3 Advent – December 12, 2021
“You brood of vipers!” is how our gospel begins today. It sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Here is this crowd of people coming to John to be baptized and he calls them a ‘brood of vipers’. And John also cautions against abusing the privilege of a family tree that has a long prior relationship with God: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” If any of you think that ancestry, ethnicity, place of origin, language or any other status-marker or identity, allows you to lord it over others or lets you off the hook, John severs those notions at their root.
He is saying that if the family tree does not produce good fruit—in other words, if the community does not live in such a way that its life illustrates its relationship with God—it might as well, metaphorically, be kindling for a bonfire.
John’s message is meant for a people who wait with eager longing for a Savior, then and now. If those who came to see John are called snakes, so are we. If they can’t claim special privilege based on their heritage, neither can we. If they risk cutting themselves off from God, if the ax is ready to fall on them … so it is on us.
You brood of vipers!” Repent. Bear fruit. Wake up!
So again, great crowds are streaming into the desert to get yelled at by John. Why? Why are they willing, actually even eager, to hear his fire-and-brimstone preaching? What attracts them?
The first clue lies in the question they ask John. “What should we do?” That’s not necessarily a question people ask when things are going well, is it? It’s the question we ask when we’ve come to the ends of ourselves. When the received wisdom has failed, when our cherished defenses are down, when our lives are splitting at the seams. It’s what we ask when we’re weary, bored, disillusioned, or desperate. “What should we do? They ask this of John.
Now, imagine John, this wild guy, dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts, rough, from living in the desert. What would you expect his answer to be to the question “What should we do?”? Wouldn’t you expect a radical answer along the lines of leave everything and come out into the desert like me? Well, what he responds with is actually very radical. He tells them to go home. I was so struck by Debi Thomas’ words about this:
“Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues. Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty dailiness of your particular life. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Share now. Be merciful now. Do justice now. Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine. And why? Because the holy ground that matters most is the ground beneath your feet.”
Wait, you’re saying. Is this really what John says? It is; look at the text. To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the mercenaries: “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages.” To the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Don’t allow your religious heritage to make you arrogant or complacent.” To everyone who has anything: “You have gifts to give. So stop hoarding. Stop procrastinating. Stop making excuses. The day of repentance is now.”
What John is daring to suggest to his listeners is that holiness is not the ethereal and mysterious thing we tend to make it. If we’re willing to look closely, if we’re willing to believe that nothing in our lives is too mundane or secular for God, then we’ll understand that all the possibilities for salvation we need are embedded in the lives God has already given us. There is no “outside.” We don’t have to look “out there.” The kingdom of heaven is here, within and among us.
So John has some seemingly harsh language for us today, but perhaps we squirm at this language because we misconstrue the meaning of judgment. We tend to equate judgment with condemnation, at least I do…but in fact, to judge something is to see it clearly — to know it as it truly is. In the dictionary, synonyms for judgment include discernment, acuity, sharpness, and perception.
What if John is saying that the Messiah who is coming really sees us? That he knows us at our very core? Maybe the winnowing fork is an instrument of perceptive love, patiently wielded by the One who discerns in us rich harvests still hidden by chaff. Maybe it’s in offering God every particular of our lives that we give Him permission to “clear” us — to separate all that’s destructive from all that is good, beautiful, and priceless.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John tells the crowds who flock to him in the Judean wilderness. Bear fruit — bring it forth. But also, bear it — carry it, shoulder it, endure it. Your life is a golden field, ripe for sacred fire. Yes, the fire hurts, but the One who wields the flame is trustworthy. He knows you. He sees you. He loves you. And he will gather you with joy. Amen.