I want to start our conversation this morning with a short biography about a woman who is largely unknown but coined a phrase that is so common we almost miss it sometimes. Lily Hardy Hammond was a champion for and force for good in her day. In an introduction to Hammond’s book In Black and White, Edna C. Green writes about,
Hammond’s marriage to a prominent Methodist minister and educator. It also traces Hammond’s career within the context of prevailing gender and racial attitudes in the Jim Crow South. Hammond, who had roots in Methodist home mission work, was also active in such secular and ecumenical organizations as the Southern Sociological Congress, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hammond worked alongside blacks to promote education, improve living conditions, and stop lynching. As a suffragist and temperance advocate, she urged the leaders of those largely white women’s movements to partner with African Americans.
Suffice it to say, Hammond was a busy woman for her day. She was also a writer and one of her works In the Garden of Delight, has a phrase that we have come to use quite commonly. Hammond writes,
I never repaid Great-aunt Letitia’s love to her anymore than she repaid her mother’s. You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.
For someone who experienced the kinds of things that she must have dealt with I find it fascinating that she should conclude this on the idea of love; that we should not look to return the favor but to offer the favor to another that needs it at another time. The idea has been around since the days of the ancient Greeks and found its way into the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury. In fact, Bradbury has one of the best expressions of it from his book Dandelion Wine,
How do I thank Mr. Jonas, he wondered, for what he’s done? How do I thank him, how pay him back? No way, no way at all. You just can’t pay. What then? What? Pass it on somehow, he thought, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on.
That said, John the Baptist starting off a sermon with, “You brood of vipers” might make you wonder about our sermon text and the idea of paying it forward. But hang on, we’ll get there. We continue with a story that started last week in Luke 3:1-6 where Luke talks about John the Baptist coming on the scene but doesn’t get into the details yet. The details have to do with John offering an in your face sermon about the need for serious repentance. He doesn’t pull his punches, going to what must have been the Jews favorite defense, appealing to their status as Children of Abraham. It’s kind of like someone in our time saying they are cradle Christians, automatically a part of the Kingdom of God because they were born into the church and jumped through the appropriate hoops at the appropriate time.
John will have none of it.
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.
In other words, you can’t say we are part of the Kingdom of God because we were born that way. John is telling them it requires something of you: repentance; change the direction of your life and reorient it toward the way of God. The people are panicked. They start looking around and begin to ask themselves and finally, they ask John, “What then should we do?” How do find any chance of being reconciled to God and being/becoming God’s people again?
As the people ask the initial question about what to do, there are also tax collectors – Jews who collect taxes from the Jewish people for the Romans – and soldiers, Romans stationed in Galilee and Judea. They ask John the same question as well all hoping to find an answer to how they can reconnect with God out of their disconnection.
He says that the first group should love their neighbor by sharing what they have – food, clothing, and the like. Luke will take up this idea again in the first few chapters of Acts, but it is basically that whatever you have to share with those around in need, share it. John tells the second group, the tax-collectors, that they must love their neighbors by respecting what the people have not trying to cheat those they are collecting taxes from. This was a common way for tax collectors to become very wealthy, a good example of this being the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19, where a tax collector comes to repentance and returns the money that he cheated the people out of. The final group that engages John is the soldiers who are serving in the city. Apparently, some of them must have heard the message and the Holy Spirit spoke to them strongly enough that they wanted to know how to worship the Jewish God of the land they were serving in. John tells them that they can love their neighbor by being content with what pay they have rather than trying to extort it from the people of the land.
John’s answer in a nutshell is love your neighbor.
Broadly speaking, then, John’s action-oriented fruits of repentance have to do with depriving our neighbor of what they need. Repentance here is not just (or perhaps even primarily) about the dialectic of faith and sin; rather it is about how we are living out the love of our neighbor.
John is telling them your past will not save you or damn you, but your present will. Don’t wait to show your love for neighbor; show it now. This is the way of repentance from the first part of the chapter (vv.4-6) and the way that Jesus will teach as the story continues in Luke. A changed life (repentance) is a life that has the right heart attitude (love as a feeling) and the right action (love as a way of life).
So where does that leave us? What then should we do?
As Jesus said to the lawyer who answered the question correctly about loving God and loving neighbor in Luke 10, “Go and do likewise.” Go and show the fruits of your repentance in this holiday season by loving God through loving your neighbor, particularly your neighbor in need. They aren’t hard to find. We fed a group of them this past Wednesday night. We pass them in the aisles of the grocery store and see them walk down the streets of town. They are there but are we there with them.
A good way to start this is in line at a checkout, whether it is at a grocery store or at a fast food place. Pay for the person behind you or in front of you. Offer to read to the elderly at Oak Manor or Morningside. Use the talents and gifts you have to reach out to those who need use of those talents and gifts and do so willingly, cheerfully as if Jesus himself were doing it; because in a sense, the sense that the Holy Spirit leads and guides us to act in the Way of Jesus, he is doing it.
John Wesley writes, “In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival” I believe John the Baptist was asking the crowd, “What rules the throne of your inmost soul?” So, I ask you, I ask myself, what rules on the throne of your inmost soul today? What is the driving force of our discipleship? How do we make our lives lives that mirror that of Jesus?
You do it when you remember these words:
…a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Repent, turn toward the way of loving God and neighbor, and turn the lives those around you toward the Way of Jesus as you do. This is what it means to live and live life eternal. Pass it on somehow, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on.
Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine. New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1957.
Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. Commentary on Luke 3:7-18. 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3908 (accessed 12 12, 2018).
Hammond, Lily Hardy. In the Garden of Delight. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1916.
Jacobson, Karl. Commentary on Luke 3:7-18. 12 16, 2012. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1499 (accessed 12 12, 2018).
 (Hammond 1916, 209)
 (Bradbury 1957, p.177)
 Luke 3:7-8
 Luke 3:10
 (Jacobson 2012)
 (Collins 2007, p.226-228 – Taken from the sermon On Zeal by John Wesley)
 Luke 10:25-28
 (Bradbury 1957, p.177)