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Fleeing The Wrath To Come
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LUKE 3:1-18

 

flood 76

Debris at the base of the Conemaugh

Dam near Saltsburg, PA – 1977

 

One of the vivid memories of my childhood growing up in western PA is that of the 1977 Johnstown Flood. On the night of July 19, a major thunderstorm stalled over Cambria County and dumped more than a foot of rain in just 24 hours, causing eight dams along the Conemaugh Valley to break and send 128 million gallons of water crashing down into Johnstown, killing 85 people, wiping out several small river villages, and putting the city under six feet of water. It was such a devastating flood that it effectively killed the steel industry in Johnstown, which was the lifeblood of that community.

 

My grandparents lived near one of the dams along the Conemaugh River about 30 miles downstream from Johnstown and when the flood hit, much of the debris collected at the base of the dam. Some of my cousins, who were volunteer firefighters, assisted in recovering some of the bodies of flood victims at the dam. I remember looking over the devastation, seeing the remnants of houses, appliances, cars, and thousands of trees all stacked up in the mud. It made a lasting impression on me.

 

The 1977 flood, of course, was not the only flood in Johnstown’s history. The first flood in 1889 was the most devastating, with 2,208 people lost when the South Fork Dam gave way and sent a 36-foot high wall of water through the valley. The dam had held back a private reservoir that had been purchased by some wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists for use as a private fishing club—people like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. But while the patrons enjoyed fishing on the lake, they did not pay much attention to the earthen dam. So when a similar storm stalled over the area on May 31, the dam breach was catastrophic.

 

download 4Many legends have emerged out of the history of the flood and one concerns the “Paul Revere” of Johnstown—a young man named Daniel Peyton who was said to have ridden a horse as fast as possible through the streets of town shouting a warning: “Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!” But the residents of the city, who were used to floods, did not heed the warning. Peyton himself was said to have been drowned by the flood while still riding his horse through town. Others later refuted the story about this brave herald of disaster—either because it wasn’t true or because they didn’t want to be seen as negligent of his warning. Whatever the case, as one Johnstown resident at the time said, the disaster caught them by surprise: “One moment life, the next one death.”

 

The idea of a lone herald desperately warning people of imminent disaster is intriguing, however. In fact, that was John the Baptist’s role. Here was a herald, standing in the river, warning his people to “flee from the wrath to come,” but in this case it seems that many at least gave him a hearing. Luke sets the scene for us here in chapter 3 and, interestingly, he begins with a list of the elites of the day who ruled over Judea—wealthy and powerful men who, like those industrialists of old, enjoyed lives of relative ease. In just a few decades, the oppressive systems these powerful men had presided over would continue to build up pressure on the region until it culminated in a rebellion that broke loose like a flood over the people of Judea. The war that finally broke in the late 60s AD would result in the deaths of thousands, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple that was the center of not only the Jewish faith but also the symbol of their nation.

 

And yet, in the midst of this time of tension, Luke tells us that the “word of God” came not to the wealthy and powerful in the cities, but to John, Son of Zechariah, in the “wilderness.” He roamed the region of the Jordan River, standing in that river and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In the face of an impending flood of terror, John came proclaiming a way out—the way to salvation—and it would involve being immersed in a different kind of flood—the water of baptism.

 

The imagery that look gives us is rich in symbolism and bathed in the promises of the Old Testament. The wilderness setting, of course, calls to mind the journey of the Israelites in the Exodus. It was the nowhere between two somewheres—the place between slavery and the Promised Land. Israel had miraculously journeyed through the Red Sea in the Exodus and through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, and now John stood in that same Jordan River proclaiming that a new Exodus had begun—that God was coming again to rescue his people. The image and quote from the prophet Isaiah gives us a clue—“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…” is taken from the time of another disaster in Israel’s history—when Jerusalem had been destroyed by another foreign invader and the people carried away in exile. But through Isaiah, God promised to bring them back, to lead them again through the wilderness back home. And now, John was saying, God was about to do it again—this time for good. That was good news, but it was also a warning—you had better be ready. Don’t miss the warning, for when God returns you will need to be standing with him on the high ground.

 

And so John stood in the Jordan River and baptized those who came out to hear him. Normally, baptism was reserved as a cleansing for Gentiles who wanted to become Jews; a way of removing their impurity. But John was insisting that it was Jews, too, who needed this baptism as a sign of their own conversion—their repentance, their turning back to God. They, too, needed “forgiveness of sins” and not just individually. For the Gospel writers, “forgiveness of sins” is a phrase that carries a great deal of weight—it wasn’t just about dealing with the sins of an individual (though it certainly includes that). “Forgiveness of sins” was a way of saying that God’s return was about setting things right once and for all, defeating the enemies of sin and death. Indeed, this is what the “gospel” is for Luke—it is the good news that God has come in person in Christ to set things right. The question, however, is whether those who hear it will heed this good news or ignore it. To embrace it is to move to higher ground; to ignore it will mean being swept away by his judgment.

 

Notice how John begins his sermon to the crowds: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). Most preaching professors wouldn’t recommend beginning a sermon this way, but John is no ordinary preacher. In the ancient world, many people believed that baby vipers were born by eating their way out of their mother’s womb—a frightening image that implied that her brood was worse than the snake itself. Perhaps this is John’s way of calling the people children of the devil, the accuser? We also know that a forest fire will send snakes and other animals scurrying in all directions to get away from the flames. John warns that the flame is coming in the form of “wrath.” What does he mean by that?

 

We tend to think of God’s “wrath” as God throwing an angry fit. But that’s not a good biblical way of looking at it. Biblically speaking, God’s “wrath” is God’s judgment and it’s popular today to say that we don’t want anything to do with judgment. We don’t want to be judged and it’s not good to judge others. Many people use the idea of judgment as an argument against Christianity. How can you worship a God who is so judgmental and who condemns people to hell. They see that as “unloving” and would rather have a God who is nothing but sweetness and light—a God who simply blesses whatever they happen to have in mind.

 

GOD’S JUDGMENT IS A VITAL ASPECT OF GOD’S LOVE

But the truth is that God’s judgment is a vital aspect of God’s love. Indeed, without God’s judgment, there is no reason to believe in God’s love. Without judgment, we would be worshipping a God who is indifferent to evil. A god who is indifferent to evil would be a god for whom humans have no value. A god who doesn’t judge is a god who says, “You can do whatever you like to each other, because none of you matter to me.” Notice what happens in places in the world where people do not fear God–they are places where people are disregarded as objects. We immediately think of places like Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, the killing fields of Cambodia, and Rwanda as examples of what happens when godless culture does whatever it wants. But there are other places—places like Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Wall Street—where people are treated as commodities to be bought and sold. We live in a world where, every day, people are being carried away in a flood of human tragedy that is the result of evil and indifference. A god without judgment would be like a dispassionate observer standing on the precipice of a dam watching the water spill over to destroy his world and doing nothing about it.

 

But the Bible tells us that we don’t worship that sort of god. In fact, God’s judgment isn’t actually the bad news—it’s the good news. It’s the news that God will not allow this evil to win. It’s the good news that God is the champion of the people he made in his image and will not allow them to be commodified. God is angry about what we do to each other because God loves his people. He is not indifferent; in fact he is such a fierce advocate for us that he will do anything—even die himself at the hands of evil—if that’s what it takes to rescue us.

 

John was the forerunner announcing that God was coming to do just that. But when he comes, John says, you had better be on the right side. It’s popular today for people to claim that they are on the “right side of history.” The truth is that the only side that matters is God’s side—and to be on that side you had better change your hearts and lives. It wasn’t about having the right pedigree. To the Jews he said, “Don’t say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’ God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.” To us he says, “Don’t think to yourself that calling yourself a Christian and doing a few nice things for people is enough.” Instead, you must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” You have to demonstrate who’s side you’re on. The flood is coming. Will you be rooted and fruitful like a strong tree planted by the river bank, or will you shrivel, be uprooted, fail to bear fruit and be destined for the pile of smoking rubble left over after the coming judgment?

 

It’s no wonder, then, that the crowds asked John the question, “What then should we do?” His answers all have to do with how people treat one another—to see God’s judgment for what it is: an invitation to fiercely care for people as much as God does. To the crowds he says, “Whoever has more than enough should share with those who are in need.” To the tax collectors, who treated people like ATMs, he says, “Don’t collect more that you’re supposed to.” To the soldiers, who treated people as inferiors, he said, “Don’t extort people by threatening them, but be satisfied with your pay.” His preaching was targeted at getting people in alignment with God’s love and God’s judgment—to declare by their baptism and by their actions that they will be on the high ground of God’s side both now and in the end.

 

The people wondered whether John was the Messiah. He quickly disavowed them of that notion, instead always pointing ahead to the one who would come after him. “I baptize you with water, but who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The water of John’s baptism was merely a dip in comparison to the great baptism to come. Luke’s reference to the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a foreshadowing of Pentecost, when Jesus’ people would be given the same power that powered his own ministry. It was a baptism that commissioned them for the work of Jesus; a baptism that would empower them to preach, to heal, to cast out demons, to do as Jesus would do—lifting people out of evil and restoring them to wholeness. It would be a baptism of empowerment to carry out God’s mission of restoring his people.

 

But it was also to be a baptism of fire that would burn away the leftovers and those who did not bear fruit. Like a wheat harvester, the coming Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff. He will be the righteous judge who will examine us and determine whose side we’re really on.

 

John stood in the middle of the river and declared that the flood of God’s judgment was coming. Jesus will say the same thing about his own return later in Luke’s Gospel. “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” A flood of violence would destroy Jerusalem and the temple within the disciples’ lifetime. But that would be nothing compared to the flood of God’s judgment to come—the great day when he comes to defeat evil once and for all.

 

Earlier in the service we lit the second Advent candle, which the medieval church saw as the candle of judgment. That sounds harsh—we’d rather talk about love, joy, hope, and peace. But John reminds us that God’s judgment is one of the reasons we can have love, joy, hope, and peace in the first place. God so loved the world that he refused to let it be swamped by sin and death. He loved the world enough to come in person and rescue it; he came in person, to rescue us.

 

DO YOU HAVE A DESIRE TO FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME?

In the early Methodist movement, the question asked of everyone who was considering joining one of the societies was an interesting one: “Do you have a desire to flee from the wrath to come?” It’s still a great question for Methodists today. It’s the question that will determine not only our desire, but our actions.

 

Whether Daniel Peyton rode through Johnstown on that May morning to give the warning, we don’t know for sure. We do know that it didn’t work. “One moment life, the next one death.”

 

We do know, however, that John is still standing in the middle of the river every Advent and calling us to heed his warning that God’s judgment is coming; calling us to choose sides; calling us to see God’s judgment as the good news that God cares for his people enough to do something about evil, sin, and death. And as God cares for us, so we must care for other people made in his image.

 

That’s the higher ground to which we are called. Those who have ears to hear the words of the prophet, let them hear. Amen.



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