“Children of Abraham”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Sometimes we read parts of the Bible that are just weird. Like this portion of John the Baptist's sermon in Luke 3. If you listen to (or read) sermons at St. Matthew's on a regular basis, you know that I don't usually preach like John does here. He starts off his message by insulting the crowds who have come to hear him: "You brood of vipers!"
Why is he so angry with them? What have they done wrong? What can we learn from this angry homily? In order to answer those questions, we sometimes need to step back from the one story we're reading and look at the big picture of the Bible and our life in the Church.
What are we doing when we come to church? Why are we here?
A lot of people turn to religion to find simple, straightforward answers. What do I do? How do I live? But that’s the easy way out. Rules can’t fit every situation. Rules are too limiting.
Instead, we’re not just learning rules. We are getting to know God’s personality. We are getting to know the vast, mysterious, bewildering nature of God: what God loves and wants for you and the world. So when we gather together to pray, read the Bible, and receive the sacraments, we’re trying to expand our imaginations.
We’re trying to see the world the way God sees the world, to open our eyes and our minds to God’s way. Because God’s imagination is more real than ours. God’s imagination matters more because it will last more than the broken world we create.
So when we come to a challenging piece of the Bible, like this passage from Luke 3, one of the wise questions we can ask is, How does this help me imagine the world through God’s eyes?
John warns the Jewish crowds that they must repent in order to inherit God’s kingdom. They are biological descendants of Abraham, but they cannot just rely on their family heritage, their ethnic identity, or their national religion. They need to repent and live as children of Abraham because “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” You can’t just rest assured in your credentials and call yourself a child of Abraham, says John, you need to live like one.
What does it mean to be a child of Abraham? We need to explore the story of Abraham in order to get to know the kind of like John calls us to, the life Jesus calls us to, the life God calls us to.
Abraham was called by God to leave his homeland. He broke the cycle of generational repetition.
Pastor and author Rob Bell says it this way:
“Abraham, we learn in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, left his father’s household and everything familiar and set out on a journey to a new land. People didn’t do that at that time in history because they had a cyclical view of history in which everything that has happened will happen again. They believed that you’re born into a cycle of events and you’ll die somewhere in that same cycle of events as the cycle endlessly repeats itself.
“In other words, there’s nothing new.
“What happened to your ancestors will eventually happen to you, and then it will happen to your children as your family goes round and round the cycle.
“But then Abraham leaves. He steps out of the cycle. He walks into a new future, one that hasn’t happened before. No one had ever done that before because no one had ever conceived of the world and life and the future like that before.
“This was a new idea in human history -- that you weren’t stuck, that you didn’t have to repeat everything that had already happened” (Bell, 11).
Once God commanded him to go, he refused to conform to the patterns of the world as he knew it. He did something different. Here are God’s words to Abraham: “The LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Gen 12:1-3).
Did you hear that? Abraham’s first and most important calling to be blessed so that he will be a blessing to others. God has chosen him, not to rule or dominate the world, but to bless it. In him, all the families and peoples of the earth will be blessed.
But in order to understand the nature of this blessing, we need to back up even further. Abraham left the world of Ur, where empires and slavery and oppression were becoming the norm. Abraham’s story begins in Genesis 12, but in Genesis 11, we hear the story of the Tower of Babel. Babel (Babylon) tries to organize the people of the earth to build a tower to heaven so that they can usurp God’s power and rule the world.
Babylon tries to enact this hubris through oppressive means: Who do you think built the tower? Who would benefit from the power and wealth they gained by building it? This tower (like most major projects of empire) was built on the backs of the poor. So God steps in.
Bell again writes,
“By the end of chapter 11 -- the chapter before we meet Abraham -- people are setting up empires to oppress the masses, entire systems perpetuating injustice.
“How much worse can it get?
“That’s the question hanging in the air when the storyteller introduces us to this man Abraham who decides to leave and start something new. He’s leaving his home, but he’s also leaving an entire way of life.
“The storyteller wants you, the reader, to know that Abraham has a destiny to fulfill in which he becomes the father of a new kind of people to usher in a new era for humanity -- one based in love, not violence. As Abraham is told in chapter 12, all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Bell, 12; emphasis added).
So God sees us careening toward chaos, oppression, and injustice and God will not sit idly by. God breaks our pattern first by dividing the people of Babel with different languages and then by calling Abraham to a new life.
God responds to human waywardness and sin with blessings. The blessings come slowly, beginning with one chosen man, family, tribe, and nation.
But the children of Abraham know their true purpose -- to bless all the peoples of the earth. That’s what John is talking about in Luke 3. He criticizes the crowds for calling themselves children of Abraham, but not blessing all peoples.
And how do you bless all peoples? By disrupting violence, injustice, and oppression. We bless all peoples by rejecting the ways of empire-building, ways that crush the weak to benefit the strong few. We bless all peoples when we give away what we have but don't need to those who do need it. We bless all peoples by refusing to exploit those under our authority, even if we’re allowed to because we’re tax collectors or soldiers. We bless all peoples by repenting from violence and greed.
We live as children of Abraham when we have the godly imagination to do something different than repeating the mistakes of our ancestors. We become children of Abraham when we listen for God’s voice, calling us to be a blessing in a world full of curses. And if John the Baptist called his listeners to do and be all this, how much more can the church accomplish by the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that rose Jesus Christ from dead?
Don’t be content to do what we’ve always done. Don't get stuck in a spiritual, political, or financial rut. Be bold like Abraham and follow God’s will into the unknown, where danger may lie but blessings abound for all. Amen.
Bell, Rob. What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. New York: HarperOne, 2017.