“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7). Wow, is that John the Baptizer’s suggested homiletical greeting for Gaudete? That historic name for next Sunday, taken from the first words of the Latin introit (from Philippians 4), means “Rejoice!” Such rejoicing is heard clearly in Sunday’s first lesson (Zephaniah 3) and 2nd lesson (Philippians 4), but where is it in Luke 3:7-18? “Rejoice…O brood of vipers”???
But before the gospel ends, there is rejoicing aplenty in humble simplicity. You just have to wait for it! And it will be a bit of a wait since “brood of vipers” are indeed the first words out of John’s mouth! And, unlike Matthew (3:7), Luke does not put “brood of vipers” into John’s mouth aimed only at self-righteous, heresy-hunting Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke lets us know that John’s call to repentance was also a broadside aimed at the entire crowd! Yes, that Jewish crowd so quick to take refuge in their descent from Abraham was abruptly warned that coursing through their veins was a poisonous inheritance that made them candidates not for exaltation but execution. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire?” Gaudete? Rejoice? Wait for it!
But the broadside is aimed more broadly still! The crowd that will be sitting before you, and, even the man standing in your pulpit this Sunday, are also in John’s line of fire! The heart with which we too were born – and that still troubles us to this very day more than we like to admit – traces its ancestry to the poisonous liar and father of all lies. And it will also do us no good to exclaim that we have Pieper, Koehler, and Schaller as our fathers. This is the path to rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday? Wait for it!
Left unspoken in Sunday’s gospel – because it had just been underlined in last Sunday’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6) – is John’s invitation to the only real way to avoid the wrath to come. While we know there were those who left in a huff when John besmirched their ancestry, there were many who did not leave. Confessing their sins, they found healing for the venom coursing within them in that baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins! And joy had budded!
And then rejoicing blossomed into full fruit! Stepping out of that baptism, many asked an important question suggested by John’s earlier words about the fruit of repentance: what it would look like to live as offspring of a merciful God rather than as the brood of vipers?
And so, unique to Luke’s reporting, an impromptu catechesis breaks out! First, we hear from the crowd in general, “What should we do then?” John calls them to merciful kindness just as they had been mercied: “The man who has two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” As Martin Franzmann points out, that’s practical fruit of repentance advice for a crowd temporarily gathered in a climate-fluctuating and foodless-wilderness! And then, so true to the tone of Luke’s gospel, it is those we least expect to hear from, tax collectors, and soldiers in Rome’s or Herod’s employ, who ask next: “What should we do?” To the tax collectors John urges: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to!” And to the soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay!” John does not direct the tax collectors or soldiers to flee their vocations, nothing is said about living as wilderness ascetics. Far from it, they are directed back to their daily vocations to reflect mercy as they have known mercy.
In fact, could not all of John’s specific encouragements be summed up by one word Paul uses in the 2nd lesson? How do we rejoice in the Lord of free and faithful grace? “Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:5). So yes, we had to wait for it, but from those identified by nature as a “brood of vipers” comes rejoicing in the daily humility of vocations lived in the gentleness forged by the forgiveness of sins!
But, a rare partial manuscript of Luke 3 (strangely, found only in my office in Mequon and bearing the marks of my own handwriting) suggests there was one more group who came forward that day. It was WELS pastors asking, “And what should we do?”
Well, what should we do? What will the rejoicing of gentleness of heart look like as our venomous ancestry is overwhelmed by God’s mercy? Well, as John’s pattern with the tax collectors and soldiers would indicate, he would send us back out on this Gaudete Sunday to live joyful gentleness right within our godly vocations (husband, father, friend, etc.).
But allow me to focus on your pastoral vocation. What specifics might John speak to us for what it looks like in our pastoral vocations to live out the gentleness of mercy to which John pointed the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers? I can think of no better place to answer that than with Peter’s appeal as an elder to other elders. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-4). There every public ministry has concrete rejoicing opportunities for a whole year of Gaudete Sundays!
Allow me to leave you with an encouragement as 2018 draws to a close and 2019 dawns (deo volente). After the wonderful – and tiring – busyness of Advent and Christmas has passed, set aside a day or two in the new year for honest evaluation of your ministry. Our viper-generated natural hearts are always robbing us of a willing spirit in our ministries, making us greedy for worldly gain, and causing us to lead with a proud spirit more akin to George Patton than Jesus Christ. Search diligently for wherever your brood of vipers heart has been showing itself lately (no one would be in worse shape than those who claim to find no evidence of his presence!).
Do you hear his hissing in your impatience with the weaknesses of God’s people? Is it cynicism that thinks things at our calling will never really change? Is it defeatism that judges you are merely beating your head against a wall? Is it proud arrogance that leads us to drive the sheep with sharp words rather than leading them by humble example? Wherever that offspring-of-a-viper nature reveals itself – and God’s grace alone gives us the courage to look closely! – take it to the water of your baptism and (re)drown it!
And then, marvel at the patient mercy of God that does not chase you away from coming back (yet again!) to your baptism! Marvel at the welcoming arms of a merciful Savior as you rest yet again in the embrace of his grace (rather than feeling the edge of his ax!). And then, as you step away from that water renewed and refreshed, ask: “And what should we do?” In our pastoral calling – as in all your God-given callings – rejoice in 2019 by finding his strength to see and seize opportunities new and old to produce fruit in keeping with repentance!
Gaudete! Rejoice! “Lord, what should we do?”