Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Good news and wrath

The gospel text for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, Luke 3:7-18, begins with a torrent of terrifying words as John lays into the crowd with this challenge:  "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  These same words, in Matthew, are addressed only to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but here they are spoken to the whole multitude.  This is an indication of the difference between the two gospels, where (as Mark Allan Powell points out) in Matthew the leaders are consistently viewed as evil and aligned with Satan, but in Luke the leaders are viewed sympathetically.  The real puzzle in the text is its last verse:  "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."  Good news?  Where?

(The following questions are a sample from the appendix in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, which may be purchased by clicking on the image on this page.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  At first glance, the text seems to function almost completely as law.  Especially the opening volley suggests this.  But then John clues us in that his words are not about condemnation, but obedience.  He says, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  This is, in a nutshell, the call to obedience.  This word functions to say to the hearers, "Follow Jesus," not "You need Jesus," thus it is a call to obedience, not a word of Law.  This call to obedience is fleshed out even more when John specifically points out the fruits that different members of the crowd can bear.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard to discern a clear word of Gospel in this text, although clearly the Christ is presented in verses 16-17.  "One who is more powerful than I is coming... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."  The final verse, however, gives us pause, for the writer clearly views John's announcement as good news.  Is it a Gospel word that announces that Jesus will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire?  Perhaps, if that spirit and fire are a cleansing and freeing agent.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the multitude. We are people in the crowd.  We are the people who are "filled with expectation" and "questioning."  We are also those to whom John preaches good news.  Our reaction to John's words is likely the same reaction as the people of John's day:  repentance, questions of what to do, and questions about who Jesus is.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  The different scenes in the text suggest different couplets:  bearing no fruit/bearing fruit worthy of repentance, living unholy lives/living holy lives of service, questioning/believing.  Because this is a call-to-obedience text, the couplets are necessarily showing the contrast between a life that bears fruit and one that does not.

5. How does the Crossing Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde does a nice job of exploring the Law/Gospel implications for this text.  In his analysis, archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, he shows how the text leads from a love problem to a faith problem to a hope problem, and how Christ rescues us from that.  Check out study to see the whole analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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