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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Right off the bat we see why Hallmark has a robust industry in Christmas cards and not Advent cards.
“Happy Advent, You Brood of Vipers” might not sell too well as a holiday card, but these words are certainly a wake-up call for the audience of John the Baptizer.
With this abrupt beginning, it seems weird that the reading ends with “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” What part of brood of vipers is good news? Biblically speaking, calling someone a descendent of the treacherous serpent of Eden is no compliment. The blow is not softened by the following lines, which proclaim wrath, judgement, and the people’s need to repent.This is strong language, meant to grab the people’s attention and wake them up to their sinfulness and the suffering in the world around them.
It’s a wonder that John was such a popular preacher. He essentially begins his sermon with “SINNERS! Here’s how you’ve got it all wrong!” Nevertheless, John grabs our attention, and then unquestionably shares the good news. After this weird viper start, John lays out God’s bold vision for the world. In this world resources are shared, the wealthy aren’t predatory, and the powerful aren’t violently coercive. The poor are uplifted and the powerful are humble and responsible with their means. This is good news!
The gospel critiques power. The gospel turns the world upside down and lifts up the lowly. We who hear this good news are meant to bear witness, so that the gospel holds communities, individuals, and political powers accountable to God’s way of justice. Good news, or gospel, is a bold statement from its very inception. It has deep cultural, personal, and political ramifications which turn everything upside down.
And isn’t that exactly what John does? Those with possessions, tax collectors, soldiers, you and me…John doesn’t let us get off easy. He asks great things of those who hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John turns our self-centeredness upside down.
This text may seem heavy and out of place. Here we are, in a season of hope and joy, expectantly anticipating Christmas. Today is even called “Gaudete Sunday” across the church, meaning “Rejoice Sunday.” Yet Advent is more than the run up to Christmas. John’s message calls us vipers and asks a lot of us. Still, this reading gives us reason to rejoice. Even as John gives us a challenging wake-up call, the Good News is that there IS Good News—even for vipers.
John the Baptizer does not mince words. “Think you’re special because you are a descendant of Abraham? A baptized Lutheran? A charter member of the congregation with deep roots in the community? God doesn’t care about your roots. In fact, the ax is about to fall on the roots of all fruitless trees, however deep, noble and well established those roots. It’s fruits, not roots that God cares about.”
It’s no wonder John’s audience is shaken to the core. “What shall we do?” they cry out in despair. John’s answer is almost too simple and direct.
- He does not direct them to a set of spiritual exercises.
- He does not call them to a life of strict asceticism or the performance of some difficult heroic act.
This isn’t rocket science.
- Share your food and clothing.
- Stop using your position of power for exploitation and personal gain.
This sounds like simple common place morality.
But it is in the common place that one most frequently feels the pinch. I heard a story once of a young man eager to join the communist party. The party leaders asked him a series of questions.
- “What would you do if you owned two houses,” they asked. Without hesitation, the young man answered, “I would live in one and donate the other to the party.” “And what if you inherited one million dollars?” they asked. Again, without hesitation, the young man answered, “I would keep only what I needed to live on and give the rest to the party.” “And what if you had two pairs of shoes?” they asked. Now the young man was at a loss for words.
Obviously, he had two or perhaps more pairs of shoes and was not eager to part with any of them.
If there is a moral to this tale, I suppose it is that we find it much easier to make great hypothetical sacrifices than real ones, however small they might be. Those, however, are the ones John is calling for: the extra coats in our closets, the food stuffed in our pantries, the income we frequently refer to as “discretionary,” the extra bedrooms in our homes, the excess real estate, endowments and funds held by our churches and whatever else we can unburden ourselves in order to fill the valleys of poverty, level the mountains of excess wealth, dismantle injustice and smooth the way to equity and wellbeing for all people. That my friends, is what biblical repentance looks like.
Repentance bears fruit. If it doesn’t, it isn’t repentance. It isn’t enough simply to confess one’s sins and feel sincere regret-though that is often a starting point. God knows that we white American Christians have good reason to regret our historic complicity with our nation’s legacy of slavery and the continuing curse of systemic racism left in its wake.
We have good reason to lament the disparity in wealth, employment opportunity, access to health care and educational access between ourselves and the increasing number of impoverished people among us. But that is only the beginning.
We, and our church, have a tremendous capacity for producing fruit. There is, I know, a lot of hand wringing and consternation in mainline churches over the drop in regular congregational giving, loss of membership and increasing costs of maintaining our institutions. But these problems are more apparent than real when you recall that the original church could fit itself into a single room and that the only material stuff the church needs is a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and access to water. The rest is just frosting on the cake.
Looked at from that perspective. Our concern should not be that we will run out of money, lose our sanctuaries or be forced to dismantle our institutions. Our concern should be that Jesus will return and catch us with money still sitting in the bank-along with that extra coat in the closet and all those cans of expired food in the pantry. We are not expected to make ourselves destitue, but we are being told to be good stewards with what we have been blessed with.
So what shape might repentance take among us? What would John the Baptizer say if we had the gull to ask him, “and we, what should we do?” We might try to explain to John that simply divesting ourselves is not a simple and easy task, that there are substantial legal, financial and operational obstacles to carrying out his radically simple demands. I suspect John would reply, “Who said anything about simple and easy? Since when has God ever called us to do what is simple and easy?”