It’s always interesting to me when this passage comes up in Advent (as it does every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary). Advent is a time when people often come to worship, excited for Christmas and to hear the good news. Then the Gospel reading comes and they hear, “You brood of vipers…” But we shouldn’t be too surprised. Right before this Luke tells us that John is proclaiming a “baptism of repentance”. John is prophetically calling the people of the faith to turn their ways around. This is what it means to repent. And he means it. Remember Israel is waiting and longing to be restored at this point. Though it was nearly 20 years prior, to us it was only a chapter ago that we read about Simeon who was a devout man “looking forward to the consolation of Israel”. Israel is hurting at this time. And part of the reason for it (among other reasons) is (I believe) that they have lost their sense of purpose. From the very beginning, when God called Abraham, they were God’s chosen people to be a blessing for the world (Genesis 12:2). They haven’t lost their sense of being God’s chosen people, but they have lost their call to be a blessing.
So John calls them to repent. Their entire religious system, which was intended to be a blessing for the world, has become an institution that serves itself- it has become a blessing to itself. So John calls them to turn around and come back to who they were supposed to be. John says, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8). Being the decedents of Abraham is not unimportant, but it alone is not enough. Making mere decedents of Abraham has no bearing on the world at all if those descendants are not a blessing for the world. God could make and declare a stone a descendent of Abraham, but a stone cannot be a blessing.
Being God’s people means to be a people who are called to bless the world. The Church today does not exist to be an institution unto itself; we exist to give ourselves to the world and bless it. We exist to be God’s agents of justice and peace in the world. We exist not to build ourselves up, but to pour ourselves out. We exist not to have big buildings and programs but to step into a big mission of a big God. The Church does not thrive by drawing people in, but by laying itself down. John’s words are not just for 1st century Israel. They are for us today as well. As we move into our future, we need to remember that our success as God’s church is not defined by the size of our buildings, to size of our crowds, the bottom lines of our budget sheets, or the traffic on our websites. Our success as God’s church is defined by the degree to which we, as a gathered and scattered people, are a blessing to our neighbors, our community and our world.