“What should we do?”
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
Today is the third Sunday of the Advent, and the candle we lit is the pink one which signifies “Joy” which I would say ‘exceeding happiness’. Whose “joy”, whose ‘exceeding happiness’ is it? “Joy to the world the Lord has come…” During the Advent season, when we say, “Joy”, we usually think “joy” in terms of our joy for having our savior who was born in our midst. But today, I would like to direct our attention to God Almighty who dances out of exceeding happiness in our midst. Can you imagine our God singing loudly over us? Zephaniah 3: 17 we just read, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Wow, what a picture! Our God, our greatest, mightiest and highest God exults over us with loud singing! Can you imagine our God who is overjoyed and exulted over us who have come to God through our Lord, our Savior, whose name is “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? “Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end.” But the sad reality is, for some people, when the day of the Lord arrives (referring to his Second Coming), it will not be joyful or a happy day, but a terrifying and dreadful day it will be. For some, it will be a happiest and joyful day, but for some, it will be a terrifying and dreadful day. The dividing line is not whether we have religion, but whether we have repented and have come under the wings of God’s salvation through our Savior and our Lord Jesus the Christ.
Our New Testament lesson Luke 3:7-18 gives a realistic picture of our fallen humanity which is in desperate need of God’s salvation. Let us look at closely verse 7. There are several things we have to pay attention to:
1) John the Baptist called those people who came to him to be baptized as “brood of vipers or generation of vipers”. Although some might think that John the Baptist was very harsh in denunciating them as “Brood of vipers”, he was simply telling them realistically of their rotten condition: ‘You are a brood of vipers, which means’, you are children of Satan. In Genesis 3 Satan is pictured as a serpent or a viper, and God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between your seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15) So when anybody said you were the seed or the brood of a viper, it was the same as saying you were children of the devil. In this context, John’s first word in our text to his listeners was bluntly telling them that ‘you all failed to keep God’s commandments. You all are sinful as you are disobedient to God being in Satan’s grip’.
2) John the Baptist warns that there is wrath on the way for those who are in Satan’s grip being disobedient to God. God will bring judgment upon Satan and all his allies. In verse 9 “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which brings not forth good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.”
3) There is an escape from wrath. “Who hath warned you to flee” in verse 7 implies that there is a way to flee from the wrath that is coming. ‘You can flee from your wrathful destiny; the brood of viper can flee to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. When God forgives sins, it is the same as removing his wrath. There is no more condemnation for those who repent and receive forgiveness. In other words, John the Baptist requires them to be baptized with water in response to their repentance, their turning to God. He calls them to demonstrate the seriousness of their turning by accepting baptism in the Jordan river. This was a significant demand of John on his Jewish brothers and sisters. Though today the word “baptism” generally identifies with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, so we might think that baptism began with Christianity. But it was not. For years before Christ, the Jews had used baptism in ritual cleansing ceremonies of Gentile proselytes. In this light, in John’s time in a Jewish context, baptism had one main significance among the Jews: it was the symbolic ritual that proselytes had to go through to become Jewish. This made John’s baptism seriously offensive for some since it implied that unless the Jews were willing to repent, they were not really Jews and could not count on the promised blessings God had made to his chosen people. Or to put it another way, in calling Jews to accept the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, John was telling them that they cannot rely on their Jewishness for salvation; they have to be changed in their heart toward God. As Jews, they knew the word of God, they prayed, they gave alms sharing what they had with people in need. They gave the tithe. They fasted regularly. Yet Jewishness is no guarantee of salvation.
What does that tell us? Just because we belong to Christian church, just because we are born into a Christian family, just because we read bible, just because we pray in the name of Jesus, –no matter how long we pray, just because we fast religiously, just because we give alms at times, those things do not guarantee that we are children of God unless we repent, truly turned to God and are covered by the Christ’s forgiving blood.
4) There is someone who has warned them to flee from the coming wrath. Again verse 7 “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” There was the multitude who came to be baptized by John the Baptist, and he asked them, “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Who is it that constantly knocking our hearts to repent our sins, to turn our hearts toward God, to correct our wrongful ways? It is God who draws our hearts to near God, prompting us to correct our ways. Days and nights God calls us to repent when we go astray from the path of God. The constant guilt, heavy-hearted, heavyweight weighing down on us, sleepless nights suffering from discomfort until we reconcile with our loved ones or people around us, make peace or accept or forgive them or share things with them, God constantly knocks our hearts with. When I had a serious argument with mom, hurting my mom so badly with my insolent words and deeds until I apologized and asked for forgiveness from my mom, God did not leave me alone but constantly prompting me to repent, and I am thankful for that. We have to be careful responding to God quickly when that happens. Otherwise, if we get so used to ignore God’s promptings, our hearts become hardened to the point that we do not feel it any longer and getting deeper and deeper into sin.
We can see from those points we have covered together so far, John pictures the Messiah’s coming as verse 17 “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.”— There is wheat and there is chaff. There are sons of God and sons of the viper, and the one will be gathered into the barn of heaven and the other thrown into the fire of hell. “It will be a terrifying and dreadful day for children of vipers and it will be a happy and rejoicing day for children of God. Indeed, “Joy to the world the Lord has come”, but only for those who are children of God, it is a joy and happiness. For the children of a viper, it is the fearful, dreadful and terrifying day; it is the day for them to be thrown into hell. Judgment has been decreed already since Christ has come in our midst. For those who have received Christ in our heart by repenting our sins, it is “JOY”, yes, it is “JOY”!! But for those whose heart is hardened and not accepting Jesus as his or her Lord and Savior by repenting of one’s sins, that person is living in hell, away from God’s grace and mercy.
Now it is time for us to hear John the Baptist, his final words. When he preached the message of forgiveness requiring the repentance of sins, and people who responded to God’s prompting with the baptism of repentance, they asked, “What should we do?”
John answered, ‘If your baptism of repentance is genuine, as you have come to the river of life symbolically washed away your sins, then bear fruits of repentance’. By the fruits you bear, we should know whether you have become a child of God. The choice is yours. Now that you are repenting, there is fruit that comes from genuine repentance. Start bearing that fruit as a witness to others and to your own conscience that you have truly turned to God.
If I may paraphrase, verse 11 If you had been stingy, then repent of your sin and start sharing. Give what belongs to God. Also, if you have two coats, give to someone who has none. If you have something to spare, do not keep it to yourself, share what you have with those who do not have. Don’t criticize and call them lazy or undeserving but share. Verse 12 Then to the government officials who had been lording over people abusing their power, he said, stop misusing your power, do the right things within your given authority. Verse 14 And to those soldiers who had been violent with others and accusing falsely to extort money from others, he said, do not harm others anymore. Do not try to gain illegally.
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What are the things we have to stop doing what we had been doing as a genuine sign of our repentance, as fruits of our repentance? Living in sexual promiscuity, pornography, adultery, stealing, lying, criticizing, judging, unforgiving, indifference to other people’s suffering, unaccepting, racism?? Only you and God knows something God has been prompting you to change in your heart and life. Today is the day of salvation. Let us become children of God by bearing fruits of genuine repentance so that we can join in and thankful for God being in our midst, rejoicing over us with gladness, who renews us in his love, exulting over us with loud singing. Amen and Amen.
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