October 26, 2020

Advent III: Bearing the fruits of mercy


Advent III
Bearing the fruits of mercy

I find today’s Gospel reading most interesting and instructive.

stjohn3:7 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?

3:8 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.

3:9 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.”

3:10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

3:11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

3:13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

3:14 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.”

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 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.

3:17 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.”

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

• Luke 3:7-18

The part I find most intriguing is the final verse:

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Everything Lutheran in me recoils at these words. In my tradition we make a strong distinction between “exhortations” and proclaiming “the good news.”

We are taught that exhortations are Law, directed to me, divine commandments telling me how to live and what to do. The good news on the other hand is Gospel, a declaration of what God has done, is doing, and will do for me in Jesus Christ.

We are also taught that, in God’s economy the two work together. Through hearing the Law (divine exhortations) I recognize my sinfulness and inability to fulfill God’s commandments. Then, despairing of my own righteousness, I hear the Gospel, which assures me of Christ’s righteousness that is mine through the living union with him that comes through faith. As Luther said in the Heidelberg Disputation: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

However, the text before us links John’s exhortations with proclaiming the good news in a much different kind of way.

  • John proclaimed the good news by exhorting the people.
  • With exhortations he proclaimed the good news.

Now, perhaps John’s words could be understood in different ways:

  • Perhaps John was preaching two things: (1) he gave exhortations, and (2) along with those exhortations he proclaimed the good news.
  • Perhaps, as Raymond Brown suggests in his commentary, the later meaning of the Greek word euangelizesthai (proclaiming the Christian message of salvation) is not indicated at this point, and the focus in simply on depicting John as an exhorter of the people.
  • Perhaps this is simply a typical Lukan summary statement (which are common throughout Luke/Acts) and shouldn’t be pressed too hard. John had a ministry of proclaiming good news, in the context of which he gave the kinds of exhortations we see in the preceding passage.

But these seem to me to miss the plain reading of the text. John proclaimed the good news by exhorting the people, as is portrayed in the preceding verses.

If that is the case, John not only preached the gospel by pointing people to Christ (3:16-17 — though notice that even here the emphasis is not primarily on Jesus bringing salvation but the fire of judgment on Israel), but also by telling them, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8) and then detailing what that might look like in different cases.

What I find interesting is that, in the specific exhortations John gives, there is an emphasis on showing mercy to others.

  • The one who has more than he needs must share with the one who has nothing.
  • Those who collect taxes must not take more than they are due from others.
  • Soldiers must be content and abstain from extorting, especially through threatening or mistreating others.

Then, observe, it was these very exhortations that moved the people to be “filled with expectation” and to wonder whether John “might be the Messiah” (3:15).

In other words, their expectation was not simply that a Messiah would come to save them from their enemies, but that the Messiah would come as a prophet, proclaiming God’s mercy and the fruits it would bear in their lives. The good news of God’s mercy toward us in Jesus is both salvific and transformative.

The “good news” they heard in these “exhortations” was that Messiah would both bring them mercy and make them merciful.

This is why, during Advent, we are not just looking for Jesus to come and deliver us from evil.

We are also looking for Jesus to make us people who will confront the evil in ourselves and in the world with mercy, grace, kindness, and love.


  1. 3:8 – A good modern paraphrase would be to replace Abraham with “favorite religious figure”.
    I wonder if the “heartfelt questioning”, is due to an innate knowledge that repentance results in some type of action rather than “preaching it”. I think non Christians sense this reality which is too often buried in vacuous systematic theology.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > an innate knowledge that repentance results in

      I disagree, your wording still keeps the fatal flaw in law-vs-grace thinking – the SPLIT. “results” is the flaw, and why law-vs-grace is rubbish theology. It will always result in pointless tedious hair-splitting.

      Perhaps repentance ********IS******** “some type of **action**”? No “result”, no “in”. Is. No split. A Person cannot be subject to moral vivisection and still be a Person, what you then have is just slices of something formerly a Person.

      > I think non Christians sense this reality

      I believe it is the demand for some kind of dualism that imposes upon reality the thinking that results in this discomfort and tedium.

      • What does repentance even look like in a completely NT, post-Jesus, gospel sense? Is it stopping to sin, and if so, what does sin look like?

        It’s not adherence to Israel moral laws. It’s not abiding by the Ten Commandments, because, let’s face it, most of us don’t go murdering and stealing.

        Is it doing what Jesus commanded, to take care of others and love them? So when you are doing those things, you are in sin, and need to repent?

        All good questions, very little answers out there.

        Had a minor epiphany this morning. I may face an instance this evening where someone asks me if I believe if the Bible is the Word of God. And my gut answer now is no, absolutely not.

        The Bible is not the Word of God. It may contain the Words of God, but it’s not “The Word of God”. There’s a difference in ideas and understandings between saying “The Word of God” and the “Holy Scriptures”, even. One are collected writings given to us over hundreds and thousands of years that are profitable for etc. The key documents of the faith. But the other is a position imposed upon the whole that both the text and history have never accepted or given until very recently.

        Probably a minor epiphany for many, but for someone growing up in biblical idolatry, I know I had those two ideas in my head, but always separately, never together, never with their full conclusion in view.

        Just another moment.

        • Thanks for sharing your epiphany, Stuart. It’s nice to have a fairly safe place like I-Monk to talk about stuff like that, eh?

      • Hi Adam.

        I’m not Lutheran so I am not aware I’m using the definition you have ascribed.. My point was that due to God’s image in mankind, people are innately aware that true repentance means change in some way. It is only “modern thinking” that has divorced action from faith. Sure there may been some examples in antiquity of workless faith, but IT suggest that was an abberation..


  2. I came to the Lutheran faith as an adult. They helped me understand the importance of and the difference between law and gospel in ways I was never taught as a Catholic. However, sometimes I felt they made it too simple:

    The law shames us. Shows us our sin. Kills us. Gospel lifts us. Shows us our righteousness in Jesus. Saves us.
    God is presented as both wrathful and loving, yet perfectly just in all He does. At times He seems almost schizophrenic!

    Perhaps law and gospel are more intricately interwoven than this. As John shows us today, love and mercy are written into the law in many places, and part of preaching the good news includes God clearing the threshing floor.

    Law without the gospel knows no mercy. The gospel without law requires no mercy. For mercy to be fully understood and appreciated, law and gospel must be presented as a complete package. Our modern churches always seem to tilt too far to one side or the other.

    • Well put.

      • CM, i have honestly never heard this (to me, overlydimplistic) “law/godpel” thing in my part of the ELCA – mid-Atlantic states, churches go back to the early-mid 1700s.

        I am troubled by the indidtrnce that this is *the* Lutheran way of looking at things, if only bevause i think it is very out of balance in. re. the Hebrew Bible and Judaism itsrlf. Paul was tslking about what he saw, and in Romans, becomes extremely personal snd states thst it’s because of his own flaws, not “the Law” per se.

        But… when i was young, the Holocaust was still an immediate reality, and there were many Jewish people in my home town and in this rehion as a whole. I think thst local Roundtable of Christians and Jews organizatiins (they are still called thst) gave msny ministers and lsy people an opportunity to be in dialogue with both rsbbis and Jewish lay people on this anf other isdues, and that maybe had quite a bit of influence o why the law/gospel dichotomy wasn’t emphasizec from the pulpit. Buy, over 50 years lster, it’s still not a focud, so…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I came to the Lutheran faith as an adult. They helped me understand the importance of and the difference between law and gospel in ways I was never taught as a Catholic. However, sometimes I felt they made it too simple:

      Yeah. We used to have a frequent commenter here whose comments were almost always “The law shames us. Shows us our sin. Kills us. Gospel lifts us. Shows us our righteousness in Jesus. Saves us.” sermonettes. And anything even suggesting works were LAW LAW LAW. Justification by FAITH FAITH FAITH alone.

      Remember “Cage Phase Calvinists”? This guy came across as a Cage Phase Lutheran.

    • Minor pushback: yet both hinge on ancient misunderstandings and assumptions about what Scripture is and how it should be interpreted. Just like Augustine was vastly wrong about what happens with “sin inheritance”, so too do a lot of understandings of what ancient Israelite laws actually were (to use one definition of Law).

      Honest question: could it be said that Luther created his own definitions of Law and Gospel in order to craft his theology?

      • Stuart, i think Luther overemphasized parts of whst Paul said j Romans, to the ecvludion ov other things said by both Jesus and Paul – which, if taken into acvount, give a more balancec view.

        I’m afrsid thst thisnis very much linked to Luther’s virulent anti-semitism. Should note that thd ELCA has publicly repudiated his anti-semitic screeds (“In the Jews and their lies” is hortific, but has never been called out by other Lutheran synods in the US; Getmanyn*had* to denounce it post-WWII, since Lutheranism was the state church during the Nazi era).

        Just my .02 …

  3. Coming from a Pentecostal background this is how I’ve ALWAYS understood this passage. Maybe it was just the way I understood it DESPITE the words coming from the pulpit, bu it also indicates that, sometimes, we need to have someone tell us what mercy looks like because it is so contrary to our natural way of thinking. Sure, the Spirit leads us to sanctification, but because we a re so ingrained in the ways of sin we need to be shown the street signs pointing us in the right direction. This isn’t “Law”, this exhortation is itself mercy!</i?

    • I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

      I heard this part preached often in my pentecostal days, but never once did I hear anyone explain to me what all the many forms of baptism were and where they were in the Bible. Just random utterings about “water spirit and fire plus four more..” or something.

    • we need to have someone tell us what mercy looks like because it is so contrary to our natural way of thinking

      Mercy from what? Half a thought, but with the OT Law done away with…what do we need mercy from? Violating the OT law? Yet it’s done, null and void, and has no effect on anyone. Or is that just people in Christ? Which, again…God saving us from God.

      • How is the moral law void? Jesus said differently.

        I think people use the word “law” as shorthand for a number of different, often contradictory, ideas. I eish we woild all spell them out a bit more.

        I grew up with Conservative Jewish folks whose parents had bern raised Orthodox. (Their grandparents were first generation immigrsnts.) Becoming Conservative allowed their families to keep certain traditions, while at the same time finding greater freedom. I know somemof my peers didn’t like going to Hebrew school, but spart from that (plus grumbling about the Yom Kippur fast), i never heard snyone – parents or children – complsining about how hardnit wss to “keep the law.” I think muchmof evangrlicalism is FAR more restrictive and exacting than either Conservative or Reform Judaism, and some flavors of Orthodox Judsism, too.


        • But i am also very much of the school of though rr. Psul continuing to be an observant Pharisee after coming to belief in Jesus. He says as much, and i think this isdue is more complex than we realize; also that we lack the cultursl context thst was a given for his earliest readers/hearers.

          And that Paul was, in some wsys, both inconsistent and a bit eccentric in his intetpretations.

          Agsin, fwiw.

    • ” . . . if you give yourself to the hungry
      And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
      Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday.
      11 “And the LORD will continually guide you,
      And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
      And give strength to your bones;
      And you will be like a watered garden,
      And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail . . . ”

      (from Isaiah 58)

  4. “We are also looking for Jesus to make us people who will confront the evil in ourselves”

    This is hardest part of the faith. The part that has made me want to quit the faith so many times. The very One we need is our flesh’s enemy and our soul’s Savior. Lord help us all.

  5. Two phrases that come to mind:
    “Work out your salvation…” “…training in righteousness.”
    If no progress is made and no change in behavior results then we are spoiled babies in the faith. All soldiers are members of the armed forces but the battle tested are much more valuable to the force than the cadets. In fact the cadets are still a drain where the experienced soldier is an addition who needs little tending. Absolutely, there is a place for exhortation and it is a gospel thing.

    • If no progress is made and no change in behavior results then we are spoiled babies in the faith.

      I’d say no, not in the slightest, but by what measure are we judging progress? You used to drink and you don’t no more? You used to womanize and you don’t no more? You used to vote Democrat and you don’t no more?

      Or did you start taking care of the poor, standing up for the slighted, and start loving others? Did you start looking more like Jesus in your actions, or like an orthodox Pharisee in your habits?

      • You used to lie and cheat and swindle and look for Numero Uno and cut corners and hey, nobody’ll know and ridicule and demean and see how much you could get away with and laugh at those in need, and you don’t no more?

        • I don’t know if I believe in adult conversion. I don’t see it, don’t think I ever have. I’ve seen people hit rock bottom and find a purpose in a sense of rules and regulations, 12 steps, a neglected overbearing father figure, a community of strong willed individuals to conform into…but conversion?

          Or maybe that is all conversion is.

          • I’ve never seen dramatic, sudden transformations in anyone. But I have seen people make intentional change, gradually and haltingly, over time, and I’ve seen the change stick.

          • I’ve seen it. A good friend that now attends my church. He’s done a 180.

          • Absolutely, Robert F, that’s what I’ve seen too. And it’s amazing and beautiful.

            But that won’t play on Unshackled.

          • I’ve seen it too. Gradually, over time. And stick. All glory to Jesus.

  6. Just led an adult Sunday school class through Luke’s account of,the Good Samaritan parable, where Jesus leads an expert in the law to say that the Samaritan who showed mercy was basically the one who was loving as God wants us to love, not the priest and the Levite who knew the Law but not mercy.

    Then it occurred to me, do you realize how merciful Jesus was being to,this expert of the law who was out to test (and perhaps trap) Jesus? Extremely merciful! Jesus told the man a story that led him to the answer he needed to speak, to an answer that might change him.

    And then I realized the true extent of God’s grace. The Good Samaritan story isn’t just about treating everyone as your neighbor and being merciful to everyone, it’s a story that illuminates HIS mercy toward US! Those who need mercy the most are shown it! Thank you, Jesus!

  7. Grace and law are dimensions of the communal life of the Christian people. We receive grace from God through human agency, from Jesus Christ as he works in and through human community; we grow into people with new and merciful hearts not as individuals, but as member of a community that Christ has called out and incorporated into himself, sharing in his obedience to the law of love as members of the Communion of Saints. Redemption and sanctification take place in community, so they are always trans- and interpersonal; this is how the more or less perfect all share in the finished and perfected life and work of Jesus Christ, who fills all things, starting with the Church; this is also how the sanctity of the Church may be more or less apparent in its external life, but always real. I think we start from the wrong place when we think and talk about these things from an individual rather than communal perspective. The Lord’s Prayer, which is a prayer of the community, is the model not just for praying, but for understanding the nature of law and grace, the place of the individual Christian in the dynamic of law and grace, and the place of the Church in the redemptive (merciful) economy of God.

    • The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to pray; but it also teaches us about the nature and character of the Christian community as a community of shared obedience and life, and firmly locates the individual within that communal obedience and life.

  8. This confuses me too, I am attending a Lutheran church and really love it. But I don’t understand the distinction between law and gospel applied to everything. I think faith is linked to works, not works as in obedience to the law but simple works that show you have gladly accepted the kingdom. the works that show you have faith.

  9. There you go being original again. 🙂 I’ve never heard anyone talk about this before. Wonderful!

  10. I love how the lectionary makes us think! Very thankful!