Luke 3:7-9 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Why was John the Baptist so angry at people who were coming out to be baptized by him, so that he essentially called them a "bunch of snakes". Since he refers to them as the "children of Abraham" he is speaking to the Jews. John the Baptist is reacting to a religion that had been reduced to rituals rather than faith in God. They were thinking because they were born into a Jewish family that they were saved regardless of the behavior.
He is preparing them for the arrival of Jesus, who would offer salvation to the whole world, both Jews and Gentiles. And this offer of salvation is predicated on one thing, repentance and belief. To "repent" means to turn around, to change direction. To "believe" means to place your trust in what you believe. So at the essence of John's message is to turn from belief in one's self and self justifying rituals, and move to trust in God's free offer of grace through Jesus.
John is getting at the heart of what we also see today. Going through motions of being religious is not the same as the fruit of repentance, which is a changed life that comes from a changed heart. And specifically a change of behaviors that come from a heart that has been transformed by the love of Christ. As someone has said, "the roots will bear fruits".
So Luke is preparing the people for the message that Jesus would bring, "For God so loves the WORLD, that He gave his only Son that whoever would believe in him would not perish but have eternal life." In that sense Jesus is the great equalizer. He came for all who receive him, and gave them the right to become children of God. The people who came to John expected to be saved by a ritual, but John was preparing them to be saved by relationship.
A question for all of us tonight is what are you trusting in for your salvation? A ritual or a relationship with the One who created you, redeemed you, and lives in you.