that some of the “then in those days” which we talk about during in Advent is happening “now in these days.” Second, I suspect that God doesn’t magically wave a heavenly wand and miraculously make God’s kingdom come. I suspect he uses ordinary people – you and me – to make that happen. And I suspect God uses extraordinary people – like senators and representatives and presidents – to make it happen. That is why it is so important for us ordinary folk to wisely choose the extraordinary ones.
Someone has said that, if you go to sleep expecting God to move mountains, you should expect to wake up next to a shovel. Let’s expect both of those things. This is, after all, the season of expectations.
Text: Luke 3: 7-18