3rd Advent December13, 2015 Luke 3: 7-18 Philippians 4: 4-7
Rev. Catherine Purves
“You brood of vipers!” What a way to start a sermon. I would have never thought of that. “You brood of vipers!” Looks like I’ve got your attention. But is that any way to speak to people who have come to the waters for baptism? Is that any way to speak to those who just wanted to see and hear what God was doing through the strange outdoor ministry of John the Baptist? How on earth did he expect to win converts and gain disciples with that in-your-face accusation? And why did the crowds leave their towns and villages to be accosted like that? Was there no one at home who could insult them, and frighten the living daylights out of them, and demand obedience from them? “You brood of vipers!” Maybe I should reconsider my preaching style.
In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 11, Jesus is speaking with the crowds about John the Baptist, and he says to them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” I’m paraphrasing now, but he went on to ask, “Did you go out to hear a tame preacher, someone who would jolly you along and offer words of praise and encouragement?” No? “What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” Yes. That’s what they wanted to see, the prophet John the Baptist. But why? Perhaps they were a little curious – it’s not every day a prophet is sent by God. Perhaps they were a little afraid – the world, after all, was in a terrible mess; , maybe the end was near. Perhaps they thought of this baptism thing as a spiritual insurance policy for the Day of Judgment. Whatever drew them to the banks of the Jordan, they put on their most pious faces and prepared to let the strangely-dressed man give them a ritual bath. But, instead of offering them a towel, he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Ouch!
Now we might have been tempted at that point to inch our way out of the line of folks who were waiting for baptism. Surely, he’s not talking to us. He really is a crazy person. Let’s not be his disciples. Maybe we can find a kinder and gentler Messiah-figure to follow. If this is a good cop-bad cop situation, then we know what role John is playing. But Jesus was supposed to be different. He offered the carrot of forgiveness, something we can rejoice in, without the big stick of judgment. Or did he?
If you are using our Advent Devotional Booklet and reading the selected texts for each day, then you will have been discovering a tougher and more judgmental Jesus this week. On Friday he called the good religious people of his day hypocrites. He said the scribes and Pharisees were (these are his words!), “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” And then, our loving Savior said, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” It seems like, at times, the sermons of Jesus bore a striking resemblance to those of John the Baptist. Repentance was an important part of Jesus’ message too. It wasn’t all just rejoicing.
That is a little unsettling. Well, actually, a lot. This is not a side of Jesus that we want to think about. An angry Jesus who calls sin, Sin, and who insists that sin has consequences, and that repentance must be real, and that our less-than-perfect insides should match our squeaky-clean outsides, well, that Jesus is a little frightening. Suddenly, we can see the family resemblance between Jesus and his prophetic cousin, John. Both are calling us to repent. Both are promising forgiveness. But both recognize that repentance cannot just be superficial or a token gesture. Sin must be rooted out. Repentance requires a changed life. We can’t really rejoice until we’ve repented. Slithering around on these issues will win you a new name: brood of vipers! Both John and Jesus would agree about that.
Along with the crowds who stood before John, with their feet already in the water, we too should be prompted to ask, “What then should we do?” Repentance doesn’t just mean saying, “Sorry.” John’s ultimate goal was not to make them feel guilty, or afraid, or to convince them that they were a lost cause. But they did have to ask that question, “What then should we do?” Because faith requires a new lifestyle, not just new ideas about God. John is very down-to-earth in what he tells the people to do. Share what you have. Feed the poor. Be honest and faithful in your work. Jesus could be that way too, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, these simple answers will require a complete and costly reorienting of your whole life. That’s the kind of repentance we are called to embrace.
For some reason, all of this made the people begin to wonder if John was actually the Messiah. Obviously, John had to correct their misunderstanding. He was only the water guy. The real Messiah, when he came, would be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. A judgment was coming. They were right about that. It would be a fiery harvest, and the wicked would not survive.
John’s imagery comes directly from Psalm 1 which first tells us that those who delight in God’s law are like trees planted by streams of water that produce good fruit in season. “The wicked are not so,” the psalmist continues, “but are like the chaff that the wind drives away.” Several of the Old Testament prophets also liked that imagery of the chaff being blown away or burned. The message was clear. When the Messiah came, you didn’t want to be chaff, because, as John said, “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, I guess the obvious question that we are left with is this: how to you keep from becoming chaff? How do you avoid being part of that brood of vipers? That’s what the crowds were asking John when they said, “What then should we do?” What then should we do? Here we are in the middle of Advent, busy with our preparations to welcome the Messiah, eager to start our rejoicing. Are we doing the right things to get ready for Christ’s arrival?
There was an occasion, recorded in the Gospel of John, when a crowd asked Jesus almost the same question. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And this is how Jesus responded: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” That sounds simple enough. As we sing our Christmas carols and joyfully set up our manger scenes, we can affirm that we believe in Jesus. But true belief in Jesus changes everything, not just what we think, but who we are and what we do. It must produce a good harvest that shows that we have repented. Believing transforms us, because a baptism of the Holy Spirit literally lets God into your life and that baptism has the power to change everything that you are and all that you do. Believing involves repenting and rejoicing – in that order. Both John and Jesus were clear about that.
But if we fast forward now through all of the ministry and miracles of Jesus, through all of his teaching, his deeds of compassion, and through his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, then our Advent perspective on these things does look a little different. We are not waiting along with John and that motley crew on the banks of the Jordan for the Messiah to come, fearful of the judgment that he would bring. We are waiting for something else, because the Messiah has already come, and the transforming gift of the Holy Spirit has already been given to those who believe. Now the return of the Messiah is what we are waiting for, and it is something that we can anticipate with joy because we know that the victory of the Messiah over the powers of sin and evil has been won. The questions, the worries, and the fears of those who stood before John have all been answered. We now stand before our risen Lord and we await his return in glory. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, our belief in him is becoming more and more a way of life that shows forth the fruits of repentance and that enables us to rejoice.
Those few verses that we read from the Letter to the Philippians show how different our perspective is now. Of course, the world is still a mess. There are plenty of vipers out there, and things look pretty apocalyptic. The chaff is flying, and here we are in this ungodly environment trying to do the right thing. We still have plenty of things to repent about ourselves. But even so, Paul does not tell the Philippian Christians to lament. He tells them to rejoice! “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.”
Repent and rejoice – this is the rhythm of the Christian life. Our belief in the one who has been sent and who will come again, Jesus Christ, enables us to do both, repent and rejoice. We know that the risen Lord is near, but that is not a fearful thing for us; it is a comfort. In spite of the state of this world, we need not worry about anything, Paul tells us, because we can pray about everything. And he assures us that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. That is certainly a cause for rejoicing. So, repent and rejoice. This is our Advent perspective, our Advent exercise. And believe that the Lord is near.