Sermon: Wells of Salvation

December 16, 2018
Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

I’ve been conducting an unscientific survey this week, and I’d like you to participate, if you would.

How many of you think that I should begin all my sermons with, “You brood of vipers”?


As Kathy Beach-Verhey writes (in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), “No one wants to be chastised by John the Baptist this close to Christmas.” At a guess, I would think nobod ywants to be chastised by John the Baptist at any other time of the year, either.

Our lectionary editors have handed us over to that fierce prophet of the wilderness, that wild and unkempt figure relentlessly summoning us to a baptism of repentance, that sharp-tongued and flame-eyed beacon of harsh righteousness, on the third Sunday of Advent. The Sunday of Joy.

We got to hear the lyricism of Isaiah’s song of promise: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation,” followed shortly by: “You brood of vipers.”

And yes, when John says it, I hear myself among the vipers.

Let’s at least take a look at his exacting demands. They asked him, “What should we do?” and the least we can do is listen, with some trepidation, to his answers:

Answer one: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.”

Wait. What? Just one coat? Not both?

Answer two: “Whoever has food must do likewise” – that is, share.

Fifteen chapters later in this gospel, a ruler will ask Jesus what he should do, and Jesus will tell him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Answer three: “Tax collectors, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, don’t follow the practice of collecting more than what was due in the district and pocketing the difference.

Answer four: “Soldiers, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.” Don’t abuse your authority.

As Kathryn Matthews writes, “I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me, are that basic justice and goodness that would knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built. A justice and goodness that would take the air, the power,out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.”

There was nothing new in John’s ethical preaching. He sounded like the ancient law. He sounded like the prophets. He sounded like the teachers of wisdom.

To paraphrase a different prophet: Do justice. Love faithfully. Walk humbly with your God.

Pity poor John. He also sounded like the Messiah whose coming he proclaimed, the Teacher whose demands were actually greater – and John is the one we fear. If you want to worry about someone asking something more of you, worry about Jesus.

Jesus, after all, told the story about the gardener and the fig tree. Give it another year, said the gardener to the landowner, and if it doesn’t bear fruit then, you can cut it down (Luke 13:9).

We should be worried about that phrase, “you can cut it down.”

I’ve been thinking about another thing Jesus said, about being blessed for giving someone a cup of water. Jakelin Caal Maquin, a seven year old fleeing from violence in Guatemala, turned herself in to the Border Patrol as part of a large group applying for asylum in the United States. Hours later, she began having seizures. A day later, she was dead of exhaustion and dehydration.

Dehydration. Why hadn’t she been given any water?

Suddenly I think I’d prefer the brood of vipers.

Public officials and professional pundits this week have blamed the girl’s father for taking her on the long, hazardous journey – public officials and professional pundits with comfortable lives, who have not faced the choice of nearly certain death at home and not quite as certain death becoming a refugee. It’s as if they think that all these desperate people are seeking the United States out of greed.

James Martin writes, “Blaming the migrant parents for the death of #JakelinCaal is a perversion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is blaming the man for being beaten: ‘You should never have taken the Road to Jericho! You deserved what you got!’ We are called to help the stranger not blame them.”

If I’ve got a choice, I think I might take the vipers. They don’t pretend to have mercy.

John’s message on this third Sunday of Advent reminds us of the source of joy. Joy rises, like a spring, from the bedrock of human righteousness. Joy rises, as in a well, from the foundation of human justice. Joy rises, like a fountain, with the energy of human love.

John’s ethics were nothing new. John’s urgency did have a new reason: his conviction – correctly so – that God’s promised Messiah was at hand. This was, and is, the foundational source: divine righteousness that underlies human righteousness. Divine justice that guides human justice. Divine love that empowers human love.

John got a little excited with all that. I think I’ll forgive him that “brood of vipers” remark. When you get excited, sometimes you say things you might regret.

Because he did bring the words of salvation, the water rising from the wells of salvation. He renewed the ancient call to righteousness, justice, compassion, and care. He renewed the foundations of joy.

As we keep filling grocery bags this Advent, we do so with John’s words ringing in our ears. We know that there is much sharing to do. We know that there are yet more who are desperate for a cup of water, a pinch of justice, a hand of compassion.

And as we keep filling grocery bags this Advent, let us do so conscious of the joy it brings: the joy of sharing, the joy of caring, the joy of living God’s righteousness.

Joy rises, like a spring, from the bedrock of human righteousness. Joy rises, as in a well, from the foundation of human justice. Joy rises, like a fountain, with the energy of human love.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Some preachers stay strictly to their prepared text. Others… less so. Guess which one Pastor Eric is?

The image is “San Jean-Baptiste” by Alexandre Cabanel (1849). Public Domain.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on December 16, 2018

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