Luke 3:7-18 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. **********************************************
Little John, (whose father, Zechariah we discussed last week), is all grown up. According to Luke, he received his prophetic call in the wilderness.
As a not so small aside: That's not too unlike most of us; at our driest, or when we are in the desert of doubt, or shielding our eyes from the dust storms of despair, God makes God's presence known to us, and shows us, not just a way out of our situation, but offers us a new way of living. That new way of living God gives us, becomes our call. The acceptance of one's willingness to accept God's new way of living was symbolized in Luke's world, and many times in ours, by baptism.
John the Baptizer, or John the Baptist, as he is known to us, was Jewish. Like his cousin, Jesus, he was born into the family lineage of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But John- prophet of the most high- is called to spread the good news to everyone, not just those of Jewish lineage. And the bulk of his ministry is spent helping people to understand that not only does God love them exactly as they are, but that deciding to live God's way leads them to a better life, to be better people, to be agents of peace. This is God's salvation plan for the world- and John is offering the opportunity to everyone to be a part of it.
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? But yet John has this reputation for being an angry prophet- calling people out- calling them names actually- and inspiring people to "repent" through fear. In this scene he is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees- the Jewish religious elite who have come to him for baptism. Look at the English translation, how he talks to them- "You brood of vipers!" Who warned YOU about the wrath to come?" or in another translation: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? …And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there... God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” Thank you English language translators for that! All that fear makes me want to repent- And see, this interpretation makes no sense to me. Because Jesus doesn't motivate anyone by fear- Jesus is perfect love- and there is no fear in love- in fact scripture tells us, "perfect love casts out fear." So what's going on here with John? And it's important we understand this, because today is all about speaking- how we open our mouths when we step outside our backyard into the neighborhood to spread the good news. Is it really ok to call people out in an angry way, or speak to them in a way that inspires hurt or fear? Many a fire and brimstone preacher were say, yes, and use this passage to back up their words... but, my beloved congregation of prophets of the most high, let’s take a closer look.
First of all, the Luke, presumed to be the author, was a physician... a Greek physician. Snakes meant something very different to the ancient Greeks than they do to us. The ancient Greek symbol of healing is a rod with a serpent coiled around it. A snake was a symbol both of sacred healing and sacred warning. Luke’s audience was also Greek- and would have understood the metaphor of snakes, specifically ‘brood of vipers’ in another way.
A brood of vipers speaks to the way that vipers are born. "Just as a viper “kills the mother that gives birth to it and comes into the world, as is said, by tearing through her belly” (see Zlatoust 7:115), the Pharisees and the Sadducees were able to tear through their culture and tradition of self-righteousness and came to repent and be baptized." (1)
WOW, right? So perhaps instead of telling-off the religious elite, he is naming their boldness- and is genuinely shocked! The knowledge that they had come to this point- wanting to change their lives, change the way they understood God, change the very faith of which they are leaders by tearing that very faith wide open must have stunned and delighted John. "Knowing that the Pharisees and the Sadducees (for the most part) rejected his (John's) preaching and were not willing to admit that they too needed to repent, John the Baptist exclaims genuinely surprised, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7) This is as if to say, “You did not listen to me; so, to whom then did you listen?”(1)
A note by early church father St.John Chrysostom about this scene: “He [John the Baptist—S.S.] saw them not sinning, but repenting; it would seem that because of this he should not scold them, but praise and accept [them] precisely for their coming to hear his preaching, having left the city and their homes… If one carefully examines his [John the Baptist’s—S.S.] words, one even in the scolding will find praise for them, because these words were pronounced out of surprise that they, though late, were able to do the very thing that once seemed impossible.”
If you look at the passage in this light, you will find in John's surprise, rejoicing! This must have been a great day for him- the very people he had been praying for- the people at the very center of the institution, of the system that they have been trying to dismantle- willing and ready to repent! He is celebrating: "WOW! Look at you willing to be a part of something new? How did you hear about this? I know it wasn't me- so who? Who told you?"
And instead of being self-righteous or arrogant, John instructs them with gentleness- "Listen, it does not matter that you come from Jewish heritage or that you have a birthright-that isn't what makes you God's children- God can make children out of stones." And the religious leaders, who had counted on blood lines to keep them safe in God's care, ask John- "Then what do we do? How do we do this?" And John teaches about actions matching words, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
in fact, he was so gentle, others felt safe enough to ask him their own questions, and John took the time to speak to their individual situations: "Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Stop skimming off the top.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your pay.
And, the text says, "the people were filled with expectation", how cool is that? And this is all the proof you need that John's words and manner were joyful and gentle- because the people were filled with hope! So much so that they started question if John was actually the messiah himself. And I love John because he pulls no punches, and sets them straight right away- I'm not the savior... “I baptize you with water, but here's what the savior will do. 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.”
Wait pastor- there it is- there's proof right? There is fear! What if I end up on the threshing floor and it's decided I am chaff!! Isn't that motivating by fear?
Well, let's address it because Jesus is perfect love and there is no fear in love and perfect love casts out fear. My friends wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. When wheat is gathered, it all ends up on the threshing floor- and the chaff- the parts of the wheat plant that is not beneficial, is removed from the wheat. So, what the savior, what Jesus does for us, is to remove and destroy the negative parts of us... the parts of us that keep us from being all that God has designed us to be. This is not a message of fear, but of encouragement. AndThe text says "So, with many other exhortations, (word of encouragement or appeals) he proclaimed the good news to the people." John the Baptist, prophet of peace.
We learn from John the Baptist how to speak truth in love to a world that is yearning for change. First, through prayer- before we take one step out of the wilderness from which we are being called, we communicate with God. We ask God for the ability to look- to look for signs of light, and that God will show us the places and people we need to encounter.
We pray for discernment- to listen to the voices of those we are sent to. We pray for the ability to speak the message of truth, of good news. John's wilderness encounter/prayer equipped him with energy, courage, and boldness. We need all of that.
We learn from him to speak that message through rejoicing- allowing ourselves to be surprised and even joyful at the people God puts in our path. And listen, sometimes that won't be easy- John could have just as quickly acted like an arrogant, angry, self-righteous zealot- in fact it’s so easy to imagine his reaction at seeing the powerful coming to his "church" for lack of a better word, through the lens of cynicism and anger. But check that- the reason it's easy to imagine John like that perhaps comes from the feelings we might have about those in power in our modern world- and then it's an easy jump to use that to justify hateful words and actions in our own lives. I'm not saying that we accept abuses of power, or oppression in any form- what I am suggesting is that we recognize that we are all God's children... if we lose that truth, or if we start relying on our own beliefs or ideas, we add our own elitism to an already volatile situation. And worse, we miss the fact that the power of God changes lives- through hope- through encouragement- through love. So, we learn from John the Baptist to deliver the message through rejoicing, but also through gentleness; speaking the truth in love- letting people know whats and hows, but without the lecture... amen? Be gentle my friends- with others, and definitely with yourself- in fact, when's the last time you spoke to yourself without the lecture? Gentleness...
We learn from John that words and actions go together. We can't just declare that we are God's prophet in the world, or we have this wonderful call to ministry- we need to live it out. We don't make empty promises to the people in the neighborhood, or just invite them to repentance- we act as minister of the gospel itself- we act as God's representatives, helping, healing, hugging... acts of kindness and hope. On the bulletin cover I selected Leonardo DaVinci's imagining of John the Baptist. Not quite traditional, but perhaps taking his view, a kinder, gentler John- might help us see ourselves a bit different than how we've learned to see ourselves. Bring joy this Advent, prophets of the most high.
https://frsergei.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/%E2%80%9Cyou-brood-of-vipers%E2%80%9D%E2%80%94or-what-to-say-to-people-who-came-to-be-baptized/ I owe much to this article and Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov for the formation of this sermon.